Hive Talkin': Ventura County is a Honey of a Place

By Bernadette Ignacio / Photography By Ron Wallace | April 01, 2014
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Bees are such a vital part of our county’s agriculture; their prowess at pollination is responsible for one out of every three bites of food people eat. It’s the honey—one of the coveted by-products of the bees’ hard work—that is so intriguing. Depending on where the bees spend their time, the honeys will range from delicate to floral to rich and buttery, and span from white to dark amber. It’s fascinating.

We wanted to meet the local faces behind these honeys to hear their stories, and to get a glimpse of the county—and beyond—from their bees’ perspective.

Blue Ridge: Fillmore

The year is circa 1978: While completing a beekeeping program offered at Ventura College, honey connoisseur Judy Morgan decided to buy a few beehives.

“Before long, my mom accumulated about a dozen hives via purchase and capturing swarms,” says her son, Greg Mitchell, who was a teen at the time.

For the first five years, Greg and his brother Dave watched sweet threads spin onto the sides of an extractor—in their living room. “It was quite a sight to see, and a lot of fun for us,” says Dave, recalling the early days of what is now Mitchell Bee Products in Fillmore, which sells honey under the Blue Ridge brand name.

The brothers grew their mother’s hobbyist passion into a successful family business: When Dave, who’s the company’s owner, graduated high school, he took over the hives and launched his beekeeping career. Greg, the director of marketing, joined after graduating from UC Santa Barbara.

“My office is the outdoors, and you get that good feeling going every spring and summer when your bees get to work,” says Dave. “We really need to appreciate what the bees are doing,” adds Greg. “In the short six to eight weeks they are alive, they provide [us] a great service by pollinating for farmers and upping their yields.”

Until 2013, the company only sold its local honey in 55-gallon drums for private labeling, with one exception: Starr Market in Ojai.

“Blue Ridge honey was selling so well at Starr Market that we decided to start pursuing a retail presence for our honey,” says Greg.

Blue Ridge’s 1,500 hives pollinate farms and natural habitats in Ventura County for honey that’s raw, unpasteurized and grade A. The raspberry honey hails from pollination trips to Camarillo and Oxnard; the sage and wildflower from near the base of the Topa Topa Mountains and wildflower preserves and prairies of Gorman. Orange blossom is from Ojai, as is the avocado honey, which is also sourced from trees in Santa Paula and Somis.

While the company honors its roots, the brothers are also looking to the future.

“A vision for us is to produce local organic honey. That would entail having access to wild land in the Los Padres National Forest, where it could be quarantined for organic honey harvesting,” says Greg.

For more info, visit BlueRidgeHoneyCA.com.

Bloom Honey: Somis

Deep in east Somis sits Jefferson Farms, a family-owned, 240-acre heirloom avocado and mandarin orange ranch—and home to growing sustainable beekeeping business Bloom Honey. Owner David Jefferson’s goal is to produce the healthiest honey possible, while consciously caring for his bees.

Jefferson was a beekeeper for 10 years before launching Bloom Honey last year to offer raw, unfiltered, premium honey. The business, which has approximately 700 hives, takes the bees on a spring pollination tour from Ventura County to the Malibu foothills and beyond.

His honeybees pollinate the blooms that become berries, almonds, oranges, avocados and pumpkins, as well as native trees and wild flora. In June, the bees will be transported to Colorado to make clover honey and pollinate canola, he says.

“The bees are moved throughout the year to pollinate different crops or make different honey varietals,” says Jefferson. “It is important to spread the bees around so there is less competition for nectar and pollen.” Th is holds true even when the bees are local, with Bloom Honey having several pollination locations in the Somis area, including the family’s farm.

When checking in on his diligent worker bees, Jefferson puffs plumes of earthy smoke into the entrance of a hive to calm the colony. He pries open a wooden box sealed with sticky wax and propolis to uncover the miraculous process of honeybees hard at work.

Each source of nectar the bees collect on their travels is transformed into honey’s liquid gold. Because of this, Jefferson offers some rare single-floral varietals. The most unusual include mesquite honey, wild cherry, pumpkin and chamisa, a wild desert-dwelling summer bloom native to the Southwest.

Mesquite honey is unusual not only for its distinctive ivory color and soft sweetness, it has medicinal properties, says Jefferson, while wild cherry pops with bright, clean notes. Chamisa has a more deep caramelized flavor and is “dark as night.” The avocado honey comes from the avocado trees on and around the Jefferson Farms property.

“Coming this summer, we will have Tupelo honey—one of the most rare and valuable honeys on Earth,” he says.

For more info, visit BloomHoney.com.

Heavenly Honey: Ojai

Heavenly Honey: Sounds celestial, right? But the beginnings of this honey business were born in the back of a 1965 Volkswagen Bug.

From the car came the bees and hive Bob Mearns brought home in 1979, and plopped onto the family’s coffee table. (A screen kept them in the hive.) “They were only there for an afternoon or so; he was enjoying listening to them and, strange as it may sound, smelling them,” says his daughter, Barbara Haskins, who was 6 years old at the time.

Growing up, instead of playing outside with friends, she worked closely with her father paying close attention to the bees.

“You have to take care of the bees; you are their stewards,” says Haskins, recalling her dad’s advice. When her dad suffered a stroke, Heavenly Honey’s 1,000–1,500 hives were sold to a longtime beekeeping family with close ties to the Mearnses, who kept the bottling side of the business.

“Over my lifetime, we have become friendly with many California beekeepers. It is from these beekeepers that we source our honey,” says Haskins, who shares with her husband, Jeff , the roles of head of operations for distribution and marketing, and product development. Haskins’ mom, Linda, is Heavenly Honey’s owner.

Haskins honors her father’s fascination and dedication to making and offering high-quality raw honey. “We like to think of our honey like we do fine wines,” she says. “We only offer pure honey. We never blend.”

The single-variety honey selections the company offers reflect what grows in Southern California: alfalfa from the Antelope and Central valleys, buckwheat from the Santa Clarita Mountains, and wildflower and sage from Los Alamos. Their orange blossom honey bears the stamp of Ojai, Fillmore and Bakersfield.

“We will not work with third-party distributors. We pour everything ourselves, we package everything ourselves, we deliver everything ourselves,” Haskins says.

For more info, visit HeavenlyHoney.co.

 

Article from Edible Ojai & Ventura County at http://edibleventuracounty.ediblecommunities.com/shop/hive-talkin-ventura-county-honey-place
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