Updated Content and Dates: Jan 2017
The Best Kept Secret Part 2
The Best Kept Secret--Part 2 (First published in the Small Farmer's Journal, Fall 1999)
It’s all very well to speak and write about the thoughts and ideas that develop from working on something for a long time. But what usually interests people the most are personal stories that illustrate where these ideas come from, and what really went on behind the scenes. After reading a great deal by and about Thomas Jefferson, my favorite book by far is the little volume Jefferson and Monticello by Jack McLaughlin. Here, Jefferson’s life story is told through the building and evolution of his house and all the frustrating and amusing situations that were encountered; from getting the bricks burnt, to finding enough water, to propping up the portico for years with poplar logs while masons struggled with the columns.
In the same spirit, but on a more humble plane, I’ll try to describe some of the incidents, both successes and failures, that eventually led me to full-time beekeeping. It’s certainly not a path for anyone to try following exactly -- the idea is for you learn from my mistakes and travel more quickly than I did. I hope it at least illustrates and brings to life some of the principles I tried to describe in Part 1. I have already published a fairly detailed description of the technical beekeeping aspects of my apiary; as a series in the American Bee Journal, February - July 1997 (Which is now part of the website: kirkwebster.com). So, I’ll try not to duplicate too much of that here, and stick to the story of how the apiary started and grew to its present form.
There wasn’t much of anything in my upbringing that prepared me for being a farmer or beekeeper. Like so many others, I grew up in the suburbs, pretty much cut off from the land and nature, and was expected to sit on my rear end in school for decades in order to succeed in the world. I always liked to read, and didn’t have trouble getting good grades, so everyone assumed I would be able to get scholarships and somehow continue as far as possible with “education”. But before I even reached high school, I was aware of something wrong with this picture. By the time I was 15, it was clear that, one way or another, I was soon going to seek elsewhere for something to do in life. The usual forms of rebellion practiced in my generation seemed just as pointless and wasteful to me as my parent’s lives, and I never spent much time pursuing them. Nature and the outdoors became an irresistible magnet, and I also remember being fascinated by the lives of the Russian Cossacks living along the Don River, described in Michael Sholokov’s novels.
As a compromise, so I could finish high school, I spent the next two years at The Mountain School in Vershire, Vermont. The school lives on today in a new incarnation as part of a famous prep school, but in 1970 it was an independent high school with just 30 students. Most of the graduates went to college, but the atmosphere was informal and the property was a farm and forest that supplied the little community with wood and all of its meat and vegetables. The hill country surrounding was mostly forest and a few abandoned farms, gradually being re-absorbed into the woods. The nearest big towns were an hour’s drive away.
When I first arrived, I felt like I had gone from the earth to the moon, but soon realized it was the other way around -- I had in fact traveled from the moon back to the earth. Suddenly, I was surrounded by all sorts of worthwhile things to do and learn. The real basis of human life, happiness and inspiration, were all at once revealed to me and close at hand -- the wilderness, the farm, and good people who cared about both. I right away got used to working and playing outdoors in all sorts of weather, and saw the reality of how creative and satisfying life can be when physical and mental work are in proper balance.
Among the faculty families at that time were some truly outstanding people. After growing up in a largely dysfunctional and aimless household, it was my great good fortune to meet such people, to learn from them, and develop lasting friendships. More than one of these families became like surrogate parents and mentors to me. One in particular has remained a central inspiration from that day to this -- Bill and Martha Treichler, who ran the farm and taught Physics, English and French at the school. They were most kind and generous to take this dumb kid under their wing and make him feel at home with their family. (I have occasionally wondered if they had hopes I might marry one of their lovely daughters, but unfortunately, ambition is a sex-linked trait in their family and the girls were both determined to go off and lead professional lives in the big cities. It’s only the boys who were content to stay at home and follow the calm and sensible life of their parents!)
I had never met a family that was so close, or did so much together. They were the most skillful, capable, well educated, and healthy people I had ever met. I soon started tagging along and helping with the farm work whenever I could. I was stunned at the range and depth of their skills and interests -- in the fields, the barns and at home. In addition to the regular field work and care of livestock, Bill and the two older boys (near my own age) were good mechanics and could do creditable work in all of the building trades. No plumber, carpenter, electrician, auto mechanic or mason ever got to earn a dime from the Treichlers.
When the family came into the house at the end of the day, a whole new world emerged. They never had a TV, or even a phone at that time, and the kids had grown up listening to Bill read aloud almost every night. They had read hundreds of books together this way, and all of them became voracious readers on their own. It was embarrassing to be invited for dinner and see them all in an animated discussion of Richard III or MacBeth -even little John (age nine) piping up about his favorite parts. “Pass the potatoes”, was all I could manage sometimes. It was always worth coming though; this was the best place to eat I have ever known, before or since. In addition to being a great all-around cook and homemaker, Martha managed to teach English, French and cooking to the students, and earn a masters degree from Dartmouth in her spare time. This all was somewhat overwhelming to me at first, but my biggest shock was yet to come.
After the first year, I had gotten to know the Treichlers quite well, and already knew of their former home in Iowa and the little house they had built on Bill’s parents’ farm. But one evening just before dinner in the noisy school dining hall, he told me that the year their fifth child was born, the family’s gross income was $600.00. I almost dropped the pitcher of milk I was holding. The sights and sounds in the room around started to spin, and I felt like someone had just hit me right between the eyes with a stick of cordwood. It came out of nowhere and I was stunned: Here were the most capable, healthiest and best educated people I had ever met, who, with five young children at home, had chosen a way of life with only $600.00 (perhaps equivalent to $2,400.00 today) of cash income. They certainly could have pursued any number of jobs or careers to make a normal income, but chose instead to be together as a family and pick and choose carefully which aspects of the larger society they would get involved with. Farming and healthy self-sufficient living in a debt-free situation allowed them to do this. In that moment in the dining hall, all of my developing notions of making a living, security, jobs and careers were shattered, and I knew I would have to start again in learning what these things really mean.
I could make a long list of all the useful and important things I learned from Bill and Martha, and their children, but the most important one of all was this: All tasks are of equal difficulty; they differ only in the amount of time required to complete them. The important thing is to have confidence in your ability, to keep on learning and to develop wisdom in choosing which tasks to undertake. When these three conditions are met, the individual tasks of our lives add up in a harmonious way. Free people who can work in this fashion, and make their own decisions apart from the desires and expectations of others, can easily accomplish many things generally considered to be impossible. It’s this basic lack of self-confidence and independent thought pressed upon us by those who wish to control our lives for their own benefit that prevents us from grasping the real farming life today. I was fortunate to learn something about this, and how to overcome it, when I was a teenager, and in need of something to replace the failing assumptions of my own family and upbringing.
When I first met them, I knew the Treichlers were special people, but it was only after many more years that I understood how unique their lives really are in the modem world. We learn some of our most important lessons from our mentors, but can’t, and shouldn’t try to, copy them. We need to apply these lessons to our own strengths, weaknesses and life situations. The Treichiers live now in western New York State, where they’ve restored the land and buildings on a once derelict 80 acre property. On a winter visit some years ago, I found that all the hay had been put up in small round bales with an old Allis-Chalmers Rotobaler, and then left in the field right where they came out of the baler. The hay, and everything else, was now covered by a foot of snow. This made no sense to me at first, but after staying a few days I understood that it was just another conscious decision they made to improve their lives, and had nothing to do with laziness or ignorance. The main problem with restoring the farm at that point was keeping the fields mowed and eliminating the goldenrod and other weedy perennials that had moved in during many years of neglect. The hay crop was much larger than they needed for their stock at the time, and there wasn’t much barn space. Leaving the bales in the field freed up time and energy in the summer when there are many other things to do; and picking up a load every few days with the crawler tractor and wagon during the winter gave them some welcome exercise and excitement during that time of year. The cattle and sheep picked through the hay, eating the best and treading the remainder into the barnyard manure and compost that quickly restored the gardens to fertility and high production. In later years, more of the manure was spread back on the grassland, the hay was put up in large round bales, and the farm took on a more normal outward appearance. What looked at first glance to be confusion or laziness was actually part of the steady and seamless process of restoring the farm, making good use of the available time and other resources. They never paid a bit of attention to what others thought of their projects --just went right ahead working steadily on their own definition of progress. I learn something from them every time I go there.
It was also during high school when I got a start in beekeeping. Early during my first winter in Vershire, I hurt my knee in a toboggan accident, and had to spend a few months hobbling around. Someone felt sorry for me and gave me a book about beekeeping to try and cheer me up. Well, it did in fact capture my imagination and when visiting my family during spring vacation, I managed to find my first beekeeping teacher right in the midst of suburban New Jersey. This was Myron Surmach, a Ukrainian man who had come to the U.S. in 1914. He was only 15 years old then, and his family had sold their only milk cow in order for him to make the journey. After many years of working as a laborer and whatever jobs came along, he made a great success with a Ukrainian book and music store in New York City; and so brought his wife and children to the house in Saddle River where I met him. The one acre place was surrounded by hedges, and it became an island of Ukrainian village life in the midst of the suburban desert. Myron was in his 80’s when I was first there, and his wife had passed away some years before. He wasn’t keeping up too well with the old flower beds that were everywhere around the place, but he still managed to keep a couple dozen birdhouses up and ready for business, and grew most of his fruits and vegetables in a soil that looked just like finished compost. He still took care of 30 colonies of bees, all in modem equipment. For many years he kept at least some of the bees in square hives made of straw, and decorated with wood to look like miniature houses -- after the fashion of the old country. But by the time I got there, these were empty and rotting away beneath the overgrown shrubbery. Myron was in great shape for his age, but it was getting hard for him to lift the boxes when they were full of honey. So I started helping whenever I was in New Jersey, and he taught me the basics of honeybee biology and how to use the beekeeping tools. Before or after our sessions we would have lunch or dinner in his house, and I’d sit and listen, spellbound, to his vivid memories of childhood in the Ukraine before World War I and the Russian Revolution. When he left the Ukraine, his village was part of Austria; the first time he went back to visit, it was part of Poland. He returned just one other time, and his village was then in the USSR. I wish he had lived long enough to see the Ukraine as an independent nation.
Myron advised me one day to seek my fortune in beekeeping, and I confessed that I was already thinking that way myself. He was the first one who mentioned to me the name of Charles Mraz, a well known beekeeper in Middlebury, Vermont, who had published many articles in the beekeeping journals. When I returned to the Mountain School, I learned that people there knew of him too. The year before, some of the faculty and students had been very impressed with a speech he made at pesticide hearings in the State House. So, at the beginning of summer vacation, I hitchhiked over to see him. In the June twilight I arrived unannounced at his workshop, and in true dumb kid fashion asked if there was any way I could work for him when I finished high school, one year from that time. We chatted for a while and eventually was invited back to the house, where I camped out on the porch for the night. Next morning Margret Mraz filled me up with corn meal mush, packed an extra sandwich, and sent me off to the beeyards with Charlie for the day. I held the smoker, opened and closed hives for him all day as he caught queen bees and put out queen cells. When we got back to the house, he asked how many times I had gotten stung. When I replied that I hadn’t been stung at all he said, “That’s a bad sign, but why don’t you get in touch with me next winter and we’ll see what we can do.”
Well, one thing led to another and I did go to work for Charlie -- in fact I started in March, having completed my classes early, and despite the din of people everywhere clamoring that I must go to college instead of wasting my time fooling around with bees. But college seemed as big a waste of time to me as beekeeping did to almost everyone else. Even from those early days, I’ve had one big advantage over many people in my generation -- a serious inspiration hit me when I was in high school, and stuck with me ever since. When I look out at the world, farming and beekeeping are in color and everything else is in black and white. By the time I graduated from high school in June 1972 I had unwittingly incorporated three of the important ingredients of successful farming into my life: 1. Making a serious start early; 2. Finding good mentors who had made their own way with limited resources; and 3. Some degree of separation from the larger society. But even with these advantages, it was another two decades before I felt like I had learned my trade and made even a small success. It’s hard to pursue a creative vocation in a society that lives by using and destroying everything. Living one’s childhood in such a society, and then learning the farming life as a young adult is like swimming against the tide much of the time. It’s the timeless power and beauty of the farming life that sustains us in this struggle.
Working at the Champlain Valley Apiaries in ‘72 and ‘73 was my Berlitz education in commercial beekeeping -- something quite different from having 20 or 30 colonies in the backyard. Charlie had about 1,000 colonies of bees in 20 locations throughout the county, and bottled and sold the prize winning honey with his own label. But the whole thing had been built up from the smallest beginning, in 1927, when he first came here to work for J.E. Crane; a well-known beeman near the end of his career. Charlie was 22, and had already worked with bees in the buckwheat regions of western New York. The memories and stories of J.E. Crane, preserved by Charlie and passed on to today’s Vermont beekeepers, makes a chain of memory stretching back to the time of the Civil War.
While working for Crane, Charlie began building equipment and propagating bees of his own. In 1932, he bought a brand new Model A Ford from the proceeds of just one beeyard. The margin on honey was better during the Depression and the ‘40’s than any other time in his career. (The crops were bigger in those days, too, when farms used horses and small tractors, and often didn’t start cutting hay until late June or early July. Today a good crop in one of my beeyards would only buy 1/8 of a new car). So, as he expanded and gradually took over the Crane bees as well, the Champlain Valley Apiary grew and prospered.
In 1972 most of the beeyard work was done by the longtime hired man -- another Charlie (Whitman) -- and myself; with Charlie Mraz coming along when he could. There were also one or two women working in the shop, bottling honey and doing the book work. The business was big enough to keep everyone busy, but small enough so that I eventually got to do every job -- from building the equipment to tending the bees to extracting and bottling honey. On the weekends, when Charlie Whitman and most people were taking the day off, I would help Charlie Mraz in the garden or with his queen rearing work; tending the cell builders and mating nucs. And here was planted the seed which lay dormant for many years, but later grew to be so important in my own apiary today.
I was an apprentice, eating all my meals with the Mraz family, but sleeping at night on the 3rd floor of the honey house; where Charlie Whitman lived as well. It was a strange and often amusing upstairs--downstairs kind of existence where I got to see things from both the owner’s and hired man’s point of view. There’s a great deal to be learned in both places, but I’d have to agree with George Henderson and stress the importance of living with the farmer and his family while you are learning, if you can. This is a big help in learning to think like an owner and not like a hired man.
So, I had some great learning opportunities when I was 18. 1 certainly never felt deprived of education or excitement by not going to college. In addition to managing and working in the apiary, Charlie Mraz, at 67, was raising a young family with his 2nd wife, Margret, after the death of his first wife and launching two sons. He also managed to raise more vegetables than we all could eat in the backyard garden (or plantation, as Charlie Whitman called it), and found time each week to see the steady stream of people with arthritis who came for bee venom treatments. He treated all of these people with more kindness, patience, and results than their own doctors did, and wouldn’t accept payment of any kind. It was certainly a privilege to live and work with such a man. But there were thorns among these roses as well. Being a sponge at that time, I picked up the bad habits along with the good.
Charlie was possessed of enormous energy and determination; but he relied on them so much that careful planning and skill were often neglected. Early on, he made good progress by bulling through things “the hard way”, and that became his habit and what he expected from those around him. So much of the work we did during my stay could have been accomplished with half the strain and effort if a little more thought and planning had been brought to bear. This is important in beekeeping, where heavy boxes of bees and honey are handled almost every day, and back injuries are an occupational hazard. Being built like a string bean myself, the haste and heavy work took its toll on my own back, and it took me many years to recover from bad habits I picked up this way. Good instruction on how to do the physical work of small farming is one of the “rarest things in all the land”. By trying to do everything with machines and at a machinelike pace, we’ve lost touch with manual skills and how to live well from them. I know now that all the physical work, even in beekeeping, can be easily accomplished, and continued through a normal working lifetime, by any normally fit person who learns and works into it properly in the beginning. This is what I had to learn the hard way, by trial and error on my own, and it kept me out of beekeeping for years at a time, before I got a decent grip on this most basic knowledge. In the long run, it may have been to my advantage to be built like a Kentucky Wonder rather than a linebacker -- it forced me to use brains instead of brawn to accomplish work and solve problems, and this habit is worth more than all the gold in Ft. Knox for making real progress on the farm or in the apiary.
I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but Charlie’s apiary was also suffering terribly in the ‘70’s from being unable to adapt to changes occurring in the farming and ecology of the valley at that time. He had developed his system of propagating bees and producing honey during a time when clovers bloomed throughout the summer and nectar was always plentiful. By 1970, big machinery and the switch from hay to silage making had drastically reduced the length of the honey flow. To get a good crop of honey, a different type of management was required, and by clinging stubbornly to his old system, Charlie was no longer able to get good crops, and didn’t believe it was possible to do so. Much of the profitability and stability of the business had been lost this way, and by the time I got there the real economic basis of the apiary was buying, bottling and reselling honey from the Dakotas and Canada. The need to adapt when ecological and market conditions are changing is another thing I had to learn over many years, but could have grasped so easily if it had been pointed out to me in the early days.
After a year with the Mraz’s, Charlie asked me to stay and offered me a real salary and other benefits, but I wanted to widen my experience some more and so we all parted on good terms. I almost went to work for another beekeeper in South Dakota, but decided to give my back a rest and instead spent the next two years at my uncle’s small farm in Maryland, where they needed some help. This was definitely a hobby farm where my relations raised a few race horses before and after work in town. This wasn’t a great place to learn much about making a living from small farming, but I enjoyed the countryside, the family, and turning some of that great horse manure into fruits and vegetables. This was the first place where I raised a complete garden and did all the work myself. It was great to have such a long growing season. Spring and fall seemed to last for months, instead of weeks or even days as they often do in New England. And you could be out cutting brush in a lonely spot when suddenly a fox, pack of hounds, and a couple dozen horsemen and women, decked out like the British gentry, would come rushing by. When my cousins thought I was ready to handle it, they introduced me to that ridiculous and amusing excuse for a party called “bassetting”. It’s like fox hunting on foot, only you chase rabbits instead and the hounds’ legs are so short that their top speed is about the same as a human stroll. So, while the dogs are in hot pursuit of their quarry, you can easily accompany them, relax and enjoy the countryside and visit with a new friend at the same time. Needless to say, no healthy rabbit was ever caught by a basset hound. After surviving several of these ordeals, I was deemed ready to attend that most mysterious of social functions -- the cock fight. It’s an illegal and grisly affair -- also a fascinating look at the inconsistencies of human nature. In that place and time, this was the only occasion when rich and poor, black and white, were all represented and on an equal footing.
So, the two years passed and my oldest cousin was now old and eager enough to take care of the farm after school. I was casting about for what to do next, and went on a visit to the Treichlers back in Vermont. The main topic of conversation that winter was the old farm they had bought in western New York, and their plans to leave the school and move there in spring. One morning, out of the blue, Martha came up with the big idea that I should take over their job and run the school farm after they left. The thought had certainly never crossed my mind and I tried to brush it aside, but soon Bill chimed in and together they got up a long list of reasons why it was a good idea. I tried to protest about my age, inexperience, etc., but they would have none of it and insisted that I at least approach the directors and inquire about the possibility. Well, make a long story short and there I was the next May (1995), 21 years old and responsible for this hill farm, producing food there for 50 or so people, and all the associated livestock and machinery. I was familiar with the land, livestock and especially vegetable gardening in that place, but I was certainly no expert and I didn’t even own a car or a set of socket wrenches at that time. Again, I have to give credit to Bill and Martha for the great gift of self-confidence that they inspired, and which enabled me to make the most of this situation -- to do a good job and get a great education in the process. I’m sure part of the reason I have my own business today is because at age 21-23 I already had the best job I’ll ever find working for someone else. The school got a good deal -- they didn’t pay me very much -- but it seemed like a lot to me at this time, and I didn’t have any expenses, so most of it was saved. More important was the freedom I had in organizing and carrying out the farm work. I really believed in providing good food for the students and staff; so I threw myself into it and tried to improve the system any way I could. Of all the stories from those times, I’ll relate just two that taught me something of great value in later years -- The Yellow Tractor and The Amaranth Patch.
The school had a yellow Massey Ferguson tractor as the principle power source on the farm. There was also a sketchy but adequate collection of tillage and haymaking equipment, plus a chain saw and rototiller. When I first came to work there, I knew one of the things I had to acquire quickly was a basic working knowledge of mechanics. I hardly knew how to change a spark plug at that point, but I wasn’t intimidated too badly by the small engines and tillage equipment. The science teacher was a good mechanic, and the school hired him to rake and bale the hay, and maintain the baler and its Koehler engine -- so for the moment I was off the hook there. But that Massey Ferguson seemed quite daunting to me. It had so many parts, and to keep it running right, all the practical aspects of physics, chemistry, electricity and hydraulics had to be kept in mind. I could use it alright to do the work, but wasn’t sure where to start when it was malfunctioning. One day, shortly before Bill left the school, he and I were going through a stack of owner’s manuals for the farm equipment, and he came to the Massey-Ferguson book. He opened to the exploded diagram of the rear end. It looked like a diagram of the Milky Way to me. And then he said, “By the way, this isn’t the right manual for that tractor. The differential's not quite the same as it shows here -- but if you have to take it apart, you can figure it out.” And that’s the kind of person he was -- I just believed him. It’s probably a good thing I never tried to take the rear end apart, but from that day on I just started spending some time every week working on the equipment -- whether it needed it or not, and the mysteries gradually began to recede. By the end of the three years, I decided that spending half a day per week this way was the right amount of time to keep this collection of equipment in good shape and always ready to work. I still think it’s a good benchmark for a farm family using power mechanics and doing most of their own repairs. If it takes longer than that either your machinery systems are too complicated and need to be simplified, or you need to learn to be a better mechanic. With horsedrawn equipment the time can be even less, and this is part of what pays for the care and feeding of work horses.
“The Amaranth Patch” is my name for the school vegetable gardens, as I found them in 1975. When I was a student, we had established the gardens on a gentle slope near the top of a hill -- after Bill went up there one day to set a big fence post and discovered that the topsoil was over four feet deep. A soil profile like that in such an unlikely spot is a mystery that has never been satisfactorily explained. I uncovered a rumor in the village that a previous owner had hauled topsoil to the hilltop in the ‘50’s. But there’s 3-4 acres of deep soil up there -- that’s a lot of hauling. And before the gardens went in, the land had never been used for anything but hay and grazing. My own crackpot theory was that during the sheep farming decades the flocks would congregate there in summer -- to take advantage of the steady cool breeze - and thus concentrated much of the manure in that spot. But neither of these theories seems quite adequate.
When I came to work for the school in May, 1975, I asked Bill how much of a weed problem there was in the gardens. He answered with the only piece of misinformation or bad advice I ever heard from him: “Oh, it’s getting pretty clean up there." "That’s good,” I thought, “We’ll be able to take care of a big garden.” In high spirits, I tilled up and planted two acres of vegetables. By and by some rain came along. Then some hot weather. A few days later the whole patch looked like a piece of reddish green velvet. Those first tiny amaranth leaves were so thick and crowded together, it seemed impossible for even one more to squeeze in. Even worse, a handful of soil picked up anywhere in the garden and examined carefully looked like it contained about 5% of shiny black amaranth seeds. I’d never seen, or even imagined, weeds so out of control. By constant work through the summer, myself and three helpers managed to salvage about 1/3 of the plantings and get a decent supply of produce into storage for the winter. The rest I tilled up again and planted half in buckwheat, the other half in winter rye.
The following year, after spreading manure and tilling the buckwheat “straw”, we raised a much bigger and better crop of vegetables on about 2/3 acre, continuing the buckwheat and rye rotation on the rest. We still spent a great deal of time weeding, but overall, the work was much easier. The third season garden, which followed two years of rye and buckwheat, seemed like a miracle to us, after all the work we put in during the first two seasons. Despite bringing more weed seeds in with the barnyard manure, we felt like the crops had grown themselves with very little effort on our part. They were larger and of better quality than any I had grown before, and a large amount of time was freed up to use elsewhere.
This whole process was a crude stumbling series of first steps toward the sort of systems perfected and described so well by Anne and Eric Nordell in this magazine. But from “The Amaranth Patch” I learned that most important lesson: even 1/4 acre, managed well, is far more valuable than 10 acres, managed poorly. Or, put another way: the right size for a family garden or farm is the amount of land that can be farmed intensively and well by family members. I’m glad I still remembered this when I was expanding my own apiary years later.
If the original Mountain School had remained solvent and maintained a good spirit among the faculty, I might still be there today. But I decided to move on, and in September 1977, went to finish the season with a beekeeper in Ontario; with the understanding that, if things worked out well, I would return the following spring. I also lined up a job for the winter with a honey bee queen breeder in Alabama. But bad luck caught up with me in Canada, and I was in an accident that seriously injured my back. By winter it was clear that I was not going to be able to do any heavy work for awhile, and maybe never.
This caused quite a personal crisis for me, but once I had more or less accepted the situation, I began attending the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington to pursue some of the science and field biology interests I had developed over the years. I went to Evergreen because I had never been to the U.S. west coast (in fact had never lived west of Baltimore), because of their field biology programs, and because it was inexpensive.
The natural environment of the Pacific Northwest was nothing less than stunning and spectacular and I probably got along better at Evergreen than I would have at any other college or university, but no matter how much I tried, my heart wasn’t in it. The further I got into the sciences and how they are taught and used in this country, the more confused, undirected and unwise the whole process appeared. Studying full-time, and being constantly rushed through a lot of material kept the quality of student work at a mediocre level, at best. I learned some useful things and met some great people, of course, but frankly the whole experience seemed rather tame and Mickey-Mouse after the education I had received from the bees, my mentors, and the farm in Vershire. After three years, when I found myself strong enough to work again, I felt fully confirmed in my earlier suspicion that, for someone who sincerely wants to farm, going to college at age 19-25 is a horrible waste of time and money. I don’t want to discourage anyone with serious interests in scholarship and academics, but the fact remains: the transition from an industrial, predatory society to an agrarian, creative one could be financed two or three times with the amount of money spent on college education; and powered two or three times over by the energy and enthusiasm of college-aged young people.
Early in 1981, I decided to move back to the Northeast. There is a spectacular natural beauty everywhere you look in the Pacific NW, but after three years I was longing for the changing seasons and more subdued landscape of New England. I came west with everything I owned in an old station wagon, and later gave that car away when I was living in Olympia and had no pressing need for it. For the return trip, I shipped all my things in a 4x4x6' crate, and in less than five hours flew back over what I had spent two weeks crossing by car. I had used up all of my savings going to school, but I had a work study job in the college woodworking shop the whole time. After hours and vacations, I built all my furniture in there, and eventually I even built a yurt to live in as well. Even though I now have a vocation centered around biology, I learned more things of real value to a beekeeper in that woodshop than I did in class. When I left I sold the yurt for $1,000.00, which enabled me to buy an old Datsun truck in New Jersey. I had about $700.00 remaining, plus some basic carpentry and mechanics tools, and a great desire to return somehow to farming.
I assumed that I would end up getting another job something like the one I did earlier at the Mountain School. They in fact asked me to return, but were in such a shaky economic position that I declined. Some of my oldest friends, in Concord, MA., offered me a place to live in their house. This was centrally located in New England, and I thought it would make a good base for taking my time and finding a decent new job, so I moved in. I started visiting farms, schools, hospitals, and estates that had farm or garden managing jobs, and tried to learn all I could about them -- whether the positions were filled or vacant. I supported myself by doing carpentry work part-time and also, quite by accident, began keeping bees again.
In addition to suburbs, hobby farms, and some of the oldest buildings in the country, there are still working market gardens in Concord. One of them, The Hutchins Farm, has been devoted to organic growing for many years. I went to visit there and John Bemis, one of the owners, very kindly took an hour to walk around the farm with me. The property was stunning, about 65 acres and beautifully laid out with alternating fields of thriving vegetables and cover crops. I noticed some bees flying in and out of a clump of brush and asked him about it. “Oh gosh,” John said, “I started some hives in there a few years ago, but I never have time to take care of them, it’s a big mess. We just need them for pollination.” When I offered to look after them, he jumped at the idea, offering me half the honey, all the honey, or whatever, if I just kept them alive and healthy.
When I cut my way through the brush with a chain saw, I found four colonies in there, They hadn’t been touched for years, and it was a bit of a mess; but the bees were thriving and heavy with honey. This was quite a thrill after three years in the rainy Pacific Northwest -- a less-than-ideal place for honeybees. I got those four colonies cleaned up, and they made a good crop of honey during the summer. Over the winter, I collected all the other bee equipment that was sitting around in the sheds. The next spring the bees were strong, and I split them all. John didn’t want any more colonies, and so gave me the splits, on the condition that there would always be at least four strong colonies on the farm at all times. In the local paper, I saw five other colonies and some equipment for sale, so I bought those, brought them to the farm, and split them as well. Before I knew it, I had a beeyard.
During those two years, I kept looking for a farm managing job, and working as a carpenter as much as I could. Through my job search I gradually realized that I would be very lucky to find a place as good or better than what I had already done at the Mountain School. I had learned too much about the long term commitment required to make any real progress in farming, and the problems of farming by committee. If I was going to have that kind of a job again, I was determined to find one with serious long term potential. Unfortunately, this kind of a situation is just as rare on farms owned by institutions as it is on private farms today.
So, even though I kept looking and occasionally went for interviews for years after, I gradually shifted my focus from finding a job to building up my own apiary. It didn’t happen all at once, but a major milestone came in spring 1983, when I moved to the Cabot Farm, in Wenham, MA. I was offered a small apartment to live in and space in the barn to work out of, in return for doing some work -- mostly carpentry -- around the farm. I could fulfill most of my rent obligations during the winter, and so here was the situation that enabled me to start working seriously on the apiary: By paying my rent this way and growing a big garden, my cash living expenses were about as low as they could possibly be, and I had much of the warm weather free to work in the bees. I had space under cover to build and store equipment and extract honey; and I could still work on outside carpentry jobs whenever I needed or wanted to. By living much the same way in Concord, but having few bees to take care of, I had managed to save about $3,000.00. With this I bought 40 colonies of bees in Vermont and New York, and some equipment. This gave me a total of 55 colonies to work with, and from that point on I began my strict rule of investing only the net income from the bees back into the apiary, and depending on carpentry work for my own living expenses. The truck was shared by both enterprises, but, to give the bees a little boost, I maintained it out of carpentry. This system was continued until 1992, when I was able to give up carpentry work and devote full time to the bees.
I lived at the Cabot Farm from May 1983 to October 1984. By splitting strong colonies, I increased the total number to 100 during that time. This was also the period when the pattern and focus of my present apiary was established. At that time, and still today, most northern apiaries depend on bees and queens raised in the South or California in order to maintain their numbers, replace winter loss or expand. Raising surplus bees and queens had become a thriving rural industry in the warm parts of the U.S., but was, and remains, rare in the North. I had already learned from Charlie Mraz how to split strong colonies to make increases, and I could see that if I learned to raise my own queen bees, I could accelerate the process even further -- and also breed a strain better adapted to the cold weather. Why wasn’t anyone doing this? From reading the old bee journals and books I learned that many northern beekeepers in the 1890’s had raised their own queens, so I knew it was possible. The original pioneers of commercial queen rearing were very successful, and lived in upstate New York and Massachusetts. To my great surprise, I learned that one of them, Henry Alley, had lived just down the road from my beeyard at the Cabot Farm. My bees had been foraging on the huge basswood and locust trees he planted at the tum of the century. How’s that for serendipity?
Alley wrote an excellent book about his beekeeping, and I found a copy in the Wenham Public Library. It’s quite a rare volume, and should have been in a display case or rare book room somewhere, but there it was on the shelf for anyone to check out. To tease the very nice looking old woman at the desk, I casually asked what the charge was for a lost book. She looked it up in the library rules and told me: $12.00. “That’s good news,” I said, and handed her the book and my library card. When she noticed the title, she looked me right in the eye and said in her sweetest voice: “But if you lose this book, we’ll also have you drawn and quartered.”
As you can see, I returned the book, but not until committing much of it to memory. I also bought some more modern books on queen rearing and spent an awful lot of time, during the next two summers, alternately lying on the floor studying these books, and then rushing out to the beeyard to test yet another method of raising queen bees. At the end of three years, I had tried all the known methods many times, and decided on the one that was best and most reliable in my situation. I’ve used it ever since, without needing to change even the slightest detail. This became the key to the high productivity and self-sufficiency of the apiary in later years, but at the time, there was very little visible economic gain from all that work and study. Because society always makes us feel like we need to get paid Right Now, we have a very difficult time grasping the long-term processes at work in good farming. In the long run, I’ve made more total money and better wages from the work I did those three summers than from anything else I’ve ever done. But it took many years for that seed to grow into the ripe fruit. The thing I did right was to work hard and develop an efficient, productive and self-sufficient method of propagating bees and queens while the apiary was still quite small -- and then expand out of that. The mistake you see over and over again with farms and apiaries is expanding too fast -- before skills and a good system are properly in place.
Also during those years, I worked out the details of the equipment I’ve used ever since for getting queens mated. All that’s required here are small hives that can be quickly examined every two weeks, but each queen breeder has to decide carefully which design is best for his or her location and situation. The simple modifications to standard equipment I made worked well enough at first, but again, their real value wasn’t proved out until years later.
In the fall of 1985, I moved back to the southern Champlain Valley in Vermont. There were several reasons, but one big one was to be able to observe and propagate the bees that Charlie Mraz had bred there for so long. By now I was convinced there was a neglected niche in raising and selling honeybees bred in the North. I considered the climate and ecology of the Champlain Valley to be ideal for doing this work, and Charlie was one of the few beekeepers who had maintained his own strain in this region.
I rented a place to live and also another old building to use as a workshop. These things cost me a lot more than I had been spending in my hideout in Wenham, but I was lucky to be able to make decent wages as a carpenter pretty much whenever I needed to. So my basic scheme of working in the bees for the spring and summer, and doing carpentry during the fall and winter, continued more or less intact.
Just one year after getting myself established here in Addison Co. I became seriously ill. For the next two and a half years it was only with extreme difficulty that I managed to keep things going and pay my bills. In fact for much of that time it was unclear whether I would survive at all. I only bring this up to point out that if I had borrowed money in order to start or expand the apiary (as many people advised me to do) I would have lost everything. All the work I had done up to that point would have come to nothing, and I would now be employed at the Post Office or some such place, and not have enough time and energy left to build up a full-time apiary. The great strength and resilience of debt-free bees made a big impression on me during that time. I wasn’t able to expand them -- in fact I could just barely manage to care for them at all -- but when I recovered they were still there, with their full potential for production and expansion still intact.
Another thing worth noting: If I had continued to follow the medical advice I was given during that time, I would be six feet under today and unable to do anything except push up a few daisies. I was so disgusted by the treatment and terrible advice I was given that I canceled my medical insurance and have never lost a moments sleep over it since. As you might imagine, I’m not eager to pay in advance for them to try to do me in. Since then my way of dealing with the question of medical insurance is this; I buy the maximum allowable medical coverage on my auto insurance, which covers any injury having to do with a vehicle. This is very cheap and is an area where I’m constantly at risk in the bee business. The rest of the money I used to spend on medical insurance gets invested in the apiary into either bees or equipment that can be liquidated easily for cash. No ... of course it’s not enough to pay for a serious illness -- but soon there won’t be enough tea in China to pay for the medical “care” Americans think they need, 90% of which is not worth paying at any price. Did your ancestors wait until they had medical insurance before they got on the boats to come to this country? Have we become incapable of being responsible for ourselves and taking some risk so that our children and grandchildren can have a decent world to live in? I know my way of dealing with this whole issue is not a good way for most people. But it’s hard to find a good way -- except perhaps among the Amish, where they simply lead healthy lives and take care of each other as a community; with no one making a living from other people’s sickness or misfortune.
On a more cheerful note, it was also during this period of illness that I experienced the reality and importance of Faith in human life. Having searched for years and attended several churches, religion had never really come to life for me, and I always felt more inspired by the presence of plants and animals than I ever did around people. But when I was desperate, and trying to pray, it was one of the biggest surprises of my life to find the peace and understanding I needed overtake me from behind -- from the East and teachings of the Buddha; something of which I had no previous knowledge or experience. But it soon became for me the central point from which all other things arose: first survival; then my recovery; and then spreading slowly into all the other activities of life, as I regained the ability to do them. When I became able to work again, the course of my life went on much as it had before. But being at least partially free of the illusions of possession and ownership, things have been much easier and the stunning beauty and promise of this world remains intact even during the most trying situations. The only reason I even mention this very personal milestone in my life is because I wish everyone could have this experience, and not have to pay the high price of admission that was charged to me. I’m now convinced that good farming is the correct way for people to approach the experience of revelation, and will bring it forth out of any of our religious traditions.
And there still remains one more important thing that was learned during those years that seemed so terrible, but from which so many good things have grown. One fall afternoon in the beeyard, I made an observation that enabled me to double the productivity of my colonies, and which laid the foundation for a really stable small apiary based on stock selection and queen rearing. I’ve described that afternoon in some articles in the bee journals, but I’ll try to make a simple explanation here:
Bee colonies in the North have almost always been overwintered as large clusters in hives two or three boxes tall. Two years before, I had accidentally discovered that my small mating colonies could be wintered safely in just 1/2 box if they were placed on top of a full-sized colony (to receive the excess heat from below). But it was on that fall afternoon when I first realized that I should raise a large number of small colonies expressly for holding them over the winter this way, and then either sell them or use them for expansion in the spring. I’ll refer any interested readers to the American Bee Journal for the beekeeping details. Let’s just say here that this simple technique made it possible to propagate new colonies of northern bees about four or five times faster than any method in use up to that point. It also opened the door to a truly effective system of bee breeding in the cold regions and proved invaluable for dealing with the new mite pests. On that fall afternoon in 1987, while struggling with severe weakness and insomnia, I visualized most of the potential of such a system - but it was another seven or eight years before the apiary reached its optimum size, with all the various parts working more or less harmoniously together.
By 1990, I was overwintering enough nucleus (small) colonies to easily expand, despite heavy winter losses due to mites. I finished the season in 1991 with 208 honey producing colonies and 430 nucleus colonies. That fall I agonized over whether I should try to find a carpentry job for the winter. With that many bees, and the need to make more equipment over the winter, I had arrived at that difficult place where the apiary required full-time attention, but wasn’t yet large enough to support itself, and me, year-round. A small contract I had arranged with the USDA in 1990, to test some honeybee breeding stock, had left me with just barely enough money in the bank to get through until spring -- when I could sell some nucleus colonies. To be safe, I thought I should get a job for the winter and do my beehive building as best I could at night and on weekends. But right then a recession was moving in on Vermont and suddenly there were many carpenters unable to find work. Many of them had families and mortgages to support so I decided it would be best for everyone if I gave up doing carpentry and devoted all of my time to the bees. Once I made the decision, it made such an enormous change for the better in my life that I determined to spare no effort and do everything I could to stay with the bees full-time. I had very little money in the bank, but suddenly I possessed a vast estate of that most precious commodity -- time. Plenty of time to plan and get things ready for spring. Time to cut enough cordwood for the next winter, and to do a dozen other jobs that never had been pushed ahead that way before. Time also to read and study, for a complete change of pace, and to visit and help out some of those less fortunate than myself. I’ve kept all this up every winter since then, and now I don’t see how any farm can really thrive and make progress without some part of the year devoted to these things. But I’ve never enjoyed a winter, before or since, more than I did in 1991-92.
As the spring of ‘92 emerged though, the bloom on this rose seemed to be fading fast. Half of the honey producing colonies had perished due to tracheal mites -- some bee yards were completely wiped out. I was still unaware of the incredible regenerative power of an apiary with many nucleus colonies, and things looked pretty bleak to me. But 80% of the small colonies had survived, and they saved me. I sold 100 of them and used the rest to replace my winter loss and as parent stock for the next crop of nucs. It was a poor year for honey, but I managed to produce a crop worth $5,500.00 which, together with the income from bees came to $10,500.00 -- just enough to carry me through to the following spring. But I had also filled up all the equipment I built during the winter, and ended the season with 256 honey producing colonies and 570 nucs.
But things looked gloomy again in the spring of ‘93. Tracheal mites had again made serious inroads into the honey producing bees, though not as badly as the year before. I had more bees to start with in ‘93, but economically I was right on the edge, so I was hoping for a good honey crop. Spring was very late and even the early summer was cold, with poor weather ruining the dandelion honey flow -- an unheard of occurrence. In mid-June, when bees here usually reach their peak of strength, the colonies were still weak and near starvation. I sold 120 nucleus colonies, to pay the bills until October, and I stored all the new equipment I had made upstairs in the shop -- sure I would never use it in such an unpromising year.
But on June 15, the weather pattern shifted to hot and dry. Clover and purple vetch seemed to push up above the grass everywhere and began to bloom. Here in the valley we often think that what the farmers are doing has a big effect on our honey crop; but in ‘93 it didn’t seem to matter. Where hay was cut early, white clover and trefoil sprang up everywhere, and bloomed for the whole summer. Where hay was cut late or not at all, alsike clover and purple vetch grew up over everything. Whenever alfalfa was cut, it sprang back and soon was in bloom again. The bees seemed to recover and grow into huge colonies in an impossibly short time and filled the supers as if there was an artesian well under each hive, pushing the honey up out of the ground. Beekeepers with heavy winter losses, and so lots of empty boxes, got all that equipment filled with honey in 1993. In the spring I was proud of myself for having plenty of nucleus colonies to replace my winter loss. But it backfired on me this time -- I didn’t have near enough supers for the size of the crop, even after carrying all that new equipment down the shop stairs again. I produced twice that much. And I had swarms emerging throughout the summer.
When all the guns had gone off, I was paid $22,000.00 for my honey and bees in 1993. This was enough money for me to live on, run the apiary, and have a little bit in reserve. I could have made quite a bit more, if I had more empty supers. This year taught me how important it is to be prepared for a big crop at all times, no matter how poor conditions are at the moment. In farming what we live on and make progress from is our average income over a long period of years. The most stable and prosperous farms are always able to function comfortably at a level well below that average, and at the same time are always ready to take advantage of good conditions and exceptional crops when they come along.
In 1993, 1 also expanded the apiary, and reached what I considered the optimum size: 330 honey producing colonies and 600 nucleus colonies.
The winter of 1994 was one of the coldest and snowiest on record, and the only time I have ever seen the thermometer at 40 degrees below zero. In spring my losses in the honey producers was at 35-40%. The nucs came through at 90%, and I sold 200 in May. I produced 20,000 lbs. of honey. The price I got for the crop was lower than in ‘93, but still my gross income crept up to $23,000.00.
By 1995, with the apiary at its full size, and after a mild winter I was able to sell 350 nucleus colonies. The time and energy formerly spent on expanding the apiary was now devoted to producing extra queen bees for sale.
June and July brought terrible drought conditions, breaking some records. The first cutting of hay was decent, and harvested in crystal clear sunshine and blazing heat. But nothing regrew, and by August even some trees were dying and this place looked more like dry California than Vermont. The bees managed to maintain themselves awfully well considering the conditions, but the honey crop looked like a near failure. Then in August, enough rain arrived to revive the ground and bring on a decent flow -- much better than anyone had seen in August before. It seemed like a miracle when the extracting was finished; the crop was another personal best -- 23,000 lbs. The price paid for honey was going up for the first time in years, and with the extra nucs and income from queen bees, my products were worth almost $34,000 in 1995. This enabled me to hold the honey crop over until 1996, to keep income tax to a minimum and provide reserves in case of a crop failure in years to come. It takes a long time, but it’s quite a thrill when the investment in debt-free living starts to pay off.
May, June and July, 1996, brought all the rain we missed the year before, and enough for another few years as well. It seemed like a nightmare getting the spring and summer work done, but somehow most of it was completed, and during this terrible weather I first reached my goal of selling 400 nucleus colonies. Rain prevented the bees from getting honey at the normal time, but once again a crop materialized in August, and supers were still being filled while extracting was in progress during September. When the work was all done, I had 31,000 lbs. of honey. My largest crop to that point also coincided with a rare period of high honey prices, and my bees and honey brought in over $50,000.00.
My biggest honey crop to date came in 1997 -- 38,000 lbs., with 1998 down again to 31,000. The price of honey has come down, but by keeping the apiary sales balanced between honey and bees, the gross income has remained close to what I achieved in 1996. After living, and enjoying life, for so long with so little money, this frankly seems like an enormous fortune to me. I consider it to be about as well as one person can do in the production of basic agricultural commodities, and I know it may not represent the average from this point on. In terms of the American greedy lifestyle, it’s still not very much money; after all, that’s the gross income. It depends on how you want to figure it out, and how much you invest back into your business, but the net from a debt-free apiary like this is about half the gross -- as is the case on many Amish farms. I consider this to be a more than ample reward for the independence, the wonderful way of life and the chance to live apart from a predatory society that beekeeping and farming provide.
There are some people who think I am making a lot of money without working too hard. But I have to remind them that the results I achieved in 1996-1998 are just part of a process that began in Myron Surmach’s backyard in 1971. It was 1982 before I had any bees of my own; 1992 before I was able to give up doing other work, and 1993 before the bees ever left me with more than $1500.00 in the bank at one time. I had the advantage of early and lasting inspiration, plus some great mentors. From the beginning, I took farming seriously, like learning to be a doctor or any other highly skilled professional. Still, I know the whole process was a longer and harder road than most people nowadays would be willing to endure. But I also know that it needn’t be this way. I’m hoping that publishing all this will help at least a few people climb “The Farming Ladder” faster and more easily than I have.
People say: “But you couldn’t have done it if you were married and had a family.” And this is the most ridiculous argument of all. A husband and wife, devoted to each other and to the farming life, can accomplish more than any three individuals can, and raise children as part of the process. A woman who had grown up with this apiary, and working half-time with the bees could generate another $20,000.00 of annual gross income without adding more bees or a single piece of additional equipment. This leaves plenty of time for strengthening the household and self-sufficiency aspects -- thus driving expenses down and raising the amount and value of net income. And what’s the effect on children when they grow up with their parents and the creative homestead work always nearby? To compare this with the effect on children living in the “normal” American household, with both parents working away from home, you might as well try to compare a weekend at an English country estate with a visit to Buchenwald.
The next question is: “Then why don’t you hire someone to work in the apiary and generate that extra income?” Because to fine-tune the apiary to that extent requires more skill and devotion than is present in an employer-and-employee relationship. Even with a spouse, it requires a devotion built up over time. I could expand the apiary and hire low wage help to do the extra work -- that is, after all, the way money is made in business. But it violates the principles of good farming -- the cultivation of better human beings. An accident or serious illness might force me to do this, but I’m determined to avoid it if I possibly can. Also, I just love doing the work, and if I inherited a fortune or learned that I have just one more week to live, I would continue along with the seasonal jobs just as I am now. I can’t stand having people around who are working just to make some money. Farming in this place and time is separate from society, and when the single minded quest for money mixes with farming, it’s farming that starts to break down.
Right now I in focusing on making the apiary even more productive and efficient, and making the work easier; so I can continue to raise bees and honey when I’m older. If I ever expand again, it’s going to be on a different basis: The details have escaped me so far, but if there are young people anymore, interested in beekeeping as a way of life, I’d like to have a few of them come here to learn the trade, and be able to propagate the bees they need to start on their own. I’m not sure if such young people still exist, but if so I’d like them to get a better start and a better grasp of the basics than I did -- at a time when they can make the best use of such things. This one’s still in the planning stage, but it should be possible to expand the apiary enough to support one or two apprentices, then spin off the excess bees as the young folks return home to start propagating bees and producing honey on their own. If even one or two full-time apiaries resulted from this process, I’d be able to at least approach my own definition of successful beekeeping.
If I was patient in bringing along my apiary, then you have been even more so to read through this entire essay. It took much longer than I originally thought to cover the important points, and I apologize for the excessive length. And don’t worry; soon I am going to leave you and return to the more important and fun work -- producing bees and honey. I’d like to end this way:
Farming is really just a way of working that brings forth the possibility of revelation and all good things that come from being alive. No one knows better than I do how vulnerable real farming is today, and perhaps that’s why I enjoy it so much, and rise each morning full of gratitude for just one more day of this life. A family is the smallest group that can achieve full success in farming -- from establishing the farm out of the sun’s energy, through launching another generation on farms of their own. Outside of the Amish communities, these families are true pioneers, in the midst of a hostile world. But when new farms are spawned, and become associated with the others, some real strength, resilience and comfort starts to emerge. If we reach the point where communities are farming again, then the flywheel will start to turn on its own, and a movement will emerge that no government or corporation can stop. The basics of good farming have always been the same: a strong foundation in Faith and family, the proper use of time, and keeping economics close to the world of nature. In this country, everything necessary for the farming life is nearby. There’s nothing but our own hearts and minds preventing us from stepping out and making a home there.