Photos by Peggy Turbett
When Bethany Carlson was in the eighth grade she became a beekeeper. By that fall, the high school freshman had successfully harvested 55 gallons of sweet honey, thus igniting a passion for the now 20-year-old Williams County Farm Bureau board member.
Today she is doing business as Liberty Honey in northwest Ohio – her marketing tagline reads “freedom never tasted so sweet.” It’s her love for agriculture, learning, business and bees that has paved the way for a successful run in her six-year-old business. She’s also using her education and her experience to help spread the word about how farmers can help pollinators and visa versa.
The well-publicized “colony collapse disorder” that began 10 years ago put beekeepers on notice when large percentages of their buzzing pollinators were dying off. The cause has been attributed to a variety of factors—everything from climate change to habitat loss because of pesticide enhancements, parasitic mites and other diseases.
“There are a whole lot of problems,” Carlson said. “There are fewer natural dandelions and natural weeds. Bees don’t have as much diverse nutrition as they used to.”
Carlson is equally as passionate about beekeeping as she is about working with farmers on ways they can keep bees coming back to pollinate their crops every spring. She even has a weekly newspaper article in the local paper where she expounds on all things “bee.”
“There are many things farmers can do to help,” she said. “They can spray in the evenings and plant crimson clover, vetch and buckwheat as cover crops, which are all attractive to bees.” The Carlsons have been participants in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s CP42 pollinator program (see sidebar) on their farm in Edgerton, and the program is something Bethany is eager to share with fellow farmers.
She doesn’t lay the blame for the recent surge in bee and pollinator struggles at the door of the farmer, however. She recently was scheduled to speak with farmers at a cover crop meeting at Dean Farms and was excited to talk about ways they can help bees, especially because some farmers might be wary of her message.
“As an advocate for all agriculture, I don’t believe it is solely agriculture’s pesticides that are the cause of the pollinator issue,” she said. “We have to work together.”
Carlson built Liberty Honey and honed her public speaking skills while finishing high school and completing three associates degrees at Northwest State Community College in business management, entrepreneurship and marketing. She joined FFA after she’d started keeping bees. “(Joining FFA) was most definitely one of the best decisions I have ever made,” she said.
Her business’s “honey room” in a converted section of her parents’ barn in Edgerton, has a desk and reference books and materials, plus a warmer that looks like a simple, albeit bright yellow office cabinet built by her dad, Kim, and her brother, Josh, who is a welder. There are two large tubs, which are used to separate the honey from the wax as it warms enough to be bottled and put into the warmer to prepare for sale.
Carlson’s “bee yards” are scattered in various fields of friends and neighbors in Williams County, which they allow her to use in exchange for honey. In the winter, her family and some trusted drivers haul the entire operation in the “honey house” semi-tractor to Florida and set up shop there for the winter. Because of the different nutrition available to the bees in the Sunshine State, the honey has a darker hue, she said, and more than a hint of orange.
In June she was “taking honey off the hive” and preparing 25 gallons to sell at an upcoming show. Liberty Honey is in a few small retail stores now, but with Carlson’s ambition, she aims to market her product in stores all over northwest Ohio and beyond.
“Honey lasts forever,” she notes in the course of the conversation, and so does her boundless energy for bees and her desire to spread the word about helping pollinators. She even got her parents into the mix. Both she and her parents, Barb and Kim, now have honey businesses. Her parents sell their honey wholesale, but they wouldn’t have started the business without Bethany’s urging.
“My parents have always been entrepreneurs,” she said. “I was supposed to go into the military, but I’ve always had a passion for wildlife and agriculture.”
Her parents are a little in awe of their offspring. “There is no limit to the things she wants to do,” said her dad, Kim. Barb said that while keeping the hives is “enjoyable” it has also been quite the education. “We went from ‘oh, look, there’s a beehive’ to ‘look at all it takes to do that beehive,’” she said. “Every year I learn more.”
And if it were up to her daughter, this would just be the tip of the iceberg. She has lots of ideas about producing and marketing different honey-related products, as well as attending classes and workshops overseas to see how beekeeping is done in other countries.
Carlson, who buzzes to and fro just about as fast as her bees, just shakes her head—the “where” and “how” clearly taking too long to materialize in her mind.
“I’m trying to grow my business a little at a time,” she said.
Anyone can help the bees
Homeowners can choose to plant flowers that bloom successively over the spring, summer and fall seasons such as Russian sage or germander to provide a nutrition source for bees during all their Ohio honey-making seasons. Not sure what to choose? Check with a local garden center for advice on pollinator friendly flowers.
One of the many conservation programs available to landowners, including farmers, to help honey bees and other pollinators is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency’s CP42 Pollinator Habitat practice, which makes establishing help for pollinators more financially attractive, said John Kaiser, private lands manager for the Ohio Division of Wildlife.
“If we see a sharp decrease in pollinators, then we will see a sharp decrease in what we take for granted in our food production,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Biologist Marci Lininger. The Farm Service Agency’s CP42 Pollinator Habitat practice offers farmers a way to create longer-lasting meadows of high-quality native wildflowers that support pollinators and other wildlife populations. For more information about helping pollinators, visit nrcs.usda.gov.