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Ventura County

Keepers Ask: To Bee or Not to Bee?

Farming: State is nation's top honey producer, but many smaller operations are struggling to survive.

April 01, 2002|FRED ALVAREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Here's the buzz on California's honey industry: Beekeepers managed to pump out enough nectar last year to reestablish the Golden State as the nation's top honey producer.

But at Red Bennett's honeybee farm north of Moorpark, there has been little comfort in recapturing the crown.

While honey prices are higher than they've been in years, his industry faces a swarm of troubles, from cutthroat competition by foreign exporters to voracious pests that can gut production and drive beekeepers out of business.

Then there are the more immediate concerns, such as an ongoing dry spell sure to shrink the amount of vegetation available this year for his honeybees to feed.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture might count California as No. 1, but the veteran beekeeper knows as well as anyone that the view from the top can be precarious.

"I wouldn't paint too rosy a picture, because it's not," said Bennett, a 60-year-old former NASA engineer, who two dozen years ago gave up his interest in space flight for a flight of fancy closer to earth.

"Beekeeping is pretty tough, and it has become quite difficult to stay in business," he said. "And right now, it's looking pretty bleak."

Last year, it was a different picture.

Although production was the lowest in years, California beekeepers still reaped 28 million pounds of the golden nectar in 2001, accounting for one-seventh of the nation's production and edging out longtime rival North Dakota for the top spot.

For more than a decade, the two states--along with South Dakota and Florida--have been locked in a nip-and-tuck battle for honey-making preeminence.

But California has emerged as the top producer in seven of the last nine years, driven largely by good weather and a bountiful supply of sources available for bees to produce honey.

From the fragrant fruit orchards of the San Joaquin Valley to the just-blossoming orange groves around Ventura, nearly half a million colonies are busy each year serving up the sweet syrup--a crop valued at $18.5 million in 2001.

The bees also play a vital role in California agriculture, brought in by growers to pollinate everything from almonds to summer squash in an effort to boost yields and quality.

But like farming as a whole, it's an industry confronted by challenges and coping with change.

Perhaps as few as 350 beekeepers statewide now take part in the profession. That represents about a 25% reduction over the last decade, as smaller producers have been shooed away by pestilence, plummeting prices and other problems.

The same holds true nationally.

Domestic honey production nationwide has decreased 20% over the last decade.

And despite a recent run of higher prices, spurred in part by a recent decision to levy tariffs against foreign exporters, many U.S. producers still find themselves struggling just to break even.

"We've gone through some tough stretches," said Lyle Johnston, a third-generation Colorado beekeeper and president of the 900-member American Honey Producers Assn.

"Beekeeping has changed so much in the last 20 years, and the industry has really shrunken," he said. "I think all you'll find anymore are the die-hards working at it."

That appears to be the case in California.

Eric Mussen, a honeybee expert at UC Davis, said not only are there fewer honey producers today than there were 10 years ago, but many of those who remain are veterans of the trade, rugged individualists unburdened by such conventions as time clocks or production schedules.

Trouble is, there aren't a lot of younger beekeepers waiting to take their place, no new generation ready--or willing--to take up traditions that date back thousands of years.

Add to that a trend toward consolidation, with larger operations cornering a growing share of the honey market, and the result is an industry barreling toward uncertainty.

"I would say it's tenuously holding its own at the moment," said Mussen, who works with beekeepers across the state through the University of California's cooperative extension program.

"But it's not too different from what you see in farming overall," he said. "I think there are a lot of [beekeepers] who would be more than happy to turn the reins over to somebody else. The question becomes, who--if anybody--is going to take over?"

In California's honeybee heartland, Tulare County beekeeper Max Eggman learned the trade as a child. His father and older brother worked with bees. And Eggman joined the profession when he left the Marines in 1967.

Now, at 72, he's carved a profitable niche in the honey market, competing with larger producers by selling at roadside stands and San Francisco farmers markets.

Still, he knows his industry is in decline. Managing 600 to 700 hives, he said it has become harder to compete with larger operations, which truck hives by the thousands to places where nectar is in great supply.

And there's not a lot money to be made, especially for newcomers who would probably need to go into debt to get off the ground.

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