Christopher Serju, Gleaner Writer
BALACLAVA, St Elizabeth:WHEN THE Gleaner caught up with Grace Foster-Reid at her Mandeville home recently, she was comfortably dressed in faded jeans, T-shirt and water boots. After all, it was mid-afternoon and well into her workday, but she was able to take time to chat with our news team.
"Very little," she rattles off in the trademark fast-paced cadence that forces one to lean forward so as not to miss any of her words. "Very little, but sometimes I miss the consistency of that steady income, that sure cheque. Today I feel good, though, about what I do, my conscience is free," she declares.
Foster-Reid is responding to questions about the decision to switch her business suit for the practical outfit which is now her mode of dress these days.
For the Massachusetts Institute of Technology-trained civil and environmental engineer, the decision to return home from the United States with husband, Clifton, some 15 years ago seemed the right thing to do. Armed with a master's degree, it was only logical that the admitted Mandeville country girl would find employment in the bauxite industry. Life was good for Foster-Reid and her medical-physician husband.
Three children later, and six years after the collapse of the bauxite industry, the country girl is no longer employed as a consultant, but life is taking a sweet turn despite the hard work and struggles which have given her a new twist on life.
Self-employed in a most unlikely field, far from anything she could have envisioned, today Foster-Reid spends more time with her daughters aged 15, 11 and nine as she slowly, but steadily, builds a family business centre on honey products. Honey Styx, a brand of flavoured honey packaged in drinking straws, is the flagship product with flavoured honey, pollen and bee candles among the other offerings from Ecofarms.
"Desperation," she admits was what drove her to venture into this area. Even though she still earned some money as a consultant now and then, there were very few practical job options in the wake of the shutdown of the bauxite industry.
"I mean I have master's in engineering but what do I do with that?" she asks upon reflection.
The answer would come during a visit to the family farm in Balaclava, St Elizabeth, where she noticed a number of white boxes. Upon enquiring of her engineer dad, Foster-Reid was surprised to learn they were beehives. To the best of her knowledge, the farm, which has been operated by the family for some three decades at least, was mainly coffee and some citrus. She knows nothing of the bees and, for someone who described honey as tasting "boring", there did not seem to be any attraction.
However, with her curiosity piqued, the physician's wife set out reading and researching bees and honey production, leading to a fascination which, less than two years later, has blossomed into a potentially lucrative business.
"The Honey Styx really came out because my husband is very gung-ho about what the kids eat, doesn't want them eating sweets, but I didn't really like the taste of honey and so I said, 'What can I do to make it (honey) interesting'?"
After ordering a batch of what are called honey sticks in the United States, Foster-Reid was disappointed with what she saw as the unhygienic packaging of the product. Her decision to tweak the product led to the development of 10 flavours of what is now a healthy children's treat, which is also finding favour with adults.
In light of the anticipated growth in business, Foster-Reid is looking get a machine to package, seal and put the label on the straws. In addition to helping her to meet the increased demand. It would also allow her more time to realise the mandate of coming up with at least one new value-added product every six months. The tamarind-flavoured honey will be a hard act to follow but with an otaheite-sourberry mix already in the works, she has challenged herself to keep adding to the Ecofarms line.
"I have a couple of flavours in my back pocket as well as another item for which I am seeking a patent before I go forward with it," she disclosed.
To support these and other future ventures, the entrepreneur is looking to plant bullet wood and other trees in order to develop a pollination plantation for the bees. All the honey is supplied from hives under Ecofarms' control and which are located across Manchester and St Elizabeth, which is key to the expansion plan which will eventually include going organic with the honey production.
Again, Foster-Reid is ahead of the game, having already secured approval from the United States' Food and Drug Administration for sale of Ecofarms products in America. She is now awaiting and anticipating the final seal of endorsement from the Bureau of Standards Jamaica and is in dialogue with JAMPRO to have the product line available at the 2012 Olympics in England.
Back home, there are several outlets including Carby's, Craft Cottage, the Wyndham and you can call 962-2109 for supplies or check out the website at www.ecofarmsjamaica.com.