- Associated Press - Monday, June 15, 2015

LAWTON, Okla. (AP) - A decade-old dare to a retiring professor ultimately led to one of southwest Oklahoma’s most popular agriculture attractions and redefined the man’s life.

Jag Sodhi was a professor with the Department of Defense when a student told him after class one day that it was impossible to grow lavender outside of certain climates, such as that of the area of Washington state near the Canadian border. Knowing retirement was imminent, Sodhi decided to take on the challenge and begin experiments. Eleven years later, Lavender Valley Acres continues to thrive and the peace-loving Sodhi can spend much of his retirement years relaxing in the country of Caddo County, The Lawton Constitution (https://bit.ly/1bmgJ2p ) reported.

“When someone asks why I did this with this area and climate, I tell them I just experiment,” he said. “I love lavender. I loved lavender before I started this. I love the smell.”

Born in India, Sodhi came to the United States in 1970 after he was recruited by the U.S. government for his talents and knowledge. He holds a master’s degree in math, a degree in engineering and served as an IBM tech. He served a stint as a professor at Cameron University and wrote eight textbooks in that time. When the Department of Defense offered him a professorship at the Defense Acquisition University in Washington, D.C., Sodhi took the opportunity. He saw it as the culmination of a life of hard work and being blessed by God.

“I had an office of my own and I got to travel a week or two weeks a month,” Sodhi said. “It was a wonderful life.”

Budget cuts forced Sodhi into retirement after the government wanted him to permanently move to the northeast. He was married and happy living in southwest Oklahoma and didn’t want to leave. His wife had pestered him for some time about having some sort of hobby when he retired. So when an upstart student threw down the gauntlet, Sodhi took it and ran.

“When I asked my wife to define what hobbies I didn’t have, she said gardening,” Sodhi said. “I said I didn’t have any experience, so I could try. I got a gift lavender plant. I experimented and did more researched and studied.”

Sodhi was surprised by his immediate success growing lavender in his first year. The student was wrong, but that didn’t matter to Sodhi. He had found a calling and he wanted to continue to pursue it. The more research the retired professor conducted, the more he learned about the vast variety of lavender plants across the globe. He accumulated 10 varieties, planted them and was even more surprised to discover they all grew successfully.

“We were the only place in the world to do something like this,” Sodhi said.

Knowing he had something special on his hand, Sodhi began to expand his operation. He hosted the first ever Lavender Valley Acres Lavender Festival 11 years ago, mainly inviting family and friends. It was supposed to be a small gathering, but it quickly grew. His friend Dr. Ajay Bhargava told Sodhi he needed to expand the festival and open it to more people.

“He told me the public should learn these plants,” Sodhi said. “So I did and God pushed me to it. I listen to God inside. God has helped me.”

The more success Sodhi enjoyed, the more he was encouraged to continue expanding and building. He built a greenhouse on his property and transplanted some of the lavender in other parts of the yard to give them a better chance to thrive. They grew even better and Sodhi was encouraged once more. When word began to spread across the state and more people showed up, Sodhi was encouraged even more.

“There were no plans to create this,” Sodhi said. “It was all day by day hard work. But there were no plans. Customers started coming and then I received awards. That was encouragement. Then the state department started putting up signs. Then people wanted us to start making items.”

Sodhi had a guaranteed hit on his hands. He went back to the Internet to do more research about the different products one can make from lavender. He quickly opened a gift shop and that attracted even more people. Sodhi came to know many of his customers as good friends who would come by simply to pick up some items and talk.

“Customers come as a customer and they leave as a good friend,” he said. “We learned a lot and listened to them.”

During the early days of the gradual expansion of Lavender Valley Acres, Sodhi was contacted by the University of Phoenix Online about teaching classes. He accepted the opportunity and taught several classes from the comfort of his home. But as his operation continued to compound, he was forced into retirement once again.

“I had to dedicate all of my time to lavender,” Sodhi said. “I don’t have time for anything else. Lavender takes all of my time.”

Don’t feel too bad for him, Sodhi said. He’s enjoying life.

“I enjoy staying at home, watching the plants and talking to the people who come out here,” he said. “My neighbors have said they never saw more cars on this road than when I got here.”

Sodhi and his operation have become popular over the years, but the fame and glory aren’t important to him. Instead, he’s used Lavender Valley to give back to the community. During his annual Lavender Festival, he primarily invites local vendors to sell their goods. He offers free yoga classes to anyone in the area who would like to attend. He believes his knowledge of yoga and his cultivation of lavender should be free and open to everyone

“I do not do this for the glory. It’s for other people,” Sodhi said. “We have our town of Apache, or Caddo County or Lawton and we put it on the map. People come here and they get benefits. It’s not for glory. God gave me enough in my life. I was a full-time professor and with the Department of Defense. That was glory. Writing books, that was glory.”

More than a decade after accepting the initial dare, Sodhi has never seen the student since. He understands the mentality that prompted the dare and he’s actually grateful it spurred him to do something with his retirement years that he’s enjoyed so much. Even in retirement, the old professor still enjoys teaching everyone - young and old - new things.

“I tell everyone, if I can grow lavender without any agriculture knowledge, they can grow it,” he said. “I’m a technology man. I knew nothing of agriculture. People come from all over the world and all over the state to see what I grow here. They leave satisfied. That makes me satisfied.”


Information from: The Lawton Constitution, https://www.swoknews.com

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