Sweet success: how this dairy farm got into honey production
The Cork brothers, Andrew and John Shinnick have turned their childhood hobby of beekeeping into a thriving, multi-award winning honey business on their family dairy farm in Fermoy. Andrew who is a senior army officer and John who runs the family dairy farm got back into beekeeping a few years ago and built their production facility on the family farm in 2020 and launched their brand “Blackwater Honey”.
“It’s always been a dairy farm, right up to our grandfather’s time,” says John. “Our Uncle Dan kept bees on his farm when we were kids. We used to help her by doing odd jobs such as cleaning and maintaining the hives and assembling frames and beeswax sheets.
Andrew says that although he has always enjoyed helping on the farm, he realized at an early age that it was not his ‘calling’ and joined the Irish Defense Force at just 18 out of school. “I loved animals, but I was not good at the machinery side,” says Andrew, who is now preparing for his seventh overseas peacekeeping mission after touring Africa (Liberia and DR Congo), Kosovo, Syria, Lebanon and Afghanistan.
John, who milks 160 purebred Holstein Friesian cows on the North Cork farm, keeps around 20-30 hives on the home farm while Andrew keeps 10-20 each year at army barracks in Dublin .
“When we got a little older and wiser, we decided to get back into beekeeping,” says Andrew. “I took a beekeeping course and then we ordered hive equipment to help us get started.”
The brothers started their hives by “splitting” some of their uncle’s existing hives.
“You take queen cells from an existing hive and separate them into a separate box and feed them well,” says John.
“The queen cells are large and long. The bees take an egg laid by the queen and the bees and then they feed on the royal jelly, made by the ‘nurse bees’”.
Andrew says ‘it’s like a superfood’ and ‘helps larvae get the best start in life, much like feeding calves that vital first feed of colostrum from their mother’.
Following this, a new virgin queen will emerge and fly off to mate with drones (male bees). If she succeeds in mating, she then becomes the queen of this new hive and creates her own colony of bees. She will live there for three to five years.
John says the main thing bees need to make honey is lots of nectar. “The bees then take the nectar back to the hive in their honey stomach and put it into the beeswax cells. Once they have reduced the moisture content of the honey, they cover it to seal in the natural goodness” , he said.
“At the end of the season, we then go and take the supers (boxes where the honey is stored) and take that honey and extract it and then filter it and bottle it.”
Once brother’s bees started producing honey, they knew it was too good not to share. So they created an on-farm production facility and a website to sell their products.
“We started building the production unit three years ago and launched the business in 2020,” says John. “We store the honey in this new unit on the farm and put it in the jars there, ready for the consumer.”
The Shinnicks produce a few different types of honey – blossom, heather and a soft-set honey, as well as the occasional ivy honey.
“Flower honey is produced by bees almost all year round, except in spring when the flow is low. The main period would be during the summer months when the flowers are in bloom and the flowers are out,” says John.
The brothers’ flower honey, which is a creamy, runny honey, is produced on the farm.
“Bees produce it when they forage around the local area and gain access to flowers such as whitethorn, clover, bramble and linden,” says John. “It is easy to harvest because of its consistency. Everything the bees need to make honey is on or near the farm.
Their Flower Honey was among the 5 finalists in 2021 Blás na hÉireann and won a silver medal at the Irish Quality Food and Drink Awards, as well as a star in the Guild of Fine Food Great Taste competition in the UK also this that year.
Blackwater Honeys’ heather honey, which won gold at the Irish Quality Food and Drink Awards, is produced by Andrews’ army bees which he takes to the mountains of Dublin and Wicklow each month. august.
Andrew says the health benefits of heather honey have been scientifically proven to be comparable to those of Manuka honey. “It’s great from a health perspective and it’s a hugely under-marketed product in this country and even around the world because not many people know about its health benefits,” he said.
“We hope to increase the awareness of quality and the benefit there is in the future. It’s not the easiest honey to harvest, Andrew said, as it ‘sets like jelly’, but it’s definitely something we’ll focus on more in the future.”
Their Soft-Set Honey takes the longest to make, says John, who produced the multi-award-winning honey on the farm for the first time last year, amidst a busy dairy herd.
“A honey like this is made when bees forage on seasonal crops at this time of year like rapeseed and crystallizes very quickly, so it needs to be harvested as soon as possible,” he says.
“We then mix this honey with smooth blossom honey in a 10pc ratio to create our soft-set. “It’s certainly the longest to do, but it’s already won us many awards and won gold at Blás na hÉireann last year,” says John.
The brothers have also won the Irish Country Magazine’s Overall Food Category – Irish Made Awards, as well as a highly regarded award in the Dublin Honey Show’s Black Pot (blind taste competition).
Andrew and John harvest their honey in early fall and produce between 500 and 700 jars each season. They sell their honey on their website, blackwaterhoney.ie as well as in local markets. “We sell honey in 227g jars whereas traditionally honey would have been sold in 1lb jars,” says Andrew.
“Our flower honey is at €8.50 a jar, our soft set honey at €10 a jar and our heather honey at €15 a jar.
“We may charge a little more because of the way our honey is produced and the awards it has won. It sells out very quickly, we actually have to ration it to make sure our local customers and local markets have enough of it.
Life on the farm has never been busier, says John, as he tries to divide his time between the dairy, the bees, building a new house and taking care of his family. “Farmers are never idols anyway,” he says. “I milk twice a day in a side-by-side 20-unit Dairy Master parlor. We upgraded in 2009 from a 14 unit and it was a great decision as it is very fast at milking cows and extremely efficient. We have automatic cluster extractors that help speed things up,” he says.
John sells all his calves at the market between three and four weeks old, so he doesn’t have many left on the farm now, allowing him to divert his attention elsewhere. “Between the farm, the business, the house and trying to spend time with the kids, I don’t have a minute,” says John.
“As with all businesses, it can be quite daunting at first, but don’t let that put you off”
What level of start-up costs did you incur?
Beekeeping doesn’t start out cheap – each hive can cost between €300 and €750. The cost of materials depends on whether you are buying a polystyrene hive or a wooden hive.
If you were to buy bees from another beekeeper, it could cost you €250-300 for a package of bees. This is why we divide our hives to reduce our initial costs.
Then you need to buy beekeeping spares and suits, feeders and treaters, a honey extractor and all bottling equipment, then jars and labels.
So in the beginning the costs can be high and you probably won’t make a profit for the first few years.
How long did it take to get it up and running?
It took several months to be operational, then a season to get to the heart of the matter.
Was financing readily available from banks?
We relied heavily on our own funding and did not apply for commercial loans from the bank.
Were there grants available?
We received two online vouchers from the Local Enterprise Office, which helped us pay for our e-commerce website. These have helped tremendously in launching brand awareness and selling online.
There are also grants from the Ministry of Agriculture for setting up the honey extraction facility. We haven’t applied for this yet, but maybe in the future when we want to expand the business.
Do you need to register with organizations or obtain licenses?
Yes, you must be registered with the Department to sell honey. The company is also registered with the Companies Registration Office.
Is insurance compulsory?
We have insurance through the national federation which covers the sale of honey, and you must comply with best hygiene practices.
Did you find any helpful organizations or agencies when getting started?
We have found the ministry extremely helpful, as has LEO. As with all businesses, it can be quite intimidating at first not knowing who to turn to and where to get advice, but don’t let that put you off.
What has been your biggest challenge?
We had to turn down business because we don’t have a huge amount of honey to sell.