All I need is a bee suit and a spoon.
The Bee Tamer and the Sugar Tree
and Annina, founders of the Republic of Vermont, are pioneering what
it means to run a sustainable small farm business.
The Republic of Vermont is a small scale apiary and organic maple sugaring operation, tending hives and tapping trees in rural Vermont. The historically agricultural state has always been home for small scale agriculture, however, times are changing. “Small scale agriculture in Vermont has become an endangered species in the past 30 years – I think the state is down to fewer than 700 dairy farms which is really sad, ” says Ethan.
“As soon as we saw an opportunity to run a business in the agricultural world where we could make a living it was a total no brainer for both of us.”
A Sustainable Model
While many small-scale farmers wouldn’t fathom the idea of running two separate business operations, for Ethan and Annina, it just made sense. “We started backyard sugaring in 2014 (I think we made 20 gallons of maple syrup that year) and we both caught the bug very quickly and started developing a business plan…We realized that the numbers didn’t really work with just sugaring and I’d always had an interest in honey bees so it was a natural fit to move in that direction as well. After that I spent two years apprenticing with commercial beekeepers to learn the trade and then we were off!”
“Republic of Vermont is unique because it really has two focuses: we are an apiary as well as an organic maple sugaring operation. In most cases, each one of those operations would be their own business, but we developed a plan to combine the two under one brand and so far it’s worked out really well for us.”
Now, something sweet is growing in Vermont, and it is providing a sustainable model for small scale farming businesses. “The way we manage the maple trees we gather sap from is defined by a strict set of rules that our organic certification agency has created and they ensure that we can continue tapping the same trees for decades. Along with that we have chosen to not use any treatments on our honey bees.”
This business model taps into the growing consumer demand for delivered goods. “We ship almost everything we produce out of state so we have a very different business model than most other farm businesses in our area…From the very beginning we’ve seen shipping our products across the US as the only way to make this model work. There’s plenty of amazing honey and maple syrup in Vermont but that isn’t the case in say Los Angeles or Chicago. It’s a full time job keeping up with the shipping but it’s something we’ve always planned on doing and we enjoy it…Since those first years we’ve doubled the size of each operation almost every year and have big plans for the next 3-5 years!”
As they continue to grow their business, Ethan explains that it is important to work smarter, not faster. “Expanding is exciting – but it has to be done with care. We are a commercial apiary and the location of our hives is governed by the state. There’s a two mile buffer between bee yard locations and that keeps everybody productive and happy….With the sugaring operation the only thing that limits our growth is the workload. We’ve been able to sell everything we produce but there are only two of us and we can’t keep expanding without running ourselves into the ground. That’s the bottom line: keep expanding while still having fun!”
The Bees and the Trees
The constantly expanding maple sugaring operation utilizes tried and true varieties. “The maple sap we produce maple syrup from predominately comes from the sugar maple tree along with some red maple. In Vermont, those have always been the two trees that get tapped. Like its name suggests, the sugar maple is where the vast amount of our sap comes from as it produces much sweeter sap than the red maple.”
Their bee keeping operation also takes a traditional approach. “We use standard Langstroth hives with the only difference being we use 8-frame equipment instead of the standard 10-frame. The 8-frame is slightly smaller which makes it lighter and easier to move around and the bees like building vertically. The trade off is that our colonies can get pretty tall when there are a bunch of honey supers on them in later summer.”
“Bees are endlessly complex and beautiful creatures”
They are keen to support the health and welfare of their bees and trees with hands-on management, and this is where they upgrade traditional bee keeping strategies to meet their ideals. “Unlike most commercial apiaries, we breed our own queens and make our own nucleus colonies. This allows us to control the genetics of our bees and promote qualities like gentleness, productivity, winter hardiness, and resistance to parasites. Instead of using harmful chemicals to treat our bees, we rely on improving the overall gene pool of our apiary…Almost all commercial apiaries in the US use chemicals and/or antibiotics to treat their colonies for mites and to fight off disease. This is something we flat out refuse to do and instead we rely on a complex breeding program to ensure the health and sustainability of our apiary.”
“One of the biggest challenges to breeding queens is controlling the genetics. Queens mate with drones (male bees) in the air, mid-flight. Ensuring that your queens are mating with drones from your genetic pool is tricky. We have an isolated mating area that we flood with our own drones to increase the chances that our queens will mate with them…Some of the main traits we breed for are low mite counts. Queens who’s hives have very low levels of mites in the late summer are automatically put at the top of the list for potential breeding. Beyond that we look at the amount of honey a hive produces and how many Vermont winter’s the queen has survived.”
A Natural Focus
Working on a farm requires keeping up with the rhythm of the natural beings that surround us. The warm hum of the bee hive is the sound of healthy, hard-working bees tending to their harvest. The ebb and flow of sweet maple sap is a living thermometer for seasonal change. “We live in a time where the environment is changing rapidly around us. We notice it with the apiary a lot. There are new invasive plants that are showing up – some of which produce a good honey crop, some that don’t. With the sugaring we notice the season getting earlier and earlier as the climate warms up. It’s definitely scary but we will have to adapt and make changes as we go.”
Having experienced such a rewarding process, they encourage others to try their hand as well. “My advice for people who want to get into sugaring is this: go for it but understand it can turn into an addiction really fast. There’s something about it that takes over your mind and all you can think about is adding more taps and making more maple syrup!…The key is not being overwhelmed by running two very different agricultural businesses at once. Maple sugaring takes place in the spring (although we start work in the woods in January) and the apiary season runs from early April through October so there is some overlap between the two….The secret to keeping the whole thing fun for us is running our own business and having control over every part of it. Also setting aside enough time to relax at the end of the day so you don’t get burned out.”
The Republic of Vermont is serving customers with high quality farm grown products, in order to meet demands. “Our organic certification is really important to the identity of our company as well…There is definitely a growing interest in beekeeping and in local, healthy sustainable food in general. It’s really inspiring to see! People care where the food comes from more now than at any time and beekeeping plays such a large role in our agricultural system that it’s only natural that people would be drawn to them.”
“One of our favorite things is hearing that someone on the other side of the country is enjoying our products. We spend so much time working on every aspect of the product and then we send it out into the world and often don’t get to hear what people think.” To learn more about the Republic of Vermont, check them out on Instagram @republicofvermont and at their website.
Photos by Oliver Parini
Hometown: Both Annina and I grew up right down the road from where we live now in Vermont. Part of the reason we decided to dive into agriculture was the fact that it’s everywhere you look in Vermont! Annina grew up on an organic dairy farm so she definitely has farming in her blood.
Favorite book or book character right now: Right now our favorite book is a collection of poems by Ruth Stone called What Love Comes To. When Ruth was alive she lived in an old farm house a half mile up the road from where we live. She was an incredible poet and the fact that she spent most of her life on the mountain in Goshen, VT makes these poems very special to us. Right now her granddaughter Bianca and her husband Ben are fixing up Ruth’s old house which is truly inspiring!
Tool you cannot live without: We use so many tools to produce organic maple syrup and raw honey that it’s hard to pick – maybe I’ll do this by season. In the winter when we’re working out in the woods to get ready for sugaring our little yellow Ski-doo snowmobile is a tool we can’t live without. It carries us and our tools up the steepest sections of the sugarbush with no problem so we can jump off and start working fresh instead of exhausted.
In the summer we absolutely can’t live without our bee truck. It’s a Ford F-250 with a hydraulic lift gate on the back for lifting heavy bee hives etc. Our hives are spread out all around the Champlain Valley of Vermont so without a reliable (and comfortable) bee truck we’d be pretty lost.