When thinking about agriculture in Montana, words like grain, cows, and sugarbeets come to mind. However, FFA members Gwen Collins of Shields Valley FFA and Lauren Neibur of the Big Timber FFA are proving that agriculture is about more than sows, cows, and plows as both young ladies have found success raising honeybees for a Specialty Animal Production Supervised Agriculture Experience (SAE).
“None of that stereotypical agriculture could happen without honeybees. Crops wouldn’t be pollinated and there would be nothing to feed your cattle, sheep, and hogs. Bees are the most underrated part of agriculture,” said Neibur, a senior at Sweet Grass County High School.
Neibur can’t really articulate what drew her to honeybees in the first place. Her childhood bedroom was honeybee themed, so maybe the small buzzing creatures carried a bit of nostalgia. Whatever the reason, after winning a $1,000 SAE grant, she invested the money into bees and hives.
After getting the hives up and going, Neibur still had a couple hundred dollars leftover from her grant and got the hankering to take the idea of raising honeybees to the next level.
“I got to thinking I should try to make a little bit of a business out of this, which was never the idea in the beginning. I just wanted to learn more about honeybees, but I got to thinking this may be an opportunity to make some money,” she reflected.
With that entrepreneurial spirit, Neibur developed the brand Crazy Bee Honey, a homage to her home beneath the Crazy Mountains.
To help her honey business stand out, Neibur created a unique logo and packages her honey in a muth jar, a square jar historically used for storing honey that is fastened with a cork stopper.
It didn’t take long for Neibur’s honey orders to surpass her actual honey supply. That is when the young business women started partnering with other beekeepers and apiaries to supply her with honey. In fact, Neibur has formed several different relationships over her tenure as a business owner, like the one she forged with Tumblewood Teas, another Big Timber-based, women-owned business.
When honey sales hit a lull at the beginning of this school year, Neibur reached out to Tumblewood Teas to see if they could offer any helpful insight. The company decided to feature Neibur on their website as an Entrepreneurial Highlight, and in no time at all, Crazy Bee Honey sales had risen again. Crazy Bee Honey can now be found in a couple different retail locations.
“Now my SAE has transitioned from not as much a traditional apiary to more of just a honey business,” Neibur stated.
Not only did Neibur’s ambitious business earn her the prestigious Star in Agribusiness award at the 2021 Montana FFA State Convention, but it is safe to say that Crazy Bee Honey has helped her decide exactly what she wants to do with her life.
“I will be attending the University of Montana next year, majoring in business. Surprise, surprise,” she laughed.
Just down the road from Big Timber, Gwen Collins, a Shields Valley FFA member has found she has a passion for beekeeping, as well. Collins’ journey into the apiary business began her freshman year of high school when her grandparents decided to invest in some honeybees to help pollinate their crops.
“We started with two hives and we have just been growing the operation since then. Now we have 13 hives,” Collins said.
Collins and her grandparents collect the honey from their hives in the fall and then jar it all up and sell it at local farmers’ markets throughout the summer. Over the course of helping her grandparents with their bees, Collins has taken on more and more responsibility. She has been a big driving force in the marketing and selling of their honey products and this past summer, Collins was solely responsible for one hive.
Reflecting on her Specialty Animal Production SAE, Collins has learned an impressive amount. She has learned about different types of honeybees and their characteristics, she has gained marketing and salesmanship skills, and arguably most important, she has learned how to keep accurate record books – a requirement for any FFA member with a SAE.
Many FFA members keep track of their record books begrudgingly, and Collins admits, she used to as well, but the process of growing her SAE has taught her just how crucial recordkeeping can be for any business.
“Tracking my own progress was really important and it will all help in the future with doing other kinds of records. They just keep you accountable,” she said.
Collins’ impressive SAE, combined with her articulate recordkeeping helped her become the 2021 State Specialty Animal Production SAE Proficiency Award winner, which is quite an honor and a great way to wrap up her senior year of high school. Collins will be attending MSU’s College of Agriculture in the fall.
Collins is passionate about sustainable agriculture and she agrees with Neibur that bees play an important role in the larger picture that is Montana agriculture. Both young ladies have learned about responsibility and they gained an appreciation for business management. All thanks to the humble honeybee.