Sponsored by Oregon Business

Beekeepers face a complex future

| Print |  Email
Articles - October 2010
Monday, September 27, 2010
Harvesting honey at Olsen Honey Farms in Albany.

Dave LeFore runs 15,000 hives, making his bee operation in Milton-Freewater among the largest around. In the early 1990s, his family business grew to the point where it didn’t have adequate bee pasture in Oregon (only about 10% of the land in the state is suitable) so they bought a bee operation in Montana and one in North Dakota to expand their pasture. Unlike most other beekeepers in Oregon, LeFore makes about 50% of his income from honey, and the rest from pollination rental. LeFore produces about a million pounds of honey per year, selling to large wholesalers like Golden Heritage Foods in Kansas. In January, he begins to chase spring for six months: he sends 40 semi-truck loads of bees to Modesto to pollinate almonds, which brings in 35% of his revenue; then the Pacific Northwest to pollinate cherries, applies, pears and plums; Montana for clover and alfalfa honey production; North Dakota for sunflowers and canola seed. LeFore loves this migratory life. No two years are ever alike, and he is never bored.

The 63-year-old LeFore has been at this for more than 40 years. Economic margins might be thin for the beekeeper, but there are other measurements that matter far more.

“Beekeeping is something that gets in your blood. I’m not sure I can put it all in words,” says LeFore. “It becomes part of you. It’s not fun to be up at odd hours or to get stung, but there are so many parts about it that are exciting. Beekeepers are very much in tune with their bees. A beekeeper is a person keeping bees. They are more connected than most people realize.”

Though his bee loss is low, between 10% and 15%, it’s twice what it was 10 years ago. He has developed an all-natural essential oil that he uses in the brood nest mixed with a little vegetable shortening that he credits with keeping his bees healthy. “A lot of beekeepers are looking over their shoulder,” he says. “You’re hoping something unexpected doesn’t catch up to you.”

Yet it is the very expected that is catching up to this small handful of large commercial beekeepers so critical to the state’s agriculture. Like many workforces, this group is growing old, and it worries growers. “Several will retire in the next five years and I’m not sure who will replace them,” says Mike Weber of Central Oregon Seeds.

That’s a question the keepers are trying to answer themselves. Dirk Olsen is one of the younger ones at 56. He has daughters and it’s pretty certain they won’t be getting into bees. “Handling bees has become very hard, so there’s a large likelihood that the next owners would not be successful,” he says.

Dave LeFore married into a beekeeping family — his wife’s grandfather and father were beekeepers — and now his son and his grandson keep bees, while his son-in-law works for him, and he hopes to have him take over one day. LeFore “occasionally” thinks about retiring. “I think there will be enough young people around to carry the torch,” says LeFore. “But it takes a unique person to be a beekeeper. They are one in 100.”

“Beekeeping is not doomed,” says researcher Michael Burgett. “George has a couple of handsome strong sons and one wants to follow him.”

Indeed, George does. The morning that Hansen returned late from his Madras trip, son Matt was already back to work after making the trip with him. Hansen plans to retire in five years and the 33-year-old Matt is his heir. The schoolteacher who did not come from a long line of beekeepers is creating one of his own.



Portland Bizzy Bee
0 #1 Native PollinatorsPortland Bizzy Bee 2010-09-30 15:55:49
Nicely written article Robin. Please consider writing a postscript in the future that provides some ink to the growing domestication and use of native pollinators (e.g. orchard mason bees, horn faced bees, and leaf cutter bees).

For the past several years, some entomologists have been working with almond growers in California on the use of orchard mason bees. I know this, because that's where the bulk of my surplus bees have gone over the past few years.

Successful native bee management requires a fundamentally different approach to agriculture. Monoculture crops don't co-exist well with native pollinators. However, there are cases of growers who are creating insectaries and planting diverse crops that make their farms more hospitable to native pollinators.

A couple of entreprenueurs in Washington are working on plans to develop large scale orchard mason bee businesses. Xerces Society, which is based in Portland, is the national leader in native pollinator research
Quote | Report to administrator

More Articles

Make the business case, governor

Linda Baker
Thursday, November 05, 2015
aoikatebrownthumbBY LINDA BAKER

Gov. Kate Brown delivered the keynote speech at the Associated Oregon Industries annual policy forum yesterday.  Speaking to a Republican-aligned audience of about 100 business and public policy leaders, the governor was out of her comfort zone.


The Food Pod Grows Up

November/December 2015
Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Oregon's first generation of food entrepreneurs created a brand based on quality and craftsmanship. Can the second generation sustain it?


The Love Boat

November/December 2015
Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Vigor’s values don’t stop at truth. Walk into a company office, conference room or on any shipyard site and you’ll most likely see a poster inscribed with the words “Truth. Responsibility. Evolution. Love.” Otherwise known as TREL, Vigor’s culture code and the prominence it is accorded can be a bit surprising to the unsuspecting shipyard visitor.


Planter's Punch

November/December 2015
Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Molly Rogers believes she has found the solution to excessively syrupy cocktail mixes. She first just needs people to understand her product isn’t foliage.


Rail revival

Linda Baker
Wednesday, November 11, 2015
111115-OregonShortLineRailCarTHUMBBY LINDA BAKER

“What we’ve seen traditionally over the past few decades is a reduction of short line railroads. This is a rare opportunity to see a line being opened.”


Tinker, Tailor, Portland Maker

November/December 2015
Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The artisan generation redefines manufacturing.


Straight shooter

Linda Baker
Thursday, October 08, 2015
100815-bradleyBY LINDA BAKER

In an era dominated by self-promotion and marketing speak, John Bradley, CEO of R&H Construction, is a breath of fresh air.

Oregon Business magazinetitle-sponsored-links-02