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Busy with the Bees!

The new buzz in beekeeping: Brown’s Honey Farm seeks to capture health, fitness market

By Tom Parker

Honey factory
Nathan Brown, co-owner of Brown’s Honey Farm
Photo by Tom Parker

In the beginning there was tea. And, there was honey.

Both were natural, both were beneficial, both were filled with nutrients a body needs.

Later, say circa 1999, the tea industry took a close gander at social trends and its own fiscal solvency, and decided that life was good. Life, in fact, was annually one billion dollars’ worth of good, a not inconsiderate sum.

But life could also be better. Much, much better. So the tea industry decided only two things stood in the way of making life better: convenience in packaging and promotion of its product’s health benefits. Skip forward to 2005. The tea industry is now annually six billion dollars’ worth of good, and all because of shrewd marketing and making tea more convenient for consumers to consume.

The honey industry stopped at the honey bear.

So says Nathan Brown, co-owner of Brown’s Honey Farm, Kansas’ largest honey producer.

“We think we can do the exact same thing as what the tea industry did,” Nathan says. “We can promote the health benefits of honey, but also we can make it more convenient.”

At 20 years of age, Nathan seems a little young to be tackling such global-sized issues, but as the fourth generation in a beekeeping family based in Haddam, bees, pollination, honey and production are ingrained in his DNA. It also helps that his father, Jerry, is vice president of the American Honey Producers Association as well as its executive secretary, with contacts around the world.

Discovering new methods of replicating the success of the tea industry is new, though, and in some ways caught him off guard.

“My parents never wanted to force me into the bees,” Nathan says. “I like working with bees, but it’s not quite my passion. At one time in my life I thought I’d be a beekeeper forever, then I fell into marketing. Marketing is where my heart is at. You could say I found my niche.”

Under Nathan’s influence, the business has expanded into three separate entities, each closely associated but with its own focus.

Brown’s Honey Farm is the pollination and honey-making mainstay. Besides the usual honey production, three to four months of each year are spent with their bees in California in the almond groves. “Currently, we get paid better money to pollinate almonds than we do to make honey,” Nathan says.

In October 2006, the honey farm formed a publishing and marketing company called World Class Emprise, “We didn’t like the way honey was being marketed,” he says. “It was being sold just as honey. It wasn’t enough. We felt there was more to it—we just didn’t know what.”

The price honey producers made for their product wasn’t adequate, they felt. Setting out to discover what could be changed, they toured trade and industry shows, surveyed users and marketers, researched marketing strategies and asked customers what they wanted from honey. At heart was the question: What would make you buy a product?

Answers weren’t long in forthcoming. It wasn’t that it had to taste better—it had to be better for you.

Enter, as if by fortuitous circumstance, Mike McInnes.

Honey Book by McInnesMcInnes, a British pharmacist and sports nutritionist, sent a mass e-mail to honey producers around the state telling of his new book lauding the health benefits of honey. Titled The Hibernation Diet, it proved that honey burned fat and increased stamina, and suggested that eating honey before bedtime optimized the body’s natural recovery biology, assisted in weight loss and provided a deeper, more restful sleep.

Nathan’s father jumped on it.

“Of course, we didn’t know anything about human metabolism, or how the body worked,” Nathan said. “We weren’t doctors!”

At the same time, Nathan’s uncle, Ron Fessenden, retired from his medical practice and was looking for something to do. They gave him a copy of McInnes’ book and asked for his opinion. Did it have any substance or was it just another fly-by-night, get-skinny-quick snake charm?

“He was blown away by it, and every since then, for the past three years, all he’s done is research human metabolism and honey,” Nathan said.

Fessenden now works full-time for the family and is the author of his own book on the subject, published last December under the Empress signature:The Honey Revolution: Restoring the Health of Future Generations.

And so the publishing side of the business had its first title.

But, as the tea industry might say, information is only half the equation. Getting the product into the hands of consumers is the critical part. Most of all, it has to be convenient.

Revlife is Nathan’s answer to that.

Honey TubeThe third segment of the trilogy that is Brown’s Honey Farm, Revlife is the marketing firm Nathan launched to showcase new products and to get those products into the hands (and mouths) of health-conscious customers. Flavored honeys with all-natural ingredients have proven popular, but what Nathan expects to be a big-seller is what he calls U-Tube.

Think of it, he says, as a small one-serving toothpaste tube, only with creamed honey inside. And not just any creamed honey, but a new type of creamed honey.

“All honey naturally crystalizes,” Nathan says. “The bad thing that big packers do is they keep the honey at high temperatures and run it through diatomaceous earth filters to remove all the pollens, the enzymes, the amino acids—all the stuff in honey that makes it really good. They filter it to give it a longer shelf life.”

However, honey doesn’t go bad, he explains. Crystallization is simply another state, one of preservation rather than decay.

Heating honey when it begins crystallizing is tempting, Nathan says, but if Brown’s Honey Farm wants to remain true to its calling, it has to find another way of marketing its product without destroying beneficial ingredients. “That would be a little contradictory of us to do that,” he says. “We’d be doing the exact opposite of what we’re saying to be true.”

Whatever heating done is slight, only a few degrees above room temperature, and there’s no filtration.

To facilitate lengthier shelf life in the U-Tube honey, crystallization is actually forced, and the resulting crystals modified.

“Honey crystals are large,” Nathan says. “They’re very grainy. What we do is chop the crystals down until they’re very, very, very fine, almost like a buttery spread. You can’t even feel the crystals are there. This makes a smooth consistency.”

The technique was something they stumbled across last fall while researching methods to preserve honey. While creamed honey is common, it’s also commonly thick and commonly hard. “Ours,” Nathan says, “is almost like regular liquid honey, but yet it will have a shelf life of over two years.”

The process combines the best of both worlds, he says, shelf life with all the nutrients of fresh honey.

“Of course, we’d like to be sold out within a week so there’s no shelf life to worry about,” Nathan says.

The tubes are similar to another type of honey-filled tube but are resealable so leftover honey doesn’t ooze out into a purse or pants pocket.

“I hate to say it, but the tubes come from China,” he says. “I would much rather have it done in the United States but there’s nobody in the United States that makes tubes like this. It wasn’t even an option.”

The process itself sounds simple enough: fill the open end of the tube with honey, seal and ship. The manufacturing equipment Nathan settled on isn’t fully automatic so some of the tasks will have to be done manually. It all boiled down to cost: automatic machines are much, much more expensive.

Nevertheless, he remains hopeful that at some point several of the automatic machines will be needed to keep up with demand.

Marketing the U-Tube has taken him across the nation to fitness centers, chiropractic offices and sports superstores and, what’s more, give him a new lease on the beekeeper’s life. “Marketing is my passion,” he says. “I’m a people person, and I love meeting new people, networking, and even cold-calling. I never stay still. One week I might be in New York and the next in Salt Lake City.”

The tubes will be in production by the end of July, he says. Until then, he’s knocking on doors and expounding on the product while intensive research continues on the health benefits of honey.

In the end, it’s all about the bees. And, of course, vision.

“Our goal isn’t just to make money,” Nathan says. “We want to make a change in how people live their lives. We want a healthier world.”

When told it’s a tall order, Nathan just laughs.

“They’re big dreams,” he says. “But dream big.”


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Last Updated July 22, 2009
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