Brand New Buildings: 30 Years of Hives, Honey and Hard Work
Like any beekeeper who has three decades in business, Jeff Brand has seen the ups and downs of the industry. Greta Valley Honey, now based in Burnham, south of Christchurch, is home to not just honey and pollen production but some unique and innovative tools and machinery. Maggie James is given a tour of the facility and learns the history of a diverse, adaptive and innovative beekeeping operation, while Brand outlines a couple of major concerns he has for beekeeping in New Zealand – the growing cost of bureaucracy and the constant threat of American foulbrood (AFB).
Owner Jeff Brand, and wife Juan Wu are kept busy with their 570 hives, producing honey, as well as pollen, operating their own domestic RMP facility and regularly providing pollination services for one seed grower of radish, Chinese cabbage, and carrots.
Their hives, plus extraction and packing facility provide honey to their own Greta Valley Honey label, packed in recyclable plastic containers. Supply is direct to retailers, many are longstanding clients and with whom they have negotiated freight deals. They have not dealt in bulk honey for eight years and do not have online or gate sales.
Honey produced is clover and manuka, sold as liquid, cream and cut comb in retail packs, with one and two kilogram creamed clover most popular.
Over 30 years operating, Brand has built up a variety of well-maintained and working order second-hand plant, sourced from throughout Canterbury and the West Coast. The couple is competent in dealing with manufacturing engineers in China, where Wu was born, ordering new equipment built to their specifications. However, the Greta Valley Honey sheds were not always this full with plant and machinery, nor honey for that matter.
Getting into the Game
Brand, 50, came into the beekeeping industry 30 years ago when it was struggling.
“So, I am used to the up and downs of the industry and consequently carry as little debt as possible, recycling, renovating and manufacturing as much of our equipment as feasible,” Brand says.
“I don’t buy the flashiest vehicles on the market. All hive woodware, including frames, I manufacture on site in our workshop.”
Brand left school at 15, the same age he became a hobbyist beekeeper, and undertook a joinery apprenticeship. By the time he had completed his apprenticeship at age 19, bees had become his passion. So, in 1992, age 20, he purchased Greta Valley Honey, then based in North Canterbury.
“This was in the days when the Co-op was paying $1/kg for clover. The Co-op cautioned me not to go near the beekeeping industry, and the banks advised me not to go down that road. I was very determined though. My parents had faith, backing me and – despite negative critique from extended family – they used their house as collateral, enabling me to purchase the business.”
The purchase included the trading name, 350 hives, extraction equipment and pollen processing machinery. The vendor was a North Canterbury farmer with 1000 acres and the bees were a side-line. After initially leasing the extraction plant, shop and a few other buildings from the vendor, two years into life as a commercial beekeeper Brand was able to purchase the lot.
“The focus of the business for the vendor had been the tourist shop, serving coach tours and pollen production. Unable to man the shop, I promptly closed it and pursued retail outlets in Christchurch.
“Whilst the east coast of North Canterbury was good for pollen production, it is a harsh area for honey and in 1995 there was no honey production in that area. I had to purchase four drums as a packer to supply my orchard shop outlets. It was bloody tough,” Brand recalls.
Making it Work
The energetic young beekeeper was nothing if not dedicated though. So, in 1997 he purchased an additional 220 hives and sites in the Selwyn District, to provide more reliable honey production.
“For four years I then worked weekend shifts at Meadow Mushrooms in Prebbleton, and these were also hard years. I gradually pushed honey into more retail outlets and consequently my business base needed to be nearer to Christchurch, my Selwyn apiaries and my family. In 2003 I sold the North Canterbury buildings and land.”
That meant a local contract honey extractor and packer was used for the next four years.
“In 2005 I purchased a well sheltered five acres of bare land; previously the site for the Burnham Primary School and all that remains of this facility is the school hand dug well, the sides lined with hand cut bricks. This now serves as an ideal fire pit for a beekeeper.”
With considerable development the site has become the business base ever since. The property now boasts sheds for storing machinery, a well-equipped workshop, family home, grafting yard, and a 255m2 honey house made from cool store panels, which is well insulated, strong, and cost effective.
For eight years the couple lived in a small flat on the property, saving for a house, and are now relocated with their seven-year-old daughter to a new onsite family home – developments that were not without trial.
“During the Christchurch earthquake, our builder went bankrupt and his workers walked off the job. We had no extraction or packing rooms and no front wall! Fortunately for us, all the wall panelling had been delivered on site. We couldn’t afford labour, so we had to finish building the honey house ourselves, and this included me having to learn how to install flashings and guttering. This task took one year for us to complete. We learned later that the money we had paid our builder for materials had not been passed on to his suppliers.”
That setback overcome, these days the centre of the very tidy honey house holds two trucks, drum storage, wax melter, pollen cleaner and drying oven, syrup tank, sugar supplies, forklift, empty supers and much more. The trucks are Ford Traders, one a 1983 three tonne with hive lifter, and a 1995 four tonne. A Kelly hive loader was also purchased from the West Coast two years ago, for just $350.
“On purchase the motor was fine, but it looked like a piece of rubbish and needed intense sanding down and painting,” Brand explains.
Among a series of interesting innovations at Greta Valley Honey is an industrial sewing machine to manufacture their own hive strapping.
“Strapping is obtained at no cost from an importer of English caravans, where straps are used to tie down caravans for international transporting. Our hive straps have a heavy metal centre ratchet tie down, made for us, and are capable of tightly securing 2000kg.”
An innovator and not one to miss an opportunity, Brand sourced a truckload of Old Man pine logs and planed them to provide material for all hive componentry. Off cuts are used for frames or bottom board risers. Bee boxes are dimensionally accurate and there are zero plastic frames in the outfit.
“We run two brood box hives with a mixture of ¾ and full depth. Hives are overwintered with raw sugar in the top feeder. Syrup feeds are only to top splits. We have never used pollen patties.” Brand explains.
“The first honey super placed on the hive is a ¾ depth with Manley self-spacing frames. If the season is a bit light, this box stays on for winter, otherwise a full depth honey super is placed on top of this. Honey supers for extraction hold eight frames, which suits our sudden flows and holds several more kgs of honey per super than nine frames would. Brood boxes hold nine frames.”
Apiaries are located within a 60km radius from their Burnham headquarters. Two days prior to honey harvest, supers are escaped. Honey is placed on hive mats on pallets, then driven straight into the honey house and forklifted off the truck.
They deal with the few bees that come in on honey supers, with just one small fanlight window in the dark storage shed, opening very briefly several times daily, to let remaining bees escape outside.
Cost of Compliance Concerns
Having been in business for three decades, seeing good and bad times in the industry, Brand says the cost of compliance and hive levies is his biggest concern, “and it’s getting worse”.
Because Greta Valley Honey doesn’t export or sell to an export packer, an AP14 Beekeeper Listing is not required. Their domestic RMP is working well, and if they so wished, they are in a good position to change to export RMP using their current documentation.
Brand notes, “The MPI domestic levy is $470+gst per annum, whereas an MPI European levy is approximately $1200 per annum. MPI recognise the difference in a domestic levy, but AsureQuality with their auditing appear to have a one-only RMP fee structure.
“We get charged $1845+gst per audit, the price for a full scope, even though AsureQuality are saving 45 minutes of their time on our audit because we don’t have an E-Cert or transport RMP.
“The last two years I have specifically queried, ‘why isn’t there a difference in audit price?’ We are definitely getting ripped off!
“Last year AsureQuality announced it would increase audit fees. I was pleased to note that Apiculture NZ lobbied for the RMP operators to keep fees at their current level and were successful in this. Unfortunately, subsequently, we are now getting charged for non-conformance on an hourly rate, $165+gst. Previously we were allowed up to three non-conformances in the $1845+gst fee. What AsureQuality have given with one hand, they appear to have taken away with the other. “
On recent audit Brand had one non-conformance, missing a paper sheet with a few paragraphs regarding storage, processing and packing of bee pollen. Taking only a few minutes to provide this detail, he is certain it would have taken less than 15 minutes for AsureQuality to assess this information. He was charged $41.25+gst for this non-conformance.
“If AsureQuality can charge this rate for non-conformance, then I should be getting at least the equivalent of their hourly rate of $165+gst deducted off our shortened timed domestic RMP audit,” the Canterbury beekeeper proffers.
“It is very difficult to make a decent living when auditors are dragging big fees out of us.”
Brand is also concerned that the annual AFB hive levy continues to rise. His main concern is that increases are due to incompetent beekeepers who have entered the industry with the thought of making a quick buck, and the likes of him are having to pay for other’s ineptitudes.
“Our outfit hasn’t had AFB for four years; therefore, I am not reporting it, and in return I am getting regular AP2 inspections.”
He would like to see more honey analysis used in operations such as his, as opposed to the regular AP2 visits which are uncovering no AFB.
AFB notifications are a regular occurrence in his, Selwyn District, area and while Brand says it is good to be advised, it is “wearying getting multiple notifications of robbed out hives within 2kms of our sites”.
While there is little Brand can do to control AFB in neighbouring apiaries, or the cost of levies placed on his business, he does have some techniques for managing AFB risk.
“As part of our management plan, all hives are on single pallets,” he explains.
“As well as being suitable for the Kelly loader, I believe that this helps prevent hive drift which can result in uneven sized colonies and can aid the spread of AFB. Other than pollination for one seed producer, we are non-migratory, and I only rarely ever transfer brood to other hives, and there is minimal exchange of hive gear. All these factors contribute to our current good AFB history,” Brand says, before sharing a concern common to many beekeepers.
“I seriously wonder if AFB will ever be eliminated in Selwyn, and the likelihood of transference from robbed out hives is a very worrying thought for our operation.”