Who is Mitch?

Mitch Mitchell is a small scale beekeeper in his late twenties from Southgate in Northern NSW. He grew up in Brisbane and originally moved to Yamba for the lifestyle change.

Mitch had no formal training or education in beekeeping or agriculture, but when he moved onto a rural property across the road from a man named Frank, who needed a hand in order to maintain his beekeeping business, he jumped in and didn’t look back!

“The best way to learn is through direct experience.”

What does he farm?

Mitch manages a small scale beekeeping operation in partnership with his mentor Frank, harvesting honey between Grafton and Yamba in the Clarence River Region of northern NSW.

He and Frank manage between 300 and 400 hives on a number of set locations and produce 30-35 tonnes of honey per year.

“Beekeeping can change you: it has made me super level-headed and calm so I don’t get stung and this has translated into everything else in my life.”

What is the business model?

Mitch has been working alongside Frank for the past five years. He was a part-time employee with Frank for the first few years and supplemented his income with off-farm work during this time.

However, for the past two years Mitch has been employed full-time and now shares profits and infrastructure under a 25/75 split agreement. Through this arrangement they have been able to increase their capacity from 100 hives to nearly 300 through increased labour capacity and shared knowledge.  

“We get along really well and we care about each other. If we didn’t have that, we wouldn’t have a business.”

They independently label their retail products and operate as sole traders but share labour, skills, equipment, knowledge and infrastructure. 

They are currently operating under good terms and handshake agreements, however Mitch would now like to be able to formalise their trading agreements and business relationships.

How does he market his product?

Approximately 80% of the honey produced is honey sold as a bulk batch product through honey wholesale markets in Brisbane. The remaining 20% is sold as value-added small batch, single blossom and blended honey through local retailers and through the Yamba Farmers Markets.

“Keeping it local is a function of our business success.”

It was initially Frank’s suggestion to frequent farmers’ markets as a retail component to wholesale sales. The farmers’ markets have been the perfect match for Mitch as they provide an opportunity to have a direct connection with the local community. This retail market returns a much better value for his product, so much so that the farmers’ markets he attends each week in Yamba have become the bread and butter for his operation!

What are his passions?

“Some people keep bees and some people get honey – I like doing something that really matters, producing food for people is a lot more than just making money.”

Mitch is very passionate about natural beekeeping, small-scale farming and the local food economy. He has a deep connection and reverence for his bees and being able to maintain a relationship with the natural environment and being outdoors are the most important elements that drive his interest in farming.  

Mitch identifies as a ‘natural beekeeper’ – he does not supplement feed and hive health and management are his priorities. He observes poor practices within his industry, especially from the commercial beekeeping sector. For him, this reinforces the value in preserving the small-scale farming culture and staying independent of the industrial honey market.

Mitch enjoys the connection with local community and local food culture of the farmers’ markets.  He is able to share his passion for bees, honey and natural beekeeping and has some great tools for communicating his story, such as an innovative perspex viewing hive which he displays on his farmers markets stall.  

What are his challenges?

Mitch is concerned with the health of the industry. “Price for gear, equipment, consumables and fuel have gone up significantly and in some cases, have doubled over the last five years and honey prices are going down,” he explained.

Imported honey is also having a huge impact on the ability for local and Australian honey producers to stay in business.  Large scale industrial honey producers (i.e. Capilano) are pushing small scale producers and local honey brands out of the industry by flooding the market with cheap honey.

To date, his partnership arrangement with Frank has been helpful but it has also been limiting. Mitch explained that working with an older generation farmer means that there is some challenges in building additional scale (as he is entering retirement phase), capacity, efficiency and agility into the business model and production processes.

Land pressures from urban sprawl have also begun to impact Mitch’s business. Coastal sites are under lots of pressure for land access as population expansion into bee sites have increased access costs and added additional insurance costs. Beekeeping near urbanised populations also adds the additional risk of public interference, damage and vandalism to beehives.

How does he use digital platforms in his business?

While he doesn’t use the internet much for social networking, Mitch likes to keep connected with other young farmers locally through social media networks such as Young Farmers Connect and Northern Rivers Young Farmers Alliance.

What is his advice for new starters?

Mitch comments that beekeeping is financially prohibitive to get into as a viable start-up business. There are significant costs in establishment with equipment and this has been exacerbated by the growing popularity of the hobby farm beekeeping industry, which has resulted in a significant cost increase equipment and consumables.

Mitch explains that it has been really important to have a personal relationship with Frank, his business partner and mentor.  Through this relationship he has been able to enter the industry and benefited from critical skills mentorship, access to equipment, over 60 years of beekeeping knowledge and contacts for bee sites.  

“This is not the sort of thing you could do if you didn’t have a leg up.”

Young farmers really need an older beekeeper to take them under their wing as industry and operational knowledge is so valuable, explained Mitch. However, older generation farmers aren’t particularly inclined to support new farmers or more competition for sites and market share into the sector.

“Knowledge is key. Beekeeping requires a wide range of skills including botany and an in depth knowledge of local seasons and weather cycles.”

Finally, Mitch explained the importance of an alignment between your values and what you’re embarking on. He explained, “You really need to have the right values for this – you can’t just do it because you think you can make money. You have got to do this because it fulfils you.  And looking after bees is such an important role.”

What’s next for Mitch?

Now that Mitch is established in his field, long-term business security is a high priority and he is considering how best to facilitate an opportunity to buy Frank’s portion of the business in the event of his retirement. 

He is also excited about the opportunity to grow his business through cooperatives and collaborative venture. Mitch sees great potential and success for small scale beekeepers to be able to form cooperatives to share equipment and high cost assets and also for combined marketing and distribution power.

Mitch is also considering how to diversify his sales platform and move more product through direct sales and value-added product lines that return a far greater profit.  He is also discussing options to establish a separate packing/retail business, but recognises this would require additional facilities and staff and capital for expansion remains a significant restriction. 

He would also like to diversify into other associated services such as queen breeding and to develop other forms of value-adding such as honey wines and beeswax products like candles. He is also interested in exploring the opportunity to develop formal education programs and workshops. 

Investment in his own learning is also a priority for the young beekeeper. Mitch explains that he would benefit from support in business management and financial skills to ensure good record keeping and to get good business data in order to asses the types of investment capital he would be able to access from banks or other financial institutions in order to grow his retail business or invest in a bigger share of their operation.

Mitch would also really benefit from additional support in product development, learning how better to manage food manufacturing and value-adding regulations. He would also benefit from additional support in developing his online and web-based marketing and sales platforms.

Summary Snapshot

  • Mitch Mitchell (28) 
  • Small Scale Beekeeping/Local Food
  • Partnership with Frank (78)  – Beekeeper/mentor
  • Southgate 2460  – Northern NSW
  • Including : 300-400 Hives / producing approx 30-35 Ton p/a

Reference: Daily Examiner

This case study is part of the Young Farmer Business Program’s series on Small Scale Scale Farming. Be sure to check out the other case studies!