On the Farm: A passion for bees brought them together, but growth has turned the honey operation into big business
GOOD SPIRIT ACRES, Sask. — Bees helped sweeten the deal that brought a young couple together.
Sasha Howland and Danny Wasylenchuk both grew up in Yorkton and had summer jobs working with bees. It led to their marriage, family and successful honey business.
Apiculture was not part of the original plan for either Howland or Wasylenchuk because both had established off-farm jobs. Howland worked in provincial corrections and Wasylenchuk was an aviation maintenance engineer.
While dating, the two discovered their mutual interest in beekeeping.
“I came out and did a summer of work at Howland’s bee farm and liked it very much. And so we talked about it and ended up getting married in the winter of 2004 and from then on we’ve been working bees together with her dad (Wink Howland) until 2011 when he passed and now we’re running it on our own,” said Wasylenchuk.
Added Howland: “I had thought I would continue to work in corrections and the bees would remain a summer thing. But when Dan became interested as well, it kind of changed our focus.”
Howland’s Honey was established on April 1, 1976, by Wink Howland, who started raising bees and marketing the honey from the family’s quarter section not far from the hamlet of Good Spirit Acres in east-central Saskatchewan.
“As soon as my dad realized that we were in, he really jumped on the expansion. This business is really built on market sales,” said Howland.
Added Wasylenchuk: “We focus more on taking our honey and packaging it and retailing it through stores.”
They make several variations of non-pasteurized product. Creamed and liquid honey are the biggest sellers. Cinnamon flavoured creamed honey is another popular item at farmers markets. They also have a natural raw product.
The couple have three children: Keyan, 22, Ethan, 14, and Nate, 12, and all are involved in the family enterprise.
“Our oldest has worked on and off for us over the years starting from high school. Our younger boys help out where they can, when they can,” said Wasylenchuk.
Each week from May to October they attend about five farmers markets and run a commercial operation of about 1,200 honey-producing hives. They also raise their own bee stock and annually produce 500 to 700 new colonies for replacement and sale.
April is the start of Howland Honey’s busiest time of year, which usually runs until mid-October.
The process of hiring staff is well underway and is expected to reach about 17 people at the height of summer.
“I often say it’s like time and a half for six months and it’s about half time for six months,” said Howland.
Beekeeping requires a strong back and equally strong resolve.
“It’s definitely no fun pulling 80, 90-pound boxes off of hives that are stacked seven to eight feet high with honey supers and it’s plus 33 with humidity hitting 90 percent. It’s really a sweat fest out there,” Wasylenchuk said.
Like other farmers, honey operations depend on the weather and bees produce less in dry years. Where conventional producers use acres and bushels to measure size, apiculturists use the weight of honey per hive to gauge production.
“It ranges from about 250 pounds per hive to about 350 lb. per hive. Lots of it is very dependent on the weather and conditions. And of course bee health is another big one. So if your livestock isn’t healthy, they don’t produce as much honey,” said Wasylenchuk.
The couple said COVID-19 has had mixed sales results for their business in the past month.
“We’ve seen a slight pickup in retail just because we’re not doing our local farmers markets anymore. People are looking for the product in other places, so there’s been a slight increase in store sales. But overall, I think we’re down as a whole just because we’re not out there selling the product like we normally do.”
Added Howland: “Costco is our big retail sales outlet and their orders are still coming in regularly. I think we’re in a pretty decent position to weather COVID, being a food product and being produced locally and not having a lot of transport chains to go through.”
With more than 40 years in business, Howland’s Honey is well established. However, juggling the demands of a successful enterprise also requires delegating parts of the operation that initially attracted them.
“Running a business of this size means the best part of the job, the actual working with bees and being out there in the hives, becomes minimized with office responsibilities, managing people and food safety concerns,” said Howland.
“Not getting enough of that bee time is hard because that’s really what Dan and I have always enjoyed about it.”
Added Wasylenchuk: “It started off as a passion for beekeeping — that farm lifestyle, outside working in nature every day and enjoying everything that this country provides for us. It was what I fell in love with, was beekeeping, but things change. It goes from small scale and very hands-on to big business fairly quickly.”