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Bees key to fruit, honey farm success

U-pick fruit and vegetable gardens and award-winning on-farm meadery rely on a healthy bee population

CARON, Sask. — Vickie and Dennis Derksen feel a strong sense of responsibility toward their bees.

Without them, their retirement project wouldn’t be the “cool and wonderful thing” that Vickie says it is.

“It’s like having any kind of animal and you want to look after them properly,” she said.

Adds Dennis: “We fell in love with our bees.”

Those bees are integral to the success of Grandpa’s Garden and another business, Prairie Bee Meadery at Caron, Sask., which the couple runs with daughter Crystal and her husband, Gerard Milburn.

When the Derksens bought their property in December 2010, they had an idea of what would become of the quarter-section. Dennis had farmed with his family at Main Centre, Sask., and acquired a love of fruit trees from his dad.

“We had this crazy idea that we could make our fortune in cherries and planted 1,000 of them,” Vickie said.

They then put up a one-acre, high-tunnel greenhouse for strawberries and vegetables, and established a U-pick and market garden that included raspberries, cherries and haskap.

As of this year, they will have 15,000 strawberries in the ground.

They knew they needed pollinators to make the system work and introduced the bees in 2011.

“We just loved it,” said Vickie.

“It’s almost like this zen place working with bees.”

A beekeeping course helped them deal with losses and overcome mistakes. They also attend meetings to make sure they’re up on both fruit and vegetable production and beekeeping.

They began with 28 hives, are up to 40 and eventually plan to have 90.

“We are projecting 58 barrels of honey this year,” Dennis said.

That still won’t produce enough for the two products they are known for: fruit honey and mead, so they have worked with other producers to supply fruit and honey.

They know that most of the bees they get honey from feed on clover, alfalfa and wildflowers.

Mead is a honey-based wine that the Derksens made for several years on their own before going commercial. It takes more than one barrel of honey to make 1,000 litres of mead.

“It costs a lot more money to make it with honey than sugar,” said Dennis. “Honey itself isn’t easily fermentable and a whole other level of care is required.”

Vickie is the main mead maker after they hired consultant Dominic Rivard to help them perfect their process.

“Some will make mead in a beer tradition,” using grain, Vickie said. “We don’t do that. We make it in the wine tradition.”

Prairie Bee is a small-batch mead-ery located in a Canadian Food Inspection Agency-approved facility on the farm. The products are sold at farmers markets, the farm store and some private liquor retailers.

They also recently opened a retail location on Moose Jaw’s Main Street.

Both Vickie and Dennis say customers appreciate that they are providing a craft product.

“We’re still a young company but we believe this is going to be a game changer for us and this province,” Vickie said.

At its first competition, Drink Outside the Grape, in Syracuse, New York, earlier this year, two Prairie Bee products, Haskap Haven and Strawberry Splash, tied for best mead. The Melon Mist won a bronze medal.

Vickie said they aren’t making mead to win medals.

“We want it to be a drink that people will want to come back and have again,” she said.

They intend to work toward self-sufficiency in fruit and have an expansion plan in place. Although they are not certified organic, they grow without chemicals and pesticides and are surrounded by hayland.

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