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Where Commercial Beekeeping Went Wrong: The Difference Between Having A Farm And Having A Business

Jan 1, 2006 | 2006 Writings, View All Posts

Now I come to the last of this year’s essays, and the most difficult of all to write. It’s also perhaps the most important one because many times the economic, social and spiritual elements, which are enormously important in our lives, are not brought into the discussion when we’re looking for solutions to the problems of agriculture in general, and beekeeping in particular. Any series of essays focusing on health—through bees or anything else—and not bringing these topics into the discussion would be horribly incomplete.

All of American agriculture is suffering terribly now from trying to force a process based on the workings of Nature into an industrial and business model. The ability to produce quality food has been abandoned in the quest to grow ever larger quantities of cheap, low quality commodities from our vast resources of soil and water. Because human health depends very largely on having continuous access to quality food, almost all Americans are suffering as a result of this process. This self-destructive path has already run its course to a large extent. Over the last 100 years, most of our farmers and commercial beekeepers have either been destroyed or forced into other lines of work. We remaining beekeepers are on the front lines of the struggle to prop up a system of agriculture that wants to produce food without people. Farmers of all kinds have been convinced that it’s more important to have a larger gross income than to have neighbors who share their own concerns and way of life. And now the few farmers who are left still have to worry constantly about losing their “competitive advantage”, or going bankrupt. Commercial beekeepers are moving their colonies further and further every year in an attempt to make ends meet; at a time when fuel prices could, at any moment, go into an upward spiral that would make all migratory beekeeping uneconomic. And we can’t tell if the final blow will come from mites, the chemicals we formerly used to control the mites, or from a moronic government that would rather buy all our food overseas than produce it here. From whatever angle you look at our industry now, the last word you would use to describe the scene is: healthy. But health is the basis of real success in every human and biological endeavor. I’ve already described what I think constitutes the biological basis of health in beekeeping. But these things can only be developed within a larger context that includes economic, social and spiritual health as well. I like to describe this problem as the difference between having a “farm” and having a business.

We all know a lot about what business is, because our culture is obsessed with it, and has been for a long time. As Mark Twain said: “In America, the dollar is our God, and how to get it is our Religion.” We value everything in terms of dollars or material assets, and feel constantly under pressure to get as much of these things as we can. This leads directly to a culture whose needs and desires can only be met by the constant exploitation of Nature and people less fortunate, or powerful, than ourselves. A lot of the stress, worry and fear that Americans are experiencing now comes from the realization that this process can’t go on forever, and from having no alternative vision to take its place. The heart and mind of real farming is so different from the mind fixed on industry and commerce that few Americans can even understand it. With less than one percent of the population farming full-time, and many of these trying to operate in the industrial model, this comes as no surprise. But the situation may be about to change as our system becomes more and more self-destructive and unstable. Beekeepers are uniquely positioned to fill this gap, if we rebuild our industry on a more healthy and stable model than what we are looking at now.

To achieve overall success, a farm or apiary must of course make progress in conventional economic terms. As George Henderson put it so well in The Farming Ladder: “Money may not be the principle object of farming, but we have never yet learned how to farm without it.” In the apiary, high productivity per box, per hour, and per dollar invested are all extremely important. But the real potential for having a nice life in farming of any kind comes from also working hard to reduce your expenses, enjoy a simple life style, and produce at least some of your own goods and services—things that you would otherwise have to buy in the predatory economy. As far as I can tell, after studying this problem for 30 years, and getting to know many farmers and beekeepers—the people who have the best lives in farming of any kind are very skillful in all three of these areas: producing valuable products for sale, reducing their expenses, and producing some of their own goods and services. What does this mean for the apiary in practical terms? Just becoming expert at producing honey, pollen, queens or other bee products; and enjoying a simple, low-cost lifestyle in a rural place. By investing some of your time and money in the self-sufficiency aspects—raising your own queens; building your own equipment and buildings; welding, gardening, etc.—you become partially removed from the instability of the overall economic system. It takes really good management to make all these jobs fit together right, and some income is sacrificed in the boom years; but over the long run the apiary is more stable, resilient, and enjoyable to work with.

I am also an advocate of avoiding debt if at all possible in developing an apiary. In a good location, healthy bees are productive, and can easily grow from a small beginning. This is how you can tell if your “farm” is going to succeed economically in the long run—if it provides its own capital for re-investment. Debt-free bees made a big impression on me early in my career—when I was very sick for almost 3 years, and had great difficulty working. If I had borrowed money to get those bees, they would have been gone in 8 months, and I would now be working in the Post Office. But the debt-free bees were still there, ready to carry on when I was able to take good care of them again. At a beekeeper’s meeting in the Midwest, I once tried to take advantage of an extension-sponsored session to help beekeepers with economic planning. But there was no way to even get my data into the program—because I wasn’t borrowing any money. I had already failed, I was politely informed, according to their model. Perhaps they just assume that all farmers operate right on the edge economically and need to borrow money. With the terrible advice extension has given out for decades, it’s no wonder there are so few farmers left. Generating your own capital for re-investment is also what enables the apiary to adjust in a time of rapid change—like the one we are going through right now.

Perhaps I did this backwards, but I should put down my goals for success in the apiary—they may be different from yours. I’m just trying to have a nice, quiet life in the country; centered around beekeeping and with some time left over for gardening, and visiting and helping others of a similar mind. I love the constantly changing work and all the different jobs in their seasons. To be a success, this should be able to continue through all the stages of life and, perhaps most important, be passed along to future generations. It’s a small apiary, a small “farm”, that I’ve been working with and describing all these years. Small farms have been ignored, discouraged, or destroyed in our system at every possible opportunity. But still, when one works really well, there’s nothing else on earth even remotely like it. This is where health, freedom, peace, joy and contentment can actually come together in our daily activities, year in and year out. Achieving this could entail a great variety of decisions and actions, based on individual circumstances. But there are two things I think will always be necessary for success. The first is to cultivate the heart and mind of farming rather than that of industry and business. This requires great independence of thought because most of the “experts” who provide us with “information” and “advice” are trained in, and work for, an elaborate apparatus set up to serve business and industry. People whose livelihoods depend on the cultivation of living things do not need huge amounts of constantly changing and “new” information. Rather, they need to apply themselves steadily to a timeless set of principles that were well documented in English between 1870 and 1945. When thoroughly learned, the work of farming and beekeeping is easy and pleasant; but it requires a constant presence and steady attention. This is why it’s important to have a variety of jobs to do throughout the year—to avoid drudgery as much as possible, and maintain interest and excitement over the long run. It’s easiest to achieve this in a small, family scale enterprise.

The other key to a healthy beekeeping future, is to always work with Nature as an ally rather than an adversary. We’ll never understand everything about Nature, but we can learn to live and work under her benevolent care and protection. Many have done this in the past, and there’s no overriding reason why we can’t do the same now and in the future. Working this way not only allows us to move away from the predatory and destructive economic and social system we live in now—it creates a real alternative. Making a living this way allows Nature to heal because of our work, rather than be continually degraded. It often seems trivial or out of place to even mention this in a country that’s so focused on material things and personal gain, but it’s true: people who take great joy in this kind of life are almost certain to encounter a reality beyond their own needs and desires; the possibility of Revelation. Let’s search for a genuinely healthy model as we rebuild our beekeeping community—so that the next generation can enjoy and benefit from keeping bees as much as many of us have in the past.

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