NEBRASKA LIFE MAGAZINE | JULY/AUGUST 2023 | Story by Megan Feeney & Photographs by Valerie Mosely
STEPHANIE ANDERSON jiggles her toddler Emmy on her hip as she helps visitors at Our Lavender Co.’s farm store in Big Springs. Little Emmy frowns and whines, so Stephanie’s dad, Steven Palser, scoops up the little girl and takes her outside to play. Relieved, Stephanie attends to the visitors, a pair of recently retired friends on a summer trip.
The two female tourists peruse shelves lined with lavender eye-pillows and sachets; essential oils and bath bombs; lavender hydrosol, made from distilling fresh cuttings in boiling water; lavender balsamic vinegar, jams and dog treats; lavender lemonade and scent rollerballs, among other offerings. Most of the products are made onsite with Our Lavender Co.’s Nebraska-grown lavender.
Meanwhile, Stephanie’s mother, Peggy Palser, is in the fields, giving another visitor a tour of the farm’s 5-acre lavender-growing operation. Some of the sweet-smelling flower had been harvested just that morning by Peggy, Stephanie and Nicole, Stephanie’s older sister visiting from Minneapolis.
Now in the shade of a barn, Steven and Stephanie’s husband, Josh, watch Emmy and the little girl’s two brothers, Lincoln and Bronx. The trio is driving their play Jeep between rows of lavender.
It’s a mid-July day. The bees buzz lazily around fragrant purple blooms, abundant snapdragons and yarrow. A car zooms down Road 4 in front of the property, passing until it suddenly brakes 100 yards past the main drive. The car’s red lights glow through the dust it stirred. Josh and Steven don’t recognize the vehicle, so they know it must be another visitor. There are only three houses on this dead-end road.
“Oops. I think Google Maps still shows the place a little farther down,” Steven said.
“I fixed it with Google,” Josh said. “They must be using Apple maps.”
The driver finds a place to turn around and soon pulls into the broad driveway and parks next to the farm’s other visitors. The Palser family’s geriatric yellow Labrador Annie groans to stand, her tail wagging, followed by Olive the beagle puppy who materializes from the purple field. The canines are the first to welcome new guests to the farm – and there have been many.
In many ways, it’s a picture-perfect story of a family business success in Western Nebraska. But like lavender, which prefers gravelly soil, the idea for the farm germinated during a rocky period in Stephanie’s life.
HAVING A BABY is supposed to be a joyous time full of love and snuggles and wonderment – that’s the societal expectation, anyway. And when Stephanie had her first child, Lincoln, that’s how it went. But after she and her husband moved from Minneapolis back to rural Nebraska to be closer to her family and the couple had their second child, Bronx, Stephanie experienced what one out of 10 American women suffer from after giving birth.
The symptoms of postpartum depression include feeling down, exhausted and disinterested, with changes in appetite and even thoughts of death. Making it worse, the normally happy-go-lucky Stephanie felt guilty for feeling this way – she had a beautiful new baby boy, a loving partner and a family who supported her … why couldn’t she just snap out of it?
“I was just wasting away,” Stephanie said.
Fortunately, her family recognized she needed help. Stephanie had to discover a way back to herself and her joy. Peggy and Steven gutted an old 1970s camper and turned it into a greenhouse for their daughter. They insisted that Stephanie spend time daily in the greenhouse babying seedlings while they watched the newborn Bronx and his big brother Lincoln.
“And through that process, God brought me back to life,” Stephanie said. “Here I was, this farmer’s daughter who wanted nothing to do with agriculture, but agriculture saved me.”
When Stephanie recovered from her postpartum depression, the big-thinking, optimistic woman also returned – with gusto. An article her mother-in-law gave her about lavender farming sparked an idea.
In 2019, Stephanie, with the help of her mom and dad, planted an acre of lavender. This drew curiousity from passersby as the purple bush-like plants started blossoming. Though a common flower, lavender is a less common crop. The family had reservations of their own with the venture, but that first year, the lavender grew better than any of them had imagined it would. As Steven and Josh continued farming 2,800 acres of corn – which they manage for Steven’s mother, the 93-year-old matriarch Norma Palser – Stephanie and Peggy started making small-batch lavender products. Nicole helped with packaging, design and the website, from afar.
By 2023, Our Lavender Co. had shipped to all 50 states. The family built a farm store onto the old schoolhouse that Grandpa John had once attended.
GRAMMY NORMA HAS arrived for lunch, so the entire family convenes at the farmhouse. It’s the house where Norma’s deceased husband, John Palser, was born, and where Steven and Peggy now live.
Stephanie has made meatballs with lavender balsamic vinegar – the vinegar is one of the few products Our Lavender Co. contracts out – and the savory smell fills the house. After a pre-lunch prayer, everyone digs in. Steven looks around the table and smiles.
In his youth, Steven spent a few years living on the Oregon coast, where he helped run the family trucking business. The only good thing that came out of the trucking business out West, he said, was meeting Peggy. He didn’t originally want to bring his wife back to Big Springs, but the farming operation only had his dad, two uncles and one hired man to run it. They needed help, so the couple returned.
After his daughters graduated high school and moved to Minneapolis, Peggy and Steven never expected they’d return. When Stephanie did consider it, it wasn’t her idea. Her husband, Josh, talked her into it. Josh was working from home for a big corporation managing technology companies and could work from anywhere. Peggy and Steven told Josh they had a house on the farm if his family wanted to live in it. The young couple discussed it and thought it might be nice to try for a while – it would give their son Lincoln a chance to spend more time with his grandparents, with Bronx on the way.
Not long after the move to Nebraska, Josh’s company was absorbed by another one and laid off much of its workforce, including him. Steven invited Josh to farm with him. Like his father, John Palser, Steven thought farmers could be made from many skill sets.
“Grandpa John was a visionary,” Peggy said. “My father-in-law felt everyone’s talent could be utilized on the farm. And it wasn’t all behind a tractor.”
Even though he died in 2002, the family very much holds Grandpa John in their hearts. John often expressed the idea of turning parts of the farm into a retreat for city folks to commune with nature – maybe something with horses and cows. “I feel like the Lord gave him a vision,” Peggy said. “He would have just loved this lavender farm.”
Stephanie and Peggy often look around the farm and brainstorm ways to build upon their success, like potentially turning an old pig barn on the property into an additional drying shed. There are unused grain bins owned by Norma’s sister-in-law that could potentially be converted into tourist guesthouses.
Lunch is over, but the kitchen is soon sparkling again as the family works together to clear the table, load the dishwasher, wash the pans and wipe down the counters. Steven will take his mother home. Josh has something to fix in the barn. Stephanie needs to return to the store before more customers arrive. Peggy might get some weeding done. Nicole will play with her niece and nephews. Olive the beagle is napping on the floor of the lavender drying room. Outside, Annie the Labrador has found a shady spot to do the same.
The heat of the day has warmed the fields, and the sweet, grassy scent of lavender wafts on a gentle summer breeze.
Shop Our Lavender Co products at https://buynebraska.com/collections/our-lavender-co and more at https://buynebraska.com.
NEBRASKA LIFE MAGAZINE | JULY/AUGUST 2023
The GROW Nebraska® Foundation was founded with the idea of expanding resources to businesses and entrepreneurs alike to make a sustainable living anywhere within the state of Nebraska. As a 501(c) 3 educational foundation, the GROW Nebraska® Foundation was founded in 1998 and now works to extend resources, training, a brick and mortar store, as well as an eCommerce site full of Nebraska products to help elevate Nebraska-based businesses and connect Nebraska entrepreneurs to the global marketplace. Support or join GROW Nebraska Foundation’s efforts by visiting www.grownebraska.org.