It is no secret the beekeeping industry has been struggling in recent years due to declining honey prices and problems with bee health. Like all other forms of cyclical agriculture, during tough times those in the honey industry have to find ways to get more profit out of their operations without adding a ton of extra expense.
One way they can do that is by investing in greater efficiency in operations. Another is to find ways to open new markets for value-added opportunities.
For Sweet Pure Honey co-owners Stella Sehn and Sheldon Hill, marketing is the lens which brings their future into focus.
“People with no agricultural background try to tell farmers how to farm,” says Sehn, who does all the brand’s marketing. “We feed populations of people. Farmers are the new rock stars. Deep down we know we deserve to be treated better than we are.
“We make the least amount of money, and we do the most amount of work … Now I don’t mind working, but I sure as hell want to be paid for that work I am doing. So that involves a lot of direct marketing and direct farm profit.”
Sehn’s first success in that regard was to begin at local farmers markets and by establishing a small retail presence for her company’s honey products in Medicine Hat about a decade ago. The oil economy was booming then, and Sehn found the profitability she and Hill, who does all the primary beekeeping for the company, had been seeking when they invested $80,000 in their first 200 hives.
But as the Medicine Hat energy economy went bust over the past four years, Sehn also found her profits shrinking.
“You can never take anything for granted,” she realized. “I was making enough money from my two local markets here in Medicine Hat, and then the crash hit.
“Literally within two years we saw a sixty per cent decrease in our wholesale and retail markets in the city. This is because millions of dollars in oil money are now missing from the Medicine Hat economy.”
So Sehn had to find a new direction. She began courting the high-end honey market, which was concerned with organic ideals, locally grown food and sustainable farming. She started displaying her products at famous food expos in Vancouver and Toronto, cultivated a chain of retail venders for her honey, and established a strong social media and web presence.
This resulted in a largely successful national marketing campaign for her honey, as well as some international export opportunities, through Sweet Pure Honey’s own website. Their name was out there, says Sehn, but the dollars were trickling instead of flowing in.
“I am proud of all the marketing work we have done, but now it has to manifest into money coming onto our website,” she says. “All of this is great, but if we are not moving toward greater profitability than it is not working.”
Sehn says that’s why she and her business partner/ husband Hill decided to double-down and invest in Flow Hives, a new system of producing honey which allows the beekeeper to tap and process honey directly from hives at the field level in a way which is less intrusive to the bees.
“When the Flow Hive came I saw it really as one last kick at the can where we could add value and give our consumers what they want,” says Sehn. “It is undeniable consumers want products where they know what is in them. For example, we had a lot of people concerned about canola products in the honey, and choosing not to eat canola honey.
“I listened to their concerns. Although our jars of Sweet Pure Honey had canola in it, it also had organic crops. But we weren’t able to isolate that using the traditional commercial beekeeping method.
“The Flow Hive allows us now to produce honey exclusively into the Red Clover and Sweet Clover fields, that are grown naturally without any herbacides or pesticides.
“And now we have something extra to offer. The flavour is intense with a really high floral taste, and it is something unique and different.”
Sehn says she also diversified the value-added products she produces from her honey, including honey-soap, lip balm, beeswax, etc.
“I realized the same consumer that wanted raw honey was also going to buy pure soap, and things without chemicals,” she says. “That came about naturally from listening to consumers. That is why all the other products started coming in, and the diversification of our operations.
“I thought if I have to re-invent, I am moving in a direction we want to move in; and I can believe in.”
Sehn says she and Hill, who have three young children together, couldn’t imagine doing anything else but producing honey— even if it has meant a lot of struggle and sacrifice along the way. Hill has recently taken a job off-farm during the off season to keep capital flowing, while Sehn attempts to establish a new direction for their company.
“The thing about being a farmer, and having you farm on homesteaded land, I don’t know if we had any choice,” says Sehn. “It was the only way we could make money. Beekeeping was what we believed was right for us and our family. It was just a natural fit.
“We are blessed to be healthy,” she adds. “And we are blessed to have loyal clients who continue to support us.”
For more information on how to get your order of Sweet Pure Honey, and to see more about Stella and Sheldon’s story visit their website at www.sweetpurehoney.ca.