Just a decade ago, France's famous lavender industry was perilously close to extinction. As production plummeted and lavender growers abandoned their farms, many feared lavender cultivation would mirror the larger decline of French agriculture. But a new initiative has sparked a lavender renaissance of sorts.
Here and there in the highest plateaus of Haute-Provence, the scent of heady lavender still mixes with sun-baked pine, as tractors slice through the last of the season's purple flowers.
But the harvest is over at the sprawling farm of Alain Cassan, in the rolling hills of southeastern France. Trailers are piled high with neatly-tied lavender. The bundles are dried, packed and shipped to dealers in 20 kilogram burlap sacks. Their journey ends in New York or Paris, where the flowers are sold as dried bouquets or in perfumed sachets.
It's been a mediocre year for Provencal lavender farmers like Mr. Cassan - unseasonable hail and a dry spell pared their yields. But Mr. Cassan can't complain.
Mr. Cassan says he's had bleaker years. A decade ago, lavender farming was a dying profession. Had it not been for the government's lavender revival plan, Mr. Cassan said, he might not be in farming today.
Launched in 1994, the plan aims to save Provence's cherished lavender heritage by introducing hardier, more prolific plant varieties, and tailoring farming equipment to suit the region's rocky soils. Short-term government subsidies lured some lavender growers to increase their production, and others to return to farming.
Patrice de Laurens is director of ONIPPAM, the French bureau overseeing the revival plan in Provence - the only region in France that cultivates lavender.
Mr. de Laurens said lavender is not just important as a crop. It is critical to preserving rural life in Provence. That's because the arid zones where lavender is grown cannot support other types of cultivation.
Today, France has regained its rank as lavender king, after years of trailing rivals like Bulgaria and Ukraine. Over the past decade, lavender production has doubled, to about 65 tons a year. Provence generates roughly 65 percent of the world's essential lavender oil, an extract used in soaps, creams and perfumes. French oil of lavendin, a coarser but more prolific hybrid, accounts for 90 percent of the world's market.
Provencal lavender dealers, like H. Reynaud and Sons, are also capitalizing on their local roots.
At one of Reynaud's factories, managing director Bruno Laland explains how lavender and lavendin extracts are processed for perfume. The family-owned company is the largest lavender dealer in France. But staying in Provence, Mr. Lalande says, is not just good for business - it is part of his heritage.
The resurgence of lavender farming contrasts starkly with a largely bleak forecast for rural France. In 12 years, a third of French farmers have gone out of business, according to a February study by a French research institute. The two million still farming represent just 3.5 percent of the population - down from 12 percent in 1970.
Nowhere has France's rural decline been more apparent than in Provence, where lavender is the signature landmark of the Mediterranean region. Lavender farming was invented almost a century ago in Provence, to meet the growing demands of France's perfume industry. The plant's popularity soared in World War I, when army doctors began using it as an antiseptic.
But plant diseases, foreign competition, and the lure of more lucrative jobs elsewhere took their toll on Provencal lavender cultivation. Hundreds of farmers went out of business.
The decline hit Mr. Cassan's farm as well. His son left the farming profession for a job as a fertilizer salesman. But Mr. Cassan and his brother, Pierre, hung on. They began planting the more lucrative lavendin variety and launched a side business selling dried foliage.
But when the revival plan was launched, the Cassan brothers returned to lavender. They now grow a special brand of fine lavender, used for sachets and luxury perfumes. When the government offered a one-time grant to plant lavender, Mr. Cassan's son, Benoit, returned to the family business.
Now 30, Benoit Cassan farms 80 hectares of his own lavender. He says it is a hard profession, which requires lots of patience. But he hopes it will flourish.