Rockin’ a Hard Place | Sarah Richards: growing lavender and setting down roots

This resume will make you blink twice and shake your head. A young woman grows up on an island surrounded by farms. In college, she tries studying journalism but gives up after failing as the girls sports editor of the college paper. She switches to a French and art major and spends an idyllic junior year in Southern France.

After deciding she isn’t cut out to teach French in American high schools, she takes a job checking hats in a bar while looking for something else to do. She becomes just the second woman to be a telephone line installer in the Denver area. (Note to those under 40: All phones used to be hard wired and had to be installed by phone company employees.)

After three and a half years doing that followed by a few months briefly going for a master’s in business administration, she becomes pregnant and married. The new family moves to upstate New York for her husband’s doctoral studies. In her spare time there, she learns computer programming, loves it and hires herself out to businesses needing help with new-fangled computers in the early 1980s.

The family then moves to Corvallis, Ore., where her husband gets a teaching job at Oregon State University. She goes back to school and gets a degree in psychological counseling and spends the next 10 years as a therapist in private practice.

Over those years, she takes several trips to Port Angeles to visit a good friend and falls in love with northwest Washington and all its salt water.

In 1998, divorced and with her son away at college, she and a new husband buy five acres on Whidbey Island and build a house with a view of the Olympics and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. They aren’t quite sure what they’ll do — just that they like it here.

Then, recalling her summer in France, she decides to plant some lavender and she names her new place the Lavender Wind Farm.

Fast forward to 2020. Lavender Wind has become one of Central Whidbey’s best-known businesses, now including a popular gift shop and bakery in downtown Coupeville. And its owner, with this very unusual resume, is Sarah Richards.

“I have spent my life doing non-traditional things,” she said. “Doing things the ‘normal’ way is not my path.”

But if you look closely, it’s possible to weave threads through all those things she’s done.

Sarah and her sister Ruth spent their childhood on Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of Massachusetts. Although they and their mother weren’t farmers, they were surrounded by lots of farms on the island, and “I would go in the barns and smell the hay and think I had gone to heaven.”

While studying in France, she was intrigued by all the lavender growing there and all the things that the French made with it from sachets to lotions to ice cream to scones. Later, she discovered how well lavender grows in Whidbey’s maritime climate and the rest is history.

Doing non-traditional jobs helped her lose her fears and overcome roadblocks along the way.

“As a phone installer, I drove a van, climbed telephone poles, wore a tool belt and crawled under houses all the time.” When she arrived one day to install a new extension, the lady who answered the door looked at her and said, “You’re taking a job away from a man that needs to support his family.”

That was an all-too-common point of view even in the 1970s. Sarah said she told the lady: “Oh, would you like my children to starve?” Even though she didn’t have a child at the time, “I just couldn’t help it!”

Her life-long interest in understanding what goes on in people’s minds — which eventually led her to become a psychologist — gives her a broad perspective in working with all kinds of people she deals with as a farmer and business owner on Whidbey.

“It results from all the years I spent trying to figure out what was going on in my own head.”

She’s now lived on the Rock for 22 years – the longest she has ever lived anywhere. She picked her first crop of lavender in 2001 – “one stem at a time” – and sold the crafts and cookies she made from it at farmers markets three days a week. That was “way too much work,” so she opened a small gift shop in her garage at the farm, which became a popular stop for tourists and locals alike.

Then, in 2011, as her business grew, she bought a historic house at the corner of Coveland and Alexander streets in Coupeville that had been used by many small businesses over the decades. She poured a huge sum to install a commercial kitchen to bake her lavender treats and create a spot for classes. Today, the business’ reputation continues to grow.

Some visitors come from Seattle and much farther away just to visit the shop. “It’s an experience. Nobody else makes the same things. I wouldn’t say this place is shockingly successful but it’s a draw.”

Until COVID-19 appeared this spring, Sarah had begun thinking about the future and was preparing to sell her Lavender Wind business. But when the pandemic hit, “I realized I wasn’t going anywhere because things are too uncertain. I know how to live here and I know how to do this life.”

So, for the moment, you’ll find her running the shop in Coupeville or at the farm minding the still that separates the oil from the lavender blossoms or managing the harvest. (She now has help doing that, including Don Meehan, a well-known retired Island County extension agent.)

Eventually, Richards says, she may find an ideal buyer who will maintain the business and keep her around as a consultant and entrepreneur-emeritus.

Once that happens, she expects to have time to make a return visit to France to refresh her use of the language and engage her interest in photography.

But one thing’s for sure. No matter what happens with Lavender Wind, Sarah Richards will still be on Whidbey.

“I have set my roots here,” she said. “I like waving at people I know and chatting as I walk around Coupeville. I stopped crying when I came to Whidbey Island. I was a lot more up-and-down than I am now.”

n Harry Anderson is a retired journalist who worked for the Los Angeles Times and currently lives in Central Whidbey.

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