Organic farmer and writer Neil Hickson (of Burscough Community Farm) explains why organic farmers and beekeepers make perfect partners for conservation and commerce.
I would say about 97% of people I talk to have faces that light up when I say, “We keep bees on our farm.”
People love bees, even if they don’t ‘like’ bees. The majority have got the message that bees are good and they love the idea of them buzzing around doing their bee work, even if they’re just a tiny bit scared of them.
So, bees are good for organic farmers like me. Working on a small scale, you need good public relations if you’re going to be economically sustainable. More on that later.
We farm 18 acres of certified organic land in rural Lancashire, England. Our ‘conventional’ farming neighbours grow their crops with clinical precision, so we sit within a monoculture patchwork of straight, GPS navigated rows of leeks, potatoes, cabbages, carrots and lettuces. As ‘moss land’ or reclaimed peat bog, its fertile black soil is some of the best in the world.
Our fields are not quite the clinically geometric lines of our neighbours, but as Market Gardeners, the actual growing areas are just as efficient in their own hand crafted way.
On our farm we have woodland, ponds for amphibians, areas for wildlife, even patches of ‘weeds.’ It’s all about keeping nature in balance. This habitat is for pest predators to live and thrive whilst they wait to keep our crop pests in check. It isn’t wasted land, in economic terms it saves us the cost of buying pesticides. These areas are also great for bees.
Think of your best childhood dream of lying in the long grass, watching those fluffy clouds drifting across a deep blue sky. What’s the soundtrack? The buzzing of bees. I have to admit, I don’t have any original scientific data to offer that proves the case for having bees on our land. And I can’t do a comparative test on how things used to be before we got the bees because we’ve had bees around since our first growing season. It just seems the right, and most natural thing to do. We don’t ever think about pollination, why would we, it just happens.
With all those conventional farmers around us spraying their crops so frequently, I like to think of us as a little oasis of nature. I would say to all organic growers, it’s probably your duty to have a beehive on your land, arguably several. Another aspect to this is the wide range of ‘foods’ on offer to bees and pollinators on an organic farm. Humans wouldn’t survive very well if we ate the same foods for three meals a day. Bees are just the same, they gain nutritionally by having different nectars and pollen from a range of plants. It’s because we grow organically that we have such a diverse habitat.
This isn’t all about bees being good for organic farming, what’s more important is that organic farming is good for bees.
Supporting other businesses
So, what does a farming business do if it likes the idea of having bees buzzing around the land, but doesn’t have the skills, knowledge or time to deal with them? We connected with someone else who wanted to keep bees but didn’t have a place to keep them. We’ve now had two different groups of beekeepers based on our farm. The second of them has gone on to develop a great business from their bees. The upside for them is our customers value their products because of the connection to the fruit and vegetables they see growing in our fields, and are willing to pay a sustainable price for them.
People love local, it’s a far easier ‘sell’ than organic, which is often viewed as an expensive lifestyle choice. Just as people love the idea of bees, they also love the idea of locally produced food. The beekeeper has an easy market when they tap into the one the organic grower has had to build around their product.
As small scale organic farmers, we don’t have the economies of scale our conventional farming neighbours have. Instead, we have to connect with our customers on a personal level. Telling our story on social media is our main marketing activity. Having a chapter on bees within our story is beneficial to us and our beekeeping colleagues.
If you haven’t done it already, seek out your local organic growers. There are massive benefits to be gained from the two of you partnering up together.