A Future Farmers of America project launched Pat Ennis's career as a honey producer, or apiarist, as some liked to be called.
Then a high school youth, Ennis was intrigued by the business and worked it as a hobby, before deciding to make it a career in 2004.
Later, he was hired by Spring Valley Honey Farms, of Perry, where he is still employed.
T-R PHOTO BY MIKE DONAHEY
Garry Wilaby of Pleasant Hill gestures while making a point talking to fellow apiarist business vendors Susan and George Jones of Maxwell at Marshalltown’s Best Western Regency Inn Friday.
He said the company manages 4,200 beehives.
His wife, Peggy, joined him in the honey business.
"I work bees, and she sells it," he said.
The Goodell man was joined by fellow members of the Iowa Honey Producers Association at Marshalltown's Best Western Regency Inn for its annual meeting and conference Friday and Saturday.
This year's event was special - it was the organization's 100th anniversary, according to Ennis, who serves as association vice-president.
Ennis estimated that the organization got its start in the 1860s, but wasn't incorporated until 1912.
It was known as the Iowa Beekeepers Association for many years.
It has 600 members, but Ennis said there are others who are producers but not members.
Ennis emphasized there is more to the business than honey seen on grocery shelves.
Money can be made by raising queen bees for producers.
Additionally, income can be earned by raising bees and shipping them to California almond growers who
use them to pollinate their crop.
Growers of other crops throughout the United States also covet the bees for pollination.
On the honey production side, producers are currently getting 90 pounds per hive, Ennis said.
"In the 1950s, and 60s, the average honey crop was 250 to 350 pounds per hive," he said. "That is a dramatic reduction. It has gone down because loss of forage for the honey bees."
Ennis attributed the loss of forage partially to homeowners who want to keep their yards weed free.
"A honey bee is looking for dandelions, White Dutch Wheat Clover, different wild flowers and so on, which is going to provide the bee with nectar and pollen, a bee's food source," he said.
Additionally, a variety of mites and bee-related diseases can prove challenging even to the most veteran beekeeper.
A positive development for apiarists is that grocery stores regularly stock honey, some from small producers.
"Most beekeepers in Iowa produce a raw honey," he said. "Basically, we don't heat it and kill the enzymes and other elements which are good. It has not been pasteurized. It is raw, and most of the Iowa grocery stores want that because that is what their customers want ... they are health conscious."
Despite efforts by American producers, much of the honey seen on grocery store shelves is imported from Argentina and Brazil, Ennis said, because demand outstrips U.S. production.
Of concern to Ennis are that many beekeepers are in their mid-70s.
However, a number of states, including Iowa, have started youth-mentor programs to encourage young people to enter the field.
This year Iowa has 11 youths from 4-H and FFA ranks which have applied, and Ennis was optimistic all could make the cut.
Iowa State University Extension offices - including those in central Iowa - provide resources about raising bees should youth and others inquire.
Additionally, beekeepers are making presentations to elementary students and others.
Ennis believes beekeeping is not only profitable but can be a rewarding career as well.
"I'm doing work that I love," Ennis said.