Sue Chmieleski: Soap Maker and Lavender Farmer

Lavender farmer now trying her hand at wine-making

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Sue Chmieleski

Thirty years ago, a former fruit farm in Red Creek in Cayuga County provided a place for Sue Chmieleski, now 60, to finally put down roots — figuratively and literally — after moving around quite a bit as a young person between towns in Pennsylvania and New York.

That last move would prove influential in her next decades of life.

At the time, she saw it only as a beautiful, roomy property near her children’s school, dotted with old barns. But now it’s the home of her businesses, Ol’Factory Soaps and Scents and Ol’Factory Lavender and Herb Farm.

For years, Chmieleski had been making soap as a hobby, using her garden’s herbs as part of the ingredients.

She began selling products as Ol’Factory Soaps and Scents.

In 2004, she and her family visited a lavender farm in Pennsylvania, and it occurred to her that she could add lavender to her soap. The blossoms’ fragrance appealed to her. She was not sure if the lavender bush would grow in New York. The area’s harsh winters seemed too severe for the perennial, so she planted a test plot the following season. Once she discovered that the Lake Ontario microclimate supported lavender plants, she planted more and more, which led to opening the farm to the public during the plant’s peak season in July for a Lavender Festival in 2007.

In addition to picking lavender, the event features live music, food, artisan vendors and special speakers for workshops. About 2,220 people attend each of the two weekends of the festival.

Chmieleski also opened a seasonal store, selling her 40 varieties of soap and other lavender goods along with local products, and most recently a wine barn. Like many business owners during the COVID-19 quarantine, she learned some new skills and expanded her business.

“I didn’t think I’d go there, but I had all that extra time to think of more things to sell because we couldn’t be open,” Chmieleski said. “I put all that time into learning.”

As a testament to her pluck, Chmieleski took a class, read about winemaking and searched for videos online. She also converted a circa-1891 barn into the Wine Barn, a rustic tasting room. She sources juice from Fulkerson Winery in Dundee and infuses the wine with her own lavender before bottling it.

Currently, she makes about 700 bottles of wine annually. New York state laws dictate that farm wineries must produce a minimum of 55 gallons of their own vino.

Chmieleski also sells other farm wines and ciders.

She also makes lavender syrup and lavender chocolate.

“We’re constantly coming up with new ways to use the lavender and the products,” she said.

In June, Chmieleski hosted the wedding of a family friend on the farm. That has sparked her consideration for making Ol’Factory Farm a wedding venue.

She conceded that as a one-woman operation who only recently hired part-time help; it’s hard to fit in time for all of her business aspirations.

When asked about her hobbies, she admitted that making soap and taking care of the farm occupies all her time.

But she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I love what I do here; I’ve made this my home,” she said.