South Dakota-based bee enterprise largest in the U.S.
BRUCE, S.D. — Richard Adee told his high school sweetheart, Alice Bergstrom, that he wanted to be the “largest beekeeper in the world.”
They produce about 4 million to 5 million pounds of honey per year, and make about half of their gross revenue by pollinating almonds in California and apples in Washington state.Son Bret Adee heads the California pollination operation. Kelvin Adee is home in Bruce, helping lead the business that involves three grandsons. Daughter Marla Roseland is the business manager. The company employs about 80 full-time people, plus 22 contract workers from Nicaragua using the H2A visa program, which brings workers in for nine or 10 months.
The summer of 2015 wasn’t a big year for honey — too much wildfire smoke coming out of Canada, right when the bees do their work. The whole operation grosses about $14 million, between honey and pollination.
In the family
One of the chief reasons for the company’s success is attitude. Richard is a “glass half-full guy,” daughter Marla says, with admiration. It’s something he was born with, along with a boatload of honey heritage.
Richard’s father, Vernon, and all four of Vernon’s brothers, were beekeepers. All five initially were school teachers in southern Nebraska. In the Depression, they sold Watkins products in weekend table markets, but the eldest Adee bought six honeybee colonies and soon found that those quart jars of honey sold the best. Soon, all of the Adees were into bees, and many were active in state and national honey organizations.
During World War II, sugar was in short supply and honey became more common as a sweetener. After the war in 1948, Vernon moved the family from Maxwell, Neb., to Haddam, Kan., where he went into honey full-time and had about 4,000 hives. Vernon was considered the “father of beekeeping in Kansas,” because of all the people he helped get started.” Young Richard was enthralled with it all.
“I thought, ‘Oh man! I want to be a beekeeper when I grow up!’”
He graduated high school in 1954 and went to nearby Kansas State University in Manhattan, and received his accounting degree in 1957 — a move that helped him with future beekeeping expansions. He answered a trade magazine advertisement from a retiring beekeeper in Bruce who wanted to sell his 1,500-hive operation. Richard and his brother, Stanley, moved to South Dakota. The Bruce bee outfit had a breeding yard where the operation wintered near Woodville, Miss., north of Baton Rouge, La.
“South Dakota was in the land of sweet clover,” Adee says “Oh, man! I wanted to get into South Dakota. Everybody was making big crops up here.”
In 1959, he lost Stanley in a tragic truck accident. The same year, he married Alice, who moved to Bruce. Their children were born in the 1960s and 1970s while the bee operation grew by a modest 1,000 to 2,000 hives per year. Alice recalls challenging winters, raising kids alone in South Dakota, while Richard went south to Mississippi to spend time raising queens.
Richard was a founding member of the American Honey Producers Association and was president for several years. He served as its legislative chairman for about 40 years.
In the late 1970s and 1980s, the U.S. industry was faced with market-crushing imports from China. Richard remembers praying, “God, you didn’t bring me this far to drop me now,” he recalls. “All those years but one we made money, but you can make money and still not make a living.”
A Republican who worked with politicians on both sides of the political aisle, Richard remembers a particular conversation with John Block, agriculture secretary to Ronald Reagan, who asked him why he couldn’t compete with the Chinese. Adee answered that he couldn’t compete with 12-cent-per-hour wages.
In 1987, son Kelvin was old enough to come into the operation. A few years later, Bret returned from another career and joined the family business. Richard intensified his political activity to develop a commodity loan support program. He spent about 17 weeks in Washington, D.C., flying in on Mondays and out on Fridays, like a congressman.
The Adees were making good honey but the market price was 52 cents and the loan rate was 57 cents. Richard remembers working hard to boost the loan level to 59 cents per pound — a big deal at the time, but says, “If we’d slip down to that price today, we’d all be broke.”
The market price is about $1.80 per pound.
All over the map
In 1993, Richard started taking bees west to California, to pollinate almonds. The company started bringing 4,000 hives to California a year, but now transfers 60,000 hives. By Oct. 15, the company will have shipped 150 semi-loads to the Golden State.
Of those, about 4,000 to 5,000 more will go on to Washington state for pollinating apples. In March, the company takes bees to Mississippi for its queen-breeding operations. In the spring, they come to South Dakota, to start summer honey production.
While South Dakota is a big player in the honeybee business — it has about 260,000 hives — North Dakota has taken over the No. 1 spot for the past several years with about 500,000 hives, in part because the state has looser rules on distances between bee operators and because of the expansion of the canola industry in the north.
Today, Richard figures Adee Honey Farms is at least twice as large as the next-largest bee operation and nearly triple the size of most larger operators. Despite that, he still thinks of himself as a small business. America is home to 2.6 million hives, and he has only 3 percent of the total, and only 12 percent of the hives going to California for the almond crop.
Richard says quality of the organization, the employees and his family are more important than sheer size.
“You’re either moving forward or you’re moving backward,” he says, quoting a mentor.
Looking ahead, Richard sees positive signs for the industry. More consumers see honey as a health product, and important for pollination.
“Every third bite of food we eat comes from a bee-pollinated plant,” he says. “$15 billion of food comes from bee-pollinated plants.”
He’s also concerned. Hives that averaged 120 pounds of honey per year in the 1970s and 1980s now yield 60 pounds. The colony collapse disorder that kills bees has been attributed to neonicotinoid insecticides, which he says are good products but should be “refined” so they don’t disrupt bee immune systems. Annual loss of the honeybee population is at 42 percent, much higher than the usual 10 to 12 percent.
Optimism through troubles
The U.S. industry always must be vigilant about imports and adulteration — competitors lacing the product with cheaper corn sweeteners, for example, and selling it as honey. In 2002, the U.S. took China to world trade court for shipping subsidized honey into the U.S. That initially helped, but the industry suspects China is now finding a way to ship it through surrogate countries such as Malaysia, Taiwan, the Philippines and Korea, to avoid duties.
Kelvin, who serves as vice president of the American Honey Producers Association, says bee health and a lack of high-quality forages are some of his main concerns for the industry. The organization also is studying whether China might be sending honey imports through secondary countries to circumvent U.S. duties, flooding the market and reducing prices.
Kelvin is also optimistic about his family and business.
“It’s nice to see future generations come into the business,” Kelvin says. “There aren’t a lot of people who go to school, wanting to be a commercial beekeeper.”
It’s a family thing, he says.