Honey Money and Canadian Beekeepers

stella sehn and sheldon hill

It is just about dawn on the Canadian prairies. The cool air of a mid-July night has settled into the earth as dew forms on the grass. The dark night sky shifts into hues of indigo, burnt orange and gold as the first rays of sun stretch across expansive fields of green and yellow crops. The earth stretches and exhales, waking from its slumber as thousands of workers stir and prepare for a long day of foraging. Daybreak hits and the workers emerge, basking in the warmth of the early morning sun. The workday has begun for the bees.

In Porcupine Plain, SK, bees have become synonymous with the names Sheldon Hill, 45, and Stella Sehn, 43. The couple of 26 years has been working in the commercial honey business since 2004.

This duo’s dedication to Canadian agriculture is deeply rooted, with ties to farming on both sides of the family. Hill grew up as a grain farmer but fell in love with apiculture while working as a summer beekeeper in college. Sehn spent her childhood summers at a family farm near Fox Valley, SK. 

As most Canadian farmers experience, Hill and Sehn’s life in the Agri-food industry was full of economic uncertainties; weather changes, fluctuating markets and inconsistent operational costs made it impossible to forecast a precise annual income. In 2010, their entire crop was going to a single co-op in large barrels and honey prices were low. They were living in poverty with three young mouths to feed. 

While the need to change their household income was imperative, they stood firm on their family values to keep Sehn at home to raise the children. They were willing to make sacrifices to maintain a specific family lifestyle. So in a bid to trigger a new cash flow, the pair decided to hand-pack a small portion of their crop, starting a direct farm-to-consumer side business. “We packed 400 jars of honey,” says Sehn, “and I packed up the kids and drove eight hours away to the farmers’ market and I sold out.” 

Sweet Pure Honey was born.

“The initial plan for Sweet Pure Honey was just so I could bring in enough gas money so I could leave the farm and take the kids to the city to enrich their experience,” says Sehn. But the business did more than add a few dollars to the family cash box – it dug them out of poverty and opened doors they didn’t expect to find.

The first visit to the Medicine Hat Farmers’ Market triggered a two-year routine of packing jars, packing up kids and traveling to Alberta on a bi-weekly basis. The Medicine Hat market made sense for Sehn, as she had extended family in the city to look after the baby while the older kids joined her at the market. 

Prepping for shows, home schooling and traveling thousands of kilometres each month made the business start-up a blur. “It was brutal,” she says. “I don’t remember years. It was that stressful. But we always had support and the numbers continued to grow. You just do what you have to do.” 

As a mom living in poverty, Sehn was adept at getting creative with the resources she had. She quickly realized the bees were providing much more than just sweet nectar to sell to clients. 

“When you have bad years, or honey prices drop, you don’t have any factors where you can mitigate that,” she says. “I realized if I took the by-product of this honey to create soap and beeswax cosmetics, no matter what, I could go do a show and get hundreds of dollars – or get gas, or groceries, or experiences.” 

As farmers’ market sales grew, Sehn knew it was time to diversify. She attended the Alberta Gift Show as a vendor, followed by the Nutter’s trade show. “I signed 18 different Nutter’s stores in one day,” she recalls, launching the company into the wholesale market. They now provide honey to several health food stores, tourist stops and coffee shops across Canada.

In 2012, the family pulled enough money from their start-up to move to Alberta. They chose to keep the Saskatchewan farm and homestead, as the bees were their livelihood, but Hill and Sehn wanted their kids to grow up in a larger city.

“A lot of people can’t understand why we don’t do bees in Medicine Hat – why I’m here and why Sheldon is there,” says Sehn, “but Sweet Pure Honey is what it is because of where Sweet Pure Honey is produced; the bees, the land, the moisture, the temperature and where we live, our homestead land. You can’t pick that up and move it somewhere else.” They’ve chosen to blend farm and city life to teach their kids how to live by the seasons of the earth, but also to experience big-city festivals and culture.  

As the Sweet Pure Honey brand spread across southern Alberta, Sehn found herself developing an organic group of online followers. Her marketing tactics were self-admittedly “old school” and she was determined to remain authentic in the public eye. Sehn says this made her a local social influencer, giving her a platform to promote community building initiatives, voice concern when something didn’t sit right for her and identify non-profits that work with vulnerable populations.

Social media posts on Sehn’s personal and company pages often highlight her and Hill’s three children – Marley, Sierra and Lauren – whose photos as young kids are sprinkled throughout the website, Facebook, and Instagram. The kids are now teenagers living in a world where thousands of online followers have watched them grow up. Wholesome, down to earth family values are highlighted on the company website and both business owners tout raising a tight-knit family as a driver for every decision they make. 

Sehn says her raw and honest approach to business – tying everything back to the family unit – has put Sweet Pure Honey ahead of today’s marketing trends. She says marketing gurus are now trying to teach business owners how to appear “real” on their social media channels, but that has always been the foundation of this honey venture and a natural choice for the family farm. 

Sehn says she also breaks the marketing mould by refusing to use traditional advertising methods. Instead, she gives away free product and relies on word of mouth.

“Nobody’s shocked that someone gave Rogers $3,000 for an ad. Nobody’s shocked that somebody paid $1,000 for an ad in the newspaper. But me giving $2 or $4 worth of product to a client is shocking – that’s how twisted the system is set up. This is old school marketing 101,” she says. “I have far better returns from a woman walking around with a tube of lip balm than I do taking out an ad, or paying money to a corporation, trying to manipulate people to support, or invest, in my farm. This thing people find amazing is just smart business practice.”

In 2016, Sehn and Hill hit a milestone they call their “best business moment” to date, winning the Medicine Hat and District Chamber of Commerce business award for Business Ethics. “To be honoured for your ideas, morals, and values,” says Sehn, “in business – most certainly in agriculture – that’s pretty amazing.”

In that same year, with a drive to remain innovative in a soft honey market and separate themselves from competitors, Sehn and Hill chose to invest in a Kickstarter campaign called FLOW® HIVE. They became founding supporters and ambassadors of the product. The Flow Hive allows honey to be tapped directly from the beehive in the field, giving beekeepers a chance to choose isolated crops for production and avoid the traditional manual labour-intensive method of honey extraction. This also reduces the interruption to the bees as they work to collect pollen and return to the hive. 

The glass jar packaging and isolated production of red clover and sweet clover honey has earmarked a luxury product that has now been added to the business’s regular line-up, costing twice as much to produce and producing half as much product, but giving the farm a niche product for clients seeking organic options. 

While business sales have grown in the last eight years, bringing the family out of poverty and into home ownership, Sehn says one thing happened she didn’t anticipate: the Alberta oil crash of 2015. At one time, Medicine Hat was the top-selling city for Sweet Pure Honey, but since the recession began sales in their hometown have dropped by 60 per cent.

“My biggest failure was relying on one source of income from one economy sector. I mean, you heard people talk about the oil crash but I did not see that coming.” 

The disappearance of liquid cash in the province forced Sehn and Hill to adapt once again, looking for a creative way to maintain control over profit. That’s when they translated their honey and sample labels to Chinese and attended the Vancouver Gift Show as a vendor. With honest marketing and raw conversations with potential clients, Sweet Pure Honey moved into the export business, landing contracts with companies in China, Taiwan, and Singapore. 

Nichole Neubauer, 45, is another commercial farmer in the Medicine Hat region whose family grows wheat, durum, barley, canola, yellow peas, lentils, and beef cattle. She says the Asian market needs to be a focus for Canadian producers. 

“The Chinese people have been able to increase their standard of living,” says Neubauer. “They have more means to put towards luxury items like honey and beef. As a front line producer, I think Stella is brilliant in finding a way to stop the wholesale selling chain that is agriculture.”

Neubauer and Sehn have several things in common as the business strategists and primary marketers of their family operations. Both of their husbands also work off the farm to provide another family income stream. 

Hill spends part of his winter months working in northern Alberta as a safety supervisor in the oil patch. Neubauer’s husband works in town while she handles the farm’s day-to-day business and maintenance. “It’s something you have to do in smaller agriculture operations,” says Neubauer. “It’s an expensive business and a gamble, so having an alternate income allows you to sleep at night.”

The Neubauer family has been running an agriculture education program since 2005, inviting elementary school groups to visit the farm to spend a day with animals, poke around the garden, and taste fresh food from the earth. 

She and Sehn have teamed up to develop an education program for local children called Bee Aware. Using books, a honey frame, a non-active bee hive, bee keeping equipment and a smoker, the duo will go into classrooms to teach kids about the different kinds of bees and what they can do at home to help the bees in their own backyard – something Sehn says is simple: “grow food.”

Neubauer is also using a Flow Hive on her farm for an education program developed with the local youth centre to teach teenagers about honey production in a real time setting. She says it wouldn’t have been possible without the generosity of Sweet Pure Honey, who donated the hive. 

“A lot of people who want to provide funding for something, they want to fund a charity – they want to do something where they can get a tax receipt and write it off. Whereas Stella just wants to be part of it because she believes it’s the right thing to do. Our values align in that regard.”

Neubauer says she’s spent time observing Sehn’s business strategy and believes she’s doing the right things the right way. “One of the biggest downfalls about Ag producers is that we don’t necessarily have a marketing plan for agriculture. We buy retail and sell wholesale.” But Neubauer says Sehn challenges the status quo by sharing her origin story, promoting the family farm, and giving a face to her company to spark direct farm profit.

“She’s made it a wholesome image with her children, she’s embraced the family farm, and pulled at the heart strings. People love that. That’s what we’re all about in agriculture. Stella has been brilliant in how she has marketed that.”

Today, Sweet Pure Honey is made up of 400 bee colonies and is part of a bee co-op, sharing expenses with other owners. The bee colonies travel across several hundred acres of farmland each summer. Hill, as part of an outside crew, helps transport the bees to several farms in the area, some of which are an hour drive from the family homestead. The business has formed symbiotic relationships with dozens of farmers, using the bees to pollenate crops while diversifying the honey flavours. At the end of the year, Sweet Pure Honey shares a portion of its honey crop with the landowners as payment.

In 2018, Sweet Pure Honey hand packed 17,000 pounds of Canada No. 1 raw white honey. The honey contains notes of alfalfa, sweet clover, red clover, borage, canola, and wild blooms. After extraction from the hives, the honey is packed and frozen for two weeks at -20 degrees Celsius, creating a smooth honey butter.

Sehn and Hill hope with their new export market and the continued development of Flow Hive specialty crops, Sweet Pure Honey will be able to double its hand-packing production and the family will be able to continue reducing its reliance on bulk co-op sales. 

With a recent call from the World Health Organization for people to reduce their intake of processed sugar, Sweet Pure Honey also hopes to capture part of the food manufacturing market, as food producers shift to using honey as a “natural, unprocessed” alternative sweetener. 

The future of beekeeping has a lot of potential, according to this small Saskatchewan business, particularly regarding the export market. But the current reality of the honey industry in Canada is a tough pill to swallow. Sehn says beekeepers are going out of business every year so the fact their operation is still moving forward is a testament to the grit they’ve poured into the last decade.

Looking toward the future Sehn says, “There is no pride in being a poor farmer. This recession brought me to my knees, and moving forward, I’m only going to profit or I’m not doing it. It all comes down to numbers now.

“We’re not made, but we’re not poor either. We’re still in the process of making that happen,” she says. “I am living my dream. I left a town where I was not growing and thriving. So every day that I live in Medicine Hat, this is me taking time for myself, this is what I intended and what I wanted to do.”

Staying true to their family values and remaining focused on the goal of continually moving the family “into the next bracket,” this small Canadian farm is making big strides in the honey market, celebrating the tireless work of their bees in the fields, while working just as hard themselves to make business and family dreams come true. 

Reference Taken from: https://christypoirier.com/2018/12/12/honey-money-canadian-farmers-aim-to-sweeten-global-markets-to-support-family-dreams/

Shopping Cart