Kerry Owen of Pickens, S.C., has had a sweet ride as an innovative producer of farm-raised honey. He’s a busy beekeeper who markets his own Bee Well brand of honey.
A different type of farmer, Owen markets honey, bees and beekeeping supplies. He keeps bees on 26 farms in three states—South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia. He sells his honey to more than 400 stores throughout the Southeast. His beekeeping supplies provide both prospective and veteran beekeepers with everything they need to get into honey production.
As a result of his success as a honey producer and beekeeper, Owen has been selected as the state winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award. He joins nine other individuals as finalists for the overall award that will be announced on Tuesday, Oct. 18 at the Sunbelt Expo farm show in Moultrie, Ga.
Owen is the first full time beekeeper to be named as a state winner of the Farmer of the Year award. He has created cooperative farming relationships with others for honey production and pollination. In addition to honey and beekeeping supplies, he uses his Bee Well brand for his sideline land improvement and beauty product businesses.
He keeps bees in Abbeville, Anderson, Oconee and Pickens counties in South Carolina, and in Transylvania County of North Carolina. His Georgia bee locations are near the towns of Wrens and Baxley.
Bees have a natural range of about 2-1/2 miles in a circle. So with 26 locations, his bees collect nectar and produce honey from more than 30,000 acres per year.
As a migratory beekeeper, Owen moves his hives from south to north and generally follows springtime blooming for the plants that provide nectar. “For instance, we move bees to North Carolina to make an additional crop of sourwood honey,” he says.
As Owen sought farmers who would allow him to keep bees on their land, he would ask the property owners not to use pesticides near the bees. Owen has developed a good reputation and now landowners seek him out and volunteer to host his bees.
“We have our own retail store called Bee Well Honey Natural Market & Bee Supply,” says Owen. His store provides jobs for about a dozen people from the Pickens area. At the store, Owen offers classes on beekeeping and sells wholesome locally grown food products, “fair trade” coffee products and a complete line of cosmetics made from honey and beeswax.
While honey can be stored for long periods without going bad, Owen likes to sell his honey when it is fresh. He says, “What goes on the truck was bottled last night.” He makes weekly deliveries of honey to his main customers. He also supplies honey to other beekeepers who need it to meet their sales requirements.
He has been able to manage damaging varroa mites by using natural plant-based controls such as essential oils. One of the beekeeping industry’s major problems is called colony collapse, and Owen attributes its cause, directly or indirectly, to varroa mites.
Environmental protection includes recycling honey jars. He disinfects beehives rather than throwing them away He also designed a special warming method for his honey by using a hot water heater to warm a milk tank. He has planted nectar-bearing crops and has provided pollination services for fruit and vegetable farmers.
Owen also has hosted Bee Well boot camps to teach others about the art of beekeeping. He started doing this on his farm, and has had participants from South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia. He has also hosted Bee Days every spring for new, hobbyist, and commercial beekeepers. At these events, Owen provides packages of new bees to people from as far away as Wisconsin. ‘It is hard work but so worth the excitement,” he says.
He started Bee Well Honey Farm & Supply Inc., as a family business from home.
From 2002 to 2006 he has held annual festivals on his farm aimed at educating the public about beekeeping. During these years, he ran his store from his farm before moving the store to town.
“We’re into agri-tourism,” says Owen. He has facilities so customers can watch him extract honey. In another classroom setting he offers classes in making candles, health and beauty products made from beeswax.
Owen grew up in North Carolina and raised bell peppers as a 4-H project. “My dad had 22 acres of tomatoes and he raised rainbow trout in Transylvania County, N.C.,” he recalls.
As a young man, he worked in radio and television broadcasting until about 1999 when the station he worked at was sold. That’s when Owen decided to venture out into beekeeping. It was a humble beginning. He extracted honey in his wife’s kitchen, and sold honey on the honor system from a roadside stand that doubled as a school bus stop.
Owen is too young to retire now, but says he wants to spend his winter years driving around in his 1954 Ford pickup and looking at his healthy bees.
He has been a member of beekeeping organizations for Georgia, South Carolina, Pickens County, the Piedmont and Spartanburg. He is incoming president of the S.C. Beekeepers Association. He is a frequent guest speaker at bee association meetings. He donates beehives to local schools and has been a strong supporter of local scholarships and the Pickens Azalea Festival.
He is a member of Pickens Presbyterian Church, Farm Bureau and the Architectural Review Board of Pickens.
He supports honey and bee research at Clemson and the University of Georgia, and as a volunteer assistant to the S.C. Apiculturist.
Owen has been a fundraiser to save bees. He has also raised funds for St. Jude and Shriners hospitals and for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. He has partnered with the S.C. Vocational Rehabilitation Department in hiring disabled individuals to label his honey jars.
His wife Donna worked as clerk for the Pickens County Council. She has been a member of the Pickens Chamber of Commerce, the North Carolina League of Municipalities and the South Carolina Association of Counties. Donna now works full time for the family’s bee business and handles payable and receivable accounts and marketing.
Kerry and Donna have two young adult children, daughter Britney Owen Ward and son Stetson Colby Owen. As children, Britney and Stetson earned allowance money painting bee boxes. Britney is an expert on the “fair trade” coffee, natural foods, vitamins, herbs and beauty products sold at the store. Stetson works as a firefighter in Pickens County, and also works in the family’s bee business. He’s especially good at safely moving bees.
Brian Callahan with the Clemson Extension Service coordinates the Farmer of the Year award in South Carolina. Owen was nominated for the honor by Lindsey Craig, Extension agent in Pickens, S.C. “Most people don’t think of beekeeping and honey production as farming, but it is,” says Craig. “It is impressive when you see the scale of his honey production and the new techniques he has developed.”
As the South Carolina state winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo award, Owen will receive a $2,500 cash award and an expense paid trip to the Sunbelt Expo from Swisher International of Jacksonville, Fla., a $500 gift certificate from Southern States cooperative and a Columbia vest from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply.
He is now eligible for the $15,000 that will go to the overall winner. Other prizes for the overall winner include use of a Massey Ferguson tractor for a year from Massey Ferguson North America, another $500 gift certificate from Southern States, a Columbia jacket from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply and a smoker-grill from Hays LTI.
Swisher International, through its Swisher Sweets cigar brand, and the Sunbelt Expo are sponsoring the Southeastern Farmer of the Year awards for the 27th consecutive year. Swisher has contributed some $1,040,000 in cash awards and other honors to southeastern farmers since the award was initiated in 1990.
Previous state winners from South Carolina include: Earl Thrailkill of Fort Lawn, 1990; Charles Snowden of Hemingway, 1991; Robert E. Connelly, Sr. of Ulmer, 1992; Henry Elliott, Sr. of Andrews, 1993; Ron Stephenson of Chester, 1994; Greg Hyman of Conway, 1995; Randy Lovett of Nichols, 1996; David Drew of Mullins, 1997; Jerry Edge of Conway, 1998; Blake McIntyre, III of Marion, 1999; Raymond Galloway of Darlington, 2000; W. R. Simpson of Manning, 2001; Gill Rogers of Hartsville, 2002; Harold Pitts of Newberry, 2003; Earl Thrailkill of Fort Lawn, 2004; Chalmers Carr of Ridge Spring, 2005; Steve Gamble of Sardinia, 2006; William Johnson of Conway, 2007; Kent Wannamaker of St. Matthews, 2008; Thomas DuRant of Gable, 2009; Marty Easler of Greeleyville, 2010; Kevin Elliott of Nichols, 2011; Monty Rast of Cameron, 2012; James Cooley of Chesnee, 2013; Walter Dantzler of Santee, 2014; and Tom Trantham of Pelzer, 2015.
South Carolina has had two overall winners, Ron Stephenson of Chester in 1994 and James Cooley of Chesnee in 2013.
A distinguished panel of judges will visit Owen’s farm, along with the farms of the other nine state finalists, during the week of Aug. 1-5. The judges this year
include Clark Garland, longtime University of Tennessee Extension ag economist from Maryville, Tenn.; farmer Thomas Porter, Jr., of Concord, N.C., who was the overall winner in 2011; and Charles Snipes, retired Mississippi Extension weed scientist from Greenville, Miss.
Note to media: The judges will visit Owen’s farm and business on Aug. 5 from 12:30-3:30 p.m. If you would like to visit the farm during the final two hours of judging, please call John Leidner at 229-392-1798, or contact him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or contact Owen by calling 864-397-5300.