Hobby turns into full-time honey business

Julie and Jeff Shirley in a bee yard that they had just finished setting up. | Supplied photo

On the Farm: The Shirleys produced 57,000 pounds of honey last year from 254 hives, which they soon plan to double

Julie Shirley estimates she gets stung an average of 100 times per summer.

“You just get used to it,” says the owner of Blue Heron Gardens Ltd., an apiary located 45 minutes northeast of Saskatoon.

The stings are an occupational hazard of maintaining 254 beehives, each containing 50,000 bees.

The hives are scattered in a 10-kilometre radius surrounding her quarter section near Alvena, Sask. Her bees pollinate the neighbours’ canola and alfalfa fields.

What began as a small sideline hobby has become an operation that produced 57,000 pounds of honey last year.

The business gradually grew to the point where it allowed Julie to quit her part-time job in Saskatoon as a medical laboratory technologist at the Royal University Hospital.

Julie owns the apiary and her husband, Jeff Shirley, owns two technology businesses in Saskatoon and helps out around the farm when he has time.

“I just kind of do what she tells me to do — carry the boxes and drive the truck kind of thing,” he said.

“Behind the scenes I’m involved in the business growth strategy.”

Julie and Jeff’s father, Rick, load a semi-truck with honey. | Supplied photo

That strategy is to expand the operation to 500 hives over the next three to four years. At that point Jeff may be at the stage where he can sell his businesses and retire to the farm.

The high school sweethearts grew up in Saskatoon, got married young and raised four children.

In 2014, they decided to purchase the farm, build a rustic log cabin and start down their respective self-employment paths. It was an attempt to escape their frantic city lifestyle.

One impetus for the move was a book on self-sufficiency that Jeff gave to Julie. She wanted to put the words into practice by living off the grid.

That didn’t work out so well. Two winters in their generator was running two times a day for two hours at a time trying to build up power in the battery pack.

“We found out after getting here that it’s just way too much work,” said Julie.

Her first crack at self-employment was also a flop. She planted a big garden and started selling produce at the local farmers market in nearby Wakaw. But it quickly became apparent that wasn’t a viable way to make a living on the farm.

“I was maybe making $2 per hour for all the work I put in,” she said.

So she shifted her focus and took a beginner beekeeper course.

Her first hive occurred by happenstance when a swarm was attracted to some beekeeping equipment Jeff had purchased online.

“It was the most aggressive bees ever,” said Julie.

“A year later a bear came and destroyed that hive and we were happy it got that one.”

Early on in the business Jeff decided to create GPS trackers for the hives because hive theft has become a problem in the industry.

That eventually morphed into River City Innovations, a business that creates all sorts of ag technology trackers, sensors, soil moisture monitors and other environmental monitoring devices.

Initially Julie brought the hives back to Saskatoon and used a two-frame galvanized extractor to harvest the honey in their garage in the city.

They soon realized that wasn’t going to fly with the neighbours, so they built a garage on the farm. But they eventually grew out of that space.

Julie received a grant through the federal government’s Women’s Entrepreneurship Fund and together with financing from Farm Credit Canada the couple was able to build a new state-of-the-art honey processing plant on the farm.

Jeff installed door sensors, temperature and humidity monitors, tank level monitors and GPS trackers for equipment in the new building. He built a custom dashboard where Julie was able to monitor the entire operation.

Julie Shirley holds a handful of bees on her Blue Heron Gardens apiary near Alvena, Sask. | Supplied photo

“That’s what helps her get good quality honey because we micromanage the temperature and humidity of the environment where the honey is being processed,” he said.

Ninety percent of the honey that Julie produces is sold in bulk to Tony Lalonde Sales in Clavet, Sask. where it is then shipped to the United States and other international markets.

The canola-based honey is sold in bulk. Julie retains the alfalfa honey, packages it in smaller containers and sells it to restaurants and other businesses in Saskatoon and through her website.

The alfalfa honey is top-notch quality. It is white in colour and has small crystals, giving it the consistency of peanut butter. It has a perfume smell similar to fresh lavender.

Julie also sells about 300 pounds of beeswax every year.

Lalonde is Julie’s supplier, buyer and mentor in the business. Early on in the venture he took eight smaller beekeepers who were new to the business and mentored them throughout the season.

The group gathered at one another’s operations at various phases of the season, helped each other out and learned from Lalonde about bee husbandry.

“It really made a difference in how we operate,” said Julie.

She credits that mentoring program with helping her grow the business to the point where she has two full-time, two part-time and three to four casual employees in the May through August period.

Blue Heron Gardens has become one of the 120 commercial beekeeping operations in Saskatchewan. Her processing plant has been certified by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

The operation is starting to turn the corner financially. Prices were very good last year after a couple of years of depressed values due to adulterated honey from China flooding the market.

Jeff said all of their businesses are finally starting to generate some income after six years of reinvesting everything back into their operations.

“We’re out of the woods,” he said.

He credits Julie’s mentor, provincial and federal government grants and free labour from his retired father, Rick Shirley, for helping them create a self-sustaining business.

Julie is happy with the direction Blue Heron Gardens is heading. She knew she picked the right occupation the first time she donned her beekeeper’s suit in the beginner class.

“I just kind of felt invincible with all those bees flying around,” she said.

“I felt strong.”

The stings barely even hurt anymore.

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