Honey highway: How a honey farm went from part-time to a lucrative business
Todd Whitney has been a beekeeper for nine years, and for the past seven he's been doing it completely on his own. We went to Todd's Honey Farm in Richardton to learn more about what he does.
Honey is a sweet food substance made by honey bees and has long been a staple of human consumption, in part because of its attractive chemical properties used in baking coupled with its distinctive flavor as a sweetener. Whether from wild bee colonies or from domesticated beehives, honey has long been a sweet and sometimes sticky industry full of interesting characters as diverse as the products they farm.
Todd Whitney owns and operates Todd’s Honey Farm in Richardton, ND. He spent most of his life as a mechanic working in a Ford garage, custom exhaust garage and other car shops in Jamestown, and eventually moved to Richardton. Whitney started his own mechanic business there in 2005, but it wasn't long before he realized it wasn't the bees knees.
“One of my friends that I met in Richardton was an ex-bee keeper and was driving bus for the school,” Whitney said.
According to Whitney, this friend began helping him at the shop so he could do his own repairs on the bus, eventually becoming a partner in the business they worked together for seven years.
“He got the hankering to do bees again, so we tried to do the bees and mechanic business at the same time. It was just kind of overwhelming because the bees took a lot for both of us, plus I was pretty much at the (mechanic) shop too,” Whitney said. “When he moved to California, I bought the business… started up Todd’s Honey Farm, and here I am today.”
Is the beekeeping industry as sticky as the honey it produces?
Whitney said he’s unsure about the future of the industry. Any hobbyist can build a few hives in their backyard, but it’s expensive to get buzzing on a commercial scale. He estimates that for a new beekeeper to start an operation like his from scratch, it would cost about $500,000.
“I just don’t see anybody coming into this,” he said. “This is one of those businesses just like farming or ranching that kind of has to be handed down through generations. I have a son and he wanted no part of it… I tried to get him involved and that lasted one year. He went on his own, went to college and went his own way, which I have to respect.”
It’s a tough business to break into because of the knowledge barrier.
“There’s not really any programs out there for new beekeepers coming in and starting up,” he said.
His son originally sought to be a diesel mechanic but found a passion for body work too. Now he works at Advanced Body Shop in Dickinson and Whitney said he loves it.
He said a contributing factor to the shrinking of the industry is that when many beekeepers retire and cash out to a larger company, that sometimes still results in a decrease of hives because they’ll take the physical, market and other types of capital but maintain the same number of hives. Natural disasters such as hurricanes have also hurt the industry.
An often unnoticed niche of the beekeeping industry is the pollination services many of them provide to farmers, especially in orchards.
“Every vegetable and fruit out there, they pollinate. Some guys, that’s what they do with their bees. That’s their whole thing, they’ll just move from state to state. They’ll go out to Maine and pollinate blueberries and cherries,” he said. “Then they’ll go do apples in Washington, and oranges (in Florida) and it’s just crazy.”
The number of hives farmers need varies based on precipitation because trees suck up so much moisture in the pollination process. A California farmer with drought conditions like those in the summer of 2021 might only contract for a fourth of the number of bees he would during a normal year.
Turning honey into money
After processing the honey, Whitney puts it in 55 gallon barrels. One semi-load of honey is about 43,000 pounds, he said this year he produced slightly more than that. He said prices and demand typically generate a steady balance of revenue. For example, last year he had an abundant crop and sold at $1.55 per pound. This year was less fruitful but he sold at $2.27 per pound.
“There’s no honey in the country because of the drought, which gets you a big price with no product. You make a lot more product, the price is always low. So it’s kind of like the grain situation,” Whitney said.
Most years, his output is on par with the North Dakota average of 80-85 pounds per hive. This year, largely due to dry conditions he had a 45 pound per crop. Yet, there’s a great deal of variation within those averages.
“I have some hives that don’t produce… You can put 32 hives in a honey yard, and two hives will make a 150 pound honey crop, and there might be two hives that don’t produce more than 25 pounds,” he said.
If you enjoyed this, stay tuned to www.thedickinsonpress.com for the second and third parts of a three story series featuring Todd’s Honey Farm.