A sweet family business, with a sting

After reluctantly giving in to her family tradition of beekeeping, Jodie Goldsworthy and her husband decided to go it alone. Now Beechworth Honey is a powerhouse in what can be a surprisingly bitter industry.

The website of Beechworth Honey, Australia’s second biggest honey business, says the owners, Jodie and Steven Goldsworthy, represent the fourth generation of the family tradition, which is sort of true, up to a point.

It’s true that Jodie’s great grandfather, Ben Robinson, was a beekeeper, and so was her grandfather, and her father, but she didn’t inherit the hives, or the business. They went to the oldest male, her brother Jamie.

What’s more, Jodie vowed all her life that she’d never get into bees. It was lousy being the child of beekeepers, she says, because you lose your parents to the bees for about six months of the year, and your income was at the mercy not only of bees but also sometimes shonky honey packers who dictated the price and often ripped you off.

But a year after she married a wool buyer named Steve Goldsworthy in 1991, he announced one night that he’d fallen in love with bees and wanted to be a beekeeper instead, having spent happy weekends helping his father-in-law working the family hives. “Oh my God,” said Jodie, “you’re kidding me!”

Jodie agreed, but only if they could control their own destiny by packing the honey and marketing it themselves. So they bought 600 hives for about $20,000, she did a post-graduate marketing degree and they started using the brand name Beechworth, because that’s where they lived.

And so Beechworth Honey is a kind of fourth generation startup – a new business with a history. “The best of both worlds,” says Jodie happily. Well yes, except for that old tradition of inheritance by the oldest male child, which has now pretty much died out.

And as it turned out – ironically – Jamie didn’t really take to beekeeping himself, so the Robinsons – Jodie’s dad, Alan, and Jamie – don’t run hives any more. They are now just Beechworth cattle farmers, and the Robinson family history with bees came to a dead end. Now it’s the Goldsworthy family.

In fact Alan Robinson twice told Jodie and Steve they were crazy and tried to talk them out of investing: first when they spent $3000 on a graphic designer to create their label, and then later when they decided to borrow $50,000 and buy a labelling machine.

That was after they got a national contract to supply Coles Supermarkets and Jodie had just had her second child. They were still packing the honey by hand at night and sticking the labels on the jars themselves, which was doable – just – when you’re only supplying Franklins, as they were. But even for ambitious kids in their twenties prepared to do anything, there weren’t quite enough hours in the day to pack and label the honey for Coles stores around Australia by hand, especially with a new baby.

So with the disapproval of Jodie’s father, and his accountant, ringing in their ears, they went ahead and borrowed that $50,000 and bought a labeling machine. They kept packing the jars by hand, but at least the labeling was taken care of.

And now they’re number two in the land with packing and labeling machines (but won’t tell me how much honey they handle or what their turnover is) supplying Coles, Woolworths, IGA and Costco, and they export some as well. And there is rueful acknowledgement at family gatherings that, yes, it was worth spending $53,000 on a graphic designer and a labeling machine back in the 90s.

Beekeeping is one of those things that you have to do for love – a bit like being a dairy farmer, except that unlike cows that get milked twice a day in the same place, you can’t really control when or where the honey will flow, and it certainly can’t be automated.

And unlike cows, which you can empty out morning and night, you have to leave bees enough honey to eat or they’ll starve: you constantly walk a fine line between harvesting enough to make a decent living, and starving your bees.

When the trees are flowering, the honey will flow, and if for some reason (drought, rain, dumb luck) there are no flowers within five kilometres of where you are, you have to move the bees to where the flowers are, sometimes loading the hives onto the back of a truck in the middle of the night and driving for hours.

And in the old days, unless you had your own label like Jodie and Steve Goldsworthy do now, you were a price-taker, told the day’s price. You'd deliver your precious fluid to a packer and hope to get paid.

Jodie Goldsworthy remembers one time when the family was setting off for a very rare beach holiday and her dad had to stop in at the post office to pick up a cheque. It wasn’t signed – deliberately – so they had to turn around and go home.

There are 1700 beekeepers in Australia with an average age of 54 and that average is steadily creeping up because it’s not a very attractive career choice for young men and women.

That’s especially true with a global crisis caused by the varroa mite, which has wiped out half the bee population of many countries. Australia is the only country without the varroa parasite at the moment and there is a huge effort to make sure it stays that way, including a program this month of gluing tiny sensors onto the backs of 5000 bees in Hobart to monitor what they’re doing.

The Goldsworthys still have 500 hives of their own but now buy most of their honey from other beekeepers. Steve’s training as a wool buyer stood him in good stead as a honey buyer, dealing with often eccentric apiarists, and Jodie handles the marketing and deals with the supermarkets.

The grocery buyers are tough and demanding, and you sometimes have to say: “no way, go away”, but at least you always get paid.

“Our task is to make sure the beekeepers have a decent living: if they’re not viable, we won’t have a business. It’s not the end of the world if we lose a contract,” Jodie says.

As for the next generation, Steve and Jodie have three children ranging from 17 down to 12. The kids have been told that if they want to come into the business, they have to go work for someone else first and then they have to bring something back to the business, some skill or experience.

“We don’t want it to be just given to them – they have to bring something to it.

“I don’t care what they do in life; I always tell them I don’t care if they’re garbage collectors – as long as they’re really good garbage collectors and it makes them happy.

“Oh mum,” they say, “do you have to keep saying that?”