Petaluma natives find life’s sweetness in love, honey

It’s been nearly two decades since Richard and JoAnn Wallenstein planted the first lavender plants on their three-acre Chapman Lane farm, and the native Petalumans say they’ve reaped much more than they’ve sewn in the ensuing years.

The couple, both 69, established Lavender Bee Farm on the family farm where JoAnn spent her childhood, starting out by cultivating about 50 lavender plants, Richard said.

“It was just an accidental experience,” Richard said of the genesis of the lavender farm. “We had lots of roses and all kinds of flowers and trees, and gophers were just eating the root systems and destroying the plants really quickly. We wanted something that would help to beautify the yard and farm.”

Shortly after they planted the lavender, Richard begin researching beekeeping, and went on to join the Sonoma County Beekeeper’s Association and then to get his first beehive. The couple began giving dried bouquets of the fragrant flowers as well as the lavender honey to their friends and neighbors, and soon found they had a following of people who wanted more of their products.

Now, the husband-wife duo has grown their operation to encompass more than 5,000 lavender plants and Richard keeps about 80 to 100 beehives concurrently, with frequent requests for weddings and other events at the farm. The couple also has other trees on the property as well as horses, a llama, and at one point, they also raised a camel named Mel who made his way into commercials and nativity scenes, Richard said.

“To see it transform from a chicken farm and a 4-H farm when I was growing up and when my children growing up to a beautiful lavender farm is quite inspiring,” JoAnn said.

Their lavender bee honey sells out each year, Richard said, and the couple also offers a medley of flower-based products, including soaps, sachets and bunches of flowers out of a store built from a converted storage room on the property and on their website.

“We had no idea that lavender and honey were going to be so popular,” she said, adding that lavender is now being used by top chefs and is in generally high demand. “We were ahead of the trend and now we’re in the trend – we’re still very busy with a lot of mail orders and a lot of wonderful people who come to the farm.”

Both the products and the farm have gotten significant attention in past years, JoAnn said, adding that the farm has drawn international visitors from locations as far flung as Bulgaria and China.

Richard, who handles the beekeeping side of the business while also managing a local cleaning company, said he enjoys beekeeping and sharing his knowledge with others during tours at the farm, adding that keeping bees also helps bolster pollination for other local producers within a few miles of the farm.

According to Cheryl Veretto, the president of Sonoma County Beekeeper’s Association, beekeeping is thriving in the county, with more than 70 hobbyists in Petaluma alone. She credited an the county’s increased interest in helping combat the overarching decline of the bee population, which poses a problem for the future of food.

Richard also dons a beekeepers’ suit and responds to calls around town for people who have found themselves with unwanted swarms of the insects at their homes and workplaces, taking the displaced bundle of bees and adding it to his own collection of hives.

Since this year’s swarm season started in March, Richard said he’s received about five to six calls for removal a week in the Petaluma area, adding that he thrives on the element of danger involves in collecting bees.

“I think beekeeping is just a way of keeping plants, trees, flowers and vegetables healthy and it’s good for the wellbeing for everybody to have things growing,” he said. “For me it’s a very interesting thing to do … it does have an element of danger. It’s kind of exciting going out and capturing bees, having a beehive with 50,000 stingers looking at you.”

The Wallensteins, who were delivered by the same doctor at Petaluma General Hospital six weeks apart from each other and both graduated from Petaluma High School, met at a car wash in downtown Petaluma in 1981 and have been inseparable ever since, Richard said. He said he’s proud of the business he’s built with his wife, and their homegrown love story.

“I’ve got a wonderful family, a couple of great daughters and seven grandkids and they’ve all been to the farm and they all know what we do, and we’re able to teach them about living on a farm and raising lavender and bees and just maybe about a lifestyle that isn’t just about stuff,” he said.

JoAnn, who spent 27 years as a school bus driver for Petaluma City Schools, agreed, adding that she’s grateful to live in the century-old farmhouse on the property in her hometown.

“The reason I’ve stayed on the farm is that I have a lot of same neighbors I’ve had since I was 6 months old,” she said. “The property is beautiful, there’s good water and soil and beautiful views … I haven’t found anywhere else I’d rather live, as of right now.”

(Contact Hannah Beausang at

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