A couple making a variety of products on their lavender farm.
Over 10 years, Tracy and Eric Voice have transformed a sloping clay block into a thriving lavender farm and essential oil distillery, producing home and body products, and a newly launched range of alcohol products. Looking at the beauty of the lavender fields and the idyllic farm operation, one might think it’s been a romantic endeavor, but Ranui Essentials is the result of hard graft, exhaustive research, and tenacity.
How did a busy senior ICT (Information and Communications Technology) professional and a medical technologist end up creating a lavender farm and distillery with a side-line in body and home products and a range of alcohols? Research, hard graft, and resilience were key.
Tracy and Eric were born and bred in the Wairarapa, and regularly commuting to Wellington to work, while raising two sons. They always wanted a lifestyle block to retire to, but it was when looking to develop a 10-acre block with a recently relocated homestead in Martinborough, that the penny dropped – this was their lifestyle block.
The block was bare, except for an old house that had recently been moved onto the site for development. The old home, Ranui Hospice, provided the name for the business.
Tracy and Eric first experimented with avocados, then pine trees – to have all of them die within the year. Tracy began her online research, seeking a crop that would thrive in their hot dry climate and complement other locally grown crops, such as wine and olives.
Their trials weren’t over, however. The first lavender crop planted was an English variant that had been farmed in the area, but that failed, and they lost over 600 plants. Thinking that might have been due to their clay soil, subsequent tilling and drainage work was carried out while they researched other lavender varieties.
Next planted was a French ‘super’ lavender, that proved well-suited to the block and produced significant yields. Initially the lavender heads were hand-scythed and transported in wool fadges to the Kapiti Coast, where a distillery extracted the oil.
Eric soon bought, dismantled, and reassembled a still from Marlborough and now Ranui Essentials has their own distillery. The still uses a steam process, where the pure oil sits on top of water, taking up to 100 kilos of flower heads at a time. Eric is now fulltime at Ranui Essentials as the distiller and ‘hard yards’ man, along with running his property management business.
They’ve also mechanized their harvest, using a tool purpose-built for New Zealand lavender growers. It is a hedge trimmer-like tool with a mechanism that blows flower heads into a bag for collection.
Research has been key to the development of the farm - talking with other growers, joining the New Zealand Lavender Association, and getting online. As well, Tracy acknowledges the generous tips they’ve received from others – for example using a jerry-rigged baked bean can on a blow torch to make holes in the weed matting for new plantings. Weed suppression is important as weeds can taint the resulting oil and need to be minimised.
In 2016, the family went to Europe and spent time researching the lavender industry there. A bottle of lavender liqueur piqued Tracy’s interest and she bought one back. Not long after this, a local gin maker wanted to source some flowerheads from Ranui for experimenting with. Tracy grabbed the opportunity to learn some more, and 3 years later (after a lot of experimentation and government certification) Ranui have added New Zealand’s first lavender vodka and a lavender liqueur to their products list – alongside a lavender gin. The Voices continue to experiment with different options for beverages.
Tracy has been key to the focus on product development, creating home and personal products from bath-salts to body butter, which they sell alongside essential oils and other local products at their on-site shop. In 2017, Ranui was awarded Top Oil by the New Zealand Lavender Association.
Tracy says people come to visit Ranui as it offers a good day out; with seasonal ‘pick your own lavender’ opportunities, tours of the operation, and events such as stargazing tours with a local expert who is connected to the Dark Skies movement in the Wairarapa.
Tracy continues to work fulltime in Wellington but continues researching and dreaming up new ideas for her ‘hobby’, while making time to support Eric’s hobby - the Ranui Essentials drag car.
Tracy believes she’s become immune to the smell of lavender – but says she sleeps very well at night!