Land of milk ‘n honey
Dairy farmer sells debt-ridden business, now sells prize-winning honey
MOREWOOD — Glenn Smirle hasn’t looked back since trading in his Holsteins for honeybees six years ago. The only downside is an occasional sting in an otherwise sweet switch from milk to honey production.
A dairy cow may kick, but honeybees pack their own wallop, as Smirle can attest.
“I’d rather deal with a real cranky cow than angry bees because you never deal with just one bee,” the 55-year-old says from inside his former dairy barn in Morewood, south of Ottawa. “If one cow kicked you, and then the whole herd jumped you, that would be different.”
It was in his second year after selling off his cattle and quota that the Smirlholm Farms proprietor angered one of his new honeybee colonies. He opened a hive on a cloudy day, an elementary blunder contrary to standard bee husbandry advice.
He wore a beekeeper’s jacket, along with screened hat and gloves — but not the full suit used by the pros. He endured hundreds of stings to his body and face as the swarming, enraged bees pursued him for hundreds of meters and found their way under his jacket.
“The next day I looked worse than any kickboxing fight I’d had. My eyes were swollen shut. It was terrible,” says Smirle, who two decades ago was a 5-win-1-loss amateur kickboxer.
He admits he was scared to go back to the hives but got over it and invested in a proper bee suit.
He enjoyed his 27 years running the dairy that started with a modest 15-head milking herd, no pipeline and a circa 1908 barn when the University of Guelph graduate bought the place from his grandparents. But the operation always struggled financially. He grew the business to milk more cows, built a second barn, improved the old one, bought more quota, and yet says the farm consumed more money than it earned.
Interest on his first farm loan was 18.9%, he said. “Those were lean years.”
If his wife hadn’t been working off the farm as an accountant, “we wouldn’t have made it. You’d get to the end of the month and there just was nothing left.”
Interest rates declined but by the end he was over $1 million in debt, which “was just killing me.” he said. Almost $8,000 went to principal and interest each month before Smirle could put a dime toward any other expense.