It’s been a sweet ride for Donna and Eugene Woller.
For almost 50 years, the couple behind Gentle Breeze Honey has been selling products at the Dane County Farmers’ Market, giving people a taste of honey harvested from bees in the Mount Horeb countryside and throughout southern Wisconsin.
But the couple’s presence at the market since 1973 — the second year of what would eventually become the country’s largest producer-only farmers’ market — ceremonially ended Saturday with a toast on Capitol Square as the family-owned Gentle Breeze is handed off to the next generation.
Their son and daughter-in-law, Tim and Cathy Woller, are taking over a business that germinated from a hobby Eugene Woller picked up after he took a beekeeping course at UW-Madison in 1965 and has blossomed into about 600 hives supplying honey for store shelves across Wisconsin and in the Chicago area.
“I never felt it was a burden to do it,” Eugene Woller said of the decades of early morning trips from his rural Mount Horeb farm to Madison to sell honey, beeswax candles and other products. “I enjoyed every minute of it.”
Family, friends and employees gathered at the Gentle Breeze stall — located at the prime intersection of Carroll Street and West Washington Avenue — to surprise Donna and Eugene Woller, both 75, on the last Saturday market of the season.
“You built a legacy,” Tim Woller told his parents. “You had a quality product that was lasting and enduring. I guess I just want to thank the both of you for how you’ve raised us as a community and a family.”
Among those honoring the Wollers was Andrew McNaught, who is in the process of taking over for another longtime vendor, Sugar River Country Bakery, which has been at the market for 40 years.
Neighboring the Gentle Breeze stall, McNaught said it’s been helpful to go over notes and share experiences with the younger Wollers during the past four seasons.
“It’s been nice to kind of buddy up and to be almost second generation to come in,” McNaught said. “I know there’s other vendors that are looking at us as an example to be able to transition and hand over the business to form a legacy status.”
The transition of Gentle Breeze, which should be finished by the end of the year, has been talked about for a decade but was kicked into motion after Tim Woller retired from the U.S. Air Force in 2015.
“We were in the military for about 24 years — 20 years of active duty service — and we kind of knew the last five or six years we were coming back to Mount Horeb and always had the interest of working with my mom and dad on the honey farm,” he said.
Through the years, Eugene Woller has acted as the lead beekeeper and Donna Woller the bookkeeper — roles their son and daughter-in-law are now filling, respectively. The company employs six to eight people year-round and about 20 in the summer.
Some of Gentle Breeze’s practices have changed with time, said Tim Woller, who has four sons with his wife, but the product remains the same. For example, the business used to over-winter bees in Wisconsin, he said, but it would result in 30% to 50% of a colony dying. Now, the bees are sent to California — this year they left Oct. 29 on flatbed trucks covered with netting — to help with almond pollination before returning in the spring.
Having been a staple of the Dane County Farmers’ Market nearly since its inception, the Wollers said the years brought many more vendors and visitors, but the market’s mission has remained.
“The ethics of the market have always continued the same. Everything is made or produced by the seller, which is really important,” Donna Woller said.
She said the couple has been mentally preparing for the handoff for many years.
“It’s been a long time getting here, and all of a sudden it’s here. We’re just very grateful,” she said, with Eugene Woller quickly adding: “And we don’t mind sleeping in on Saturday mornings.”
"The ethics of the market have always continued the same. Everything is made or produced by the seller, which is really important."
Donna Woller, Gentle Breeze Honey