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.