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Sweet 'job' combines love of outdoors, bees and community (VIDEO)

Tom the Beekeeper finds his sweet spot at Lavender Hills Farm; 'We're not in this to make money any way we can,' he says of sustainable approach

A tagline is a catchphrase or slogan that, when used in marketing, is intended to let customers know who you are and what you stand for in a few succinct words.

You might not find a more accurate example of this than the tagline used by Lavender Hills Farm: “Mindfully produced… Naturally!” You’ll find it on the jars of honey and other natural products produced at the farm.

Lavender Hills Farm, home to Tom Morrissey and Tina-May Luker for the past 17 years, is a 25-acre property located just outside of Orillia, where the couple harvest and sell award-winning honeys and handcrafted cosmetics, soaps and candles.

How do you make a living as a beekeeper and operator of a small organic farm? And, why would you try?

For Morrissey, it was his love of the outdoors that guided him back to what was one of his first career interests.

After spending much of his working life setting up adult education programs at Georgian College, Morrissey said he made a lifestyle choice. “I decided that I’m not going to drive the desk anymore to have the pension and vacation.”

Almost 40 years earlier, Morrissey was introduced to the world of honey bees when he became a member of the interpretive services staff at Bronte Creek Provincial Park – his first job after graduating from university.

One of the park displays was an observation bee hive. No one seemed to be a bee expert, so Morrissey enrolled in a five-day course on beekeeping at the University of Guelph so he could explain bee pollination to park visitors.

Bees entered his life again about 20 years later, when Morrissey got together with Luker. He told her that he wanted a job where he could ride his bicycle to work.

Thinking this would be an impossibility, Luker was surprised when Morrissey landed a job with a commercial beekeeper just down the road from their home near Carlisle, Ont., close enough for Tom to cycle to work.

When they moved to the Orillia area, they purchased a rural property in Severn Township – now Lavender Hills Farm – and bought a couple of beehives. They now have 150 colonies of bees, including the on-site farm yard (or apiary) as well as yards at five different locations.

With Morrissey’s beekeeping skills, along with Luker’s horticulture knowledge and design background, Lavender Hills Farm is a productive partnership that supports what Morrissey calls a modest and sustainable lifestyle.

“Our philosophy is based on a local delivery system; we’re not in this to make money any way we can," said Morrissey. "We’re local producers that are trying to sustain our community with the best quality products we can possibly achieve.”

Morrissey and Luker stress that the connection with the community is essential to their business. They don’t ship their products, but sell at the local farmers’ markets in Orillia and Gravenhurst and also sell wholesale to local retail outlets in the community.

In addition to honey, their product line includes beeswax candles and natural soaps and cosmetics, produced by Luker using botanicals from the farm’s gardens and fields.

They also offer pollination services to local farmers. As an example, Morrissey explained their unique partnership with Muskoka Lakes Farm & Winery (home of Johnston Cranberries).

“We take bees up to the cranberry marshes in the middle of the night (because they fly during the day) and leave them for a little Muskoka vacation," he said. "About a month later, we pick them up, extract and bottle the honey and then bring it back to them so they can sell it to their customers.”

When it comes to how they are mindfully producing their honey, Morrissey and Luker say that it’s first and foremost about the wellbeing of the bees.

“We are always thinking about the welfare of the hive,” Luker explains.

Careful consideration goes into choosing locations for hives as well as maintaining a good variety of food sources for the bees. In addition to the forests and fields surrounding the property, the bees find nourishment in a custom-designed bee-friendly tall grass meadow, and among the many flower and vegetable gardens on the property.

The welfare of the hive is also what makes the work so interesting for Morrissey.

“In agriculture, bees are as close to wild as we have,” says Morrissey. “The way bees reproduce and sustain their existence just blows my mind. They have an amazing communication system of smell and sound and know exactly when to swarm (or reproduce). My job is to manage the bees within their natural cycles.”

As much as it is fascinating work for Morrissey, he says that each year can present new challenges because of the many natural factors that can affect production, as is the case with any kind of farming.

Morrissey describes it as getting a new pitch each year, sometimes a curveball, because of weather conditions or health of the bees. There is also the ongoing struggle to overcome the declining population of honeybees, in part, because of the widespread use of pesticides and industrialized agriculture.

“This is why our connection with the community is so important,” says Morrissey. “When we go to the local markets, people are asking, ‘How are the bees?' and 'What can we do to help?’”

The most common question in the past was, “How often do you get stung?” But now Morrissey has noticed an increased awareness among customers about the precarious bee situation.

Morrissey is very definite about his answer to the question of how to help the bees.

“What you can do is buy from a local beekeeper; buy purchases that sustain bees in your local community. Buy local produce because this sustains the health of the land; pay the extra premium for the best quality, if you can," said Morrissey.

"I know that not everyone can, but if you are worried about the bees and the impact of our industrialized food system, spend the extra money to buy local food that’s raised as organically as possible.”