Photos by Rachel LaFranchi
On West Third Street in Santa Rosa you’ll find the Imwalle family’s produce store where four generations have sold produce to Santa Rosa residents. Joe Imwalle, 76, has run the family business since he was 24 years old and still works 12 hour days alongside his son and partner, Charles, 45.
Joe’s grandfather, Joseph, emigrated from Germany in the 1880’s where he was educated in horticulture. He originally owned a small 10 acre farm, but purchased a different 22 acres from relatives at the end of the 1800’s. Over the years, additional acres have been purchased and sold, but the family is still actively farming on 17 acres.
Joseph, who never learned to drive a car, would drive his horse and buggy up and down the town of Santa Rosa going door to door to deliver vegetables.
Joseph had five children and his two sons, Joe II and Henry, took over the family business. Joe II (Joe’s grandfather) took over as the gardener while Henry delivered the produce around town.
The Imwalle’s first built their store off West Third Street in the 40’s, but the area which is now considered within the city limits, was often too far to go for many people 70 years ago.
Over time, the family added to the farm by purchasing a 13 acres hop ranch next door and an adjoining 22 acre prune orchard.
“I started working at a young age picking hops and prunes,” recalled Joe Imwalle. “We also had pigs, chickens and cows. It really was a self-sufficient ranch – we had all we ever needed.”
After Joe II passed away, the family split the property. Joe’s side of the family took 27 acres plus the business while his uncle Henry took 32 acres. Henry sold his 32 acres, including the prune orchard, more than 40 years ago. It has since been developed into a housing tract. The 13 acre hop ranch has been sold three times to developers but has yet to be developed. “And I hope it no one ever does,” said Joe Imwalle.
Imwalle and his family still have 17 acres. Seventeen acres which have been growing vegetables for over 100 years – a rare feat in Sonoma County.
The family now has four businesses in one: their store, a summer garden, a nursery which specializes in vegetables and bedding plants and a wholesale business. Joe, who primarily manages the wholesale business, said it has grown tremendously. In addition to what they grow, they buy from the San Francisco Wholesale Produce Market, two large produce companies and local purveyors to get the best price for their customers.
On their 17 acres and two green houses, the family grows various crops including squash, zucchini, tomatoes, kale, leeks, celery, cabbage, cucumbers and corn. They also grow bedding plans, specializing in vegetables and selling many fig and persimmon trees. Because of Joseph’s horticulture background, you can also find numerous varieties of unusual plants that were planted more than 100 years ago. The property is also home to a handful of towering palm trees, several of which are also more than 100 years old.
As the city grew around the Imwalle’s farm, the family faces challenges from being in the city limits. They’ve had to quit growing certain varieties of vegetables due to a rabbit problem, which was harder to deal with because they don’t live in a rural area. However, the city growing around the farm has also had its benefits.
“Our business is like a fad now,” said Imwalle, “we’re so close to town and it’s like a little piece of farm in town.”
While the business is primarily managed by Joe and Charles, the whole family is involved. The immediate future of the farm is clear, but the long term future has yet to be determined.
“I’m going to stay here until I die,” said Joe. “What’s after that is up to the family. This is my homestead, this is my life, this is my little oasis.”
Imwalle Gardens’ store is open year round at 685 W 3rd St, Santa Rosa, CA 95401.
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the author and Sonoma County Farm Bureau when reprinting this item.