Christopher Serju, Gleaner Writer
JOHN'S TOWN, St Thomas:
STARTED IN 1980, the St Thomas Bee Farmers Association saw its membership fall to 25, and trending down, a situation it brought to the attention of the Local Initiative Facility for the Environment (LIFE). There are now 101 active members and the group is in business mode, gearing up to maximise the economic benefits from bee farming, while preserving the environment.
For Allison Hollies Cummins, one of the newest recruits, it is a simple, clear-cut equation: "If there is no environment, then there are no bees. So we aim to be a dynamic and sustainable organisation, cognisant of the importance and work [needed] to preserve the biodiversity of the environment. We also want our bee farmers to be able to sustain themselves economically."
The group has made good progress over the past year. After recognising the need for capacity building as a vital component in moving forward, it sought help from LIFE, which responded by providing a consultant to work with the group.
Hollies Cummins recalls the first meeting, which provided the template for future interactions with consultant Carol Miller: "There were 40 persons present and we did a lot of group work because we decided what we wanted to do. She didn't decide for us. She guided us, but we made the decisions as to what we want our organisation to be and how we want to move forward.
"One of the things that we came up with is that we want committees where everyone is involved in something. So when you join the organisation, you immediately join a committee. Whether it is in governance, support or operations, you join a committee's work to accomplish what it is that you want to see happen. You're involved in that process," said Cummins.
The work with Miller over the past six months has empowered the group to draft a development plan, which it unveiled in December, and which it is in the process of implementing. The plan, to be unfolded over three years, sees the bee farmers addressing a number of long-overdue issues such as having the group legally registered. To this end, the planning committee has been looking into what kind of entity, a cooperative or friendly society, would best suit its operational demands.
Another area of priority is the development of value-added products. While honey comes readily to mind, it is in fact the least economically viable product derived from bee farming. The price paid for honey is insignificant when compared to wax and pollen, with the market for bees another viable option.
The group has also developed a moringa spread sweetened with honey and will be developing a wax apiary in order to tap into the vast potential for candles and other products. A sore point for members is the use of imported plastic foundation frames in the beehives, a development triggered by inadequate wax production. Hollies Cummins wants to redress the economic and environmental fallout from this practice.
She told The Gleaner: "We want to produce our own wax and sell it back to members because right now a lot of that money is going outside of the community to buy wax. We have to go to Kingston to do it, so we spending money outside of the community, and what we really want is to keep the money in the area and spend it with the organisation."
In light of the firm foundation provided by LIFE by way of capacity building and other training, Hollies Cummins is very optimistic about the group's prospects.
"These are very exciting times because of the journey that we are on the organisational development plan, our new wax apiary. We are in the middle of a lot of things," Cummins disclosed.