Hanging on at the Margins: Value-added means survival for one family-owned beekeeping operation

By Tim Kalinowski


When you farm on the margins of Canadian agriculture with smaller acres, you are more vulnerable to the headwinds found within the marketplace, says Stella Sehn, owner of Sweet Pure Honey; and so it becomes important to spread out your risk by considering any and all value-added opportunities that might be presented to you.

“It is to generate income to live and support our family,” says Sehn simply. “I know right now it is a buzzword, but value-added comes from needing to provide and pay bills. When you are looking at what you have available on a farm, and your by-products, you naturally gravitate toward what you can sell and make money with.

“For us, diversifying our product range really generated sales where we previously didn’t have a market,” she says.

Sehn owns a small family apiary in Saskatchewan, but calls Medicine Hat her home-base for the marketing side of her company. Her husband Sheldon Hill acts as beekeeper and creates the opportunities for his bees to thrive, but it is Sehn who calls up potential buyers, who attends trade shows, and who seeks out new value-added opportunities to keep their family operation afloat.

“There has been a low price for honey now going on to the third year,” she explains. “These low honey prices are just not sustainable for family bee farms and apiaries. For the people that can hold on, and are diversifying, at least value-added production creates a lifeline where you still have cashflow coming in to survive.

“With farming,” she states, “you have to think, ‘What can you do to ride out this price?’ And that’s where on our farm we are sitting right now.”

Sehn has show a strong aptitude for finding value-added opportunities to expand her potential customer base. Besides more typical honey products based on the food market, Sweet Pure Honey is also making reusable food wrapper from beeswax, honey-based beauty products, candles and even soaps.

Her farm’s most recent product line, Ice Honey, is selling out in the tourist boutiques because of its unique taste and texture. The Ice Honey spread is made by freezing the product down to -20 C to create a naturally soft texture to the raw honey without having to get creamed.

And Sehn is currently establishing relationships with craft brewers in Medicine Hat to produce a Sweet Pure Honey mead line.

“If you are an entrepreneur, and you want to make something work, you just can’t give up,” she says. “We are smart enough to realize we are not the only people in this position, and when you look at and study other successful farms, you see the different things they have done. That’s where the innovation and the creation has to come, and if somebody else did it, you can do it too.

“It’s all about putting the time in to do the research and come up with something that works. The difference between being and entrepreneur and a farmer is combining both of those; and added-value meets in the middle,” states Sehn.

And part of that added-value middle-ground, says Sehn, comes from the branding you do, and the story you put out there to set yourself apart from others working in the same area of agriculture.

In her case, the story is already pretty compelling, Sehn says, when people learn she is a small, family-run operation and has kids to feed. But on top of that, she adds, Sweet Pure Honey has embraced the Flow-Hive system, which some feel is a more sustainable way of doing beekeeping. The company also ensures its bees only produce honey on organic fields, and that it gives a percentage of its profits to enhance local pollinator awareness programs. In this respect, Sweet Pure Honey donates to Project Wildflower and the Bee Aware Program in Medicine Hat.

“We are getting a premium price for that honey,” Sehn says, “but we have had to find new ways to up our value, and also ensure the honey we have now has more of a significance because of our quality and consciousness about these (social) issues resonating with consumers.”

Sehn is pleased with her the marketing results, and her great customer uptake and loyalty to Sweet Pure Honey’s products of all kinds. But none of this, she says, takes away from the fact that her family’s apiary is just barely hanging on as greater market forces continue to keep downward pressure on the honey price. Add to that poor price colder and smokier summers the past few years leading to less overall honey production, and massive bee die-offs during last year’s harsh winter— it’s enough to make anyone want to throw up her hands and quit.

But Sehn has chosen to take bold steps forward to embrace new value-added opportunities instead.

“We can’t rely on the traditional market anymore,” she says matter-of-factly. “We were tired of having our fate in the hands of someone else. At least with the added-value products we are able to continue to sell outside of traditional markets. But you have to be willing to put the time and energy into it.”

Photos courtesy of Sweet Pure Honey
Stella Sehn and two of her children help tap a Flow-Hive at their family apiary in Saskatchewan.