When we talk about food, it's easy to forget about our friends the bees. Their importance in our food system cannot be overstated, however--a staggering number of food crops would not exist without their work as pollinators. As much as we depend on bees to act as our co-workers in feeding our community, the current industrialized agriculture system has not repaid their efforts with kindness. In recent years, we have seen their numbers decimated by chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the loss of native plants, and monocropping. So we're especially grateful to have Mark Bradley and Raul Vergara in our community, stewarding this vital component of our food system--supporting bee populations and helping them find healthy pollen on organic local farms. In return, as they always do, the bees give back to us tenfold, making possible abundant harvests of fruits and vegetables, grasses and forage for livestock and dairy animals to eat, and offering up jars of amber sweetness, tinted by the blossoms and buds of our very own community.
Tell us a little about the journey that led you to Austin Honey Co.
During my time as a commercial landscaper, I grew disenchanted with the standard practices of the trade. I used to apply harsh chemicals to the landscape that are very harmful for all insects to include honeybees. After I got into beekeeping 8 years ago, I learned that what I was doing was extremely harmful for not only our environment but all pollinators. When I learned of the connection between pollinators and our food system, I knew that my time as a commercial landscaper was finished. Raul and I started beekeeping in the western suburbs of Chicago. When the opportunity to improve our overall quality of life presented itself 4 years ago, we decided it would be best to move as a family to Austin, TX. Austin Honey Company became to be out of our desire to grow our local organic food system while simultaneously continuing our desire to manage honeybees here in Austin. While commercial beekeepers all over the United States manage their honeybees and place them on traditional industrial monoculture, we choose to place our bees on local organic agriculture systems to boost their pollination and yields, help them to be more economically viable, and have a great place for the bees to thrive in a healthy environment free of harsh chemicals.
Tell us about the products you make—what’s special about them?
The products of the hive that we offer are an extension of our organic food mission with our bees. In the process of pollinating, they create a delicious raw wildflower honey that we purposely harvest seasonally, thus giving the lighter and darker colors of our honey. The lighter honeys are typically from the spring and the darker amber mid-summer and fall. The flavor grows bolder and more complex as the seasons progress. Given that the bees are working many different types of produce, herbs, cut flowers, and fruit trees throughout the seasons, the honey does have a unique complex flavor. We also strive to produce a diversity of honey products, offering several different forms of honey to include the liquid honey, creamed honey, and comb honey. We also offer several personal care products made with our beeswax and honey to include varieties of lip balm, body scrubs, and several beeswax candles. Overall, the uniqueness to our items is that everything is sourced from honeybees gathering pollens and nectars from local organic farms within a 30 mile radius of downtown Austin.
Why use local ingredients?
Using local ingredients whenever possible overall boosts our local economy and helps keep more of each dollar within our area. It allows local producers to earn a living doing what they love and encourages more creativity as well. It also creates a deeper sense of community, boosts social capital, and allows for a stronger sense of connectedness among our citizenry.
How did your previous life experience or influences prepare you to make food for a living?
After my experiences as a commercial landscaper and learning about how important honeybees and other pollinators are to producing most of the delicious fruits and vegetables that we love to eat, I felt a sense of urgency to create the kind of change that we need to see.
What does “sustainable” mean to you?
A purposefully managed renewable system with takes into account not only the direct, but also the indirect impact and effect on all stakeholders is sustainable. For us it means several things. First, it means choosing to not use harsh veterinary grade commercially available chemicals in or around our beehives to control pests. The purposeful application of the bees within a sustainable food production environment on local organic farms also is sustainable. Seeing our partner farmers benefit from enhanced pollination also is sustainable, as it means a greater yields and supply for our local organic food system. Overall, it means a true appreciation for all our natural systems, the air, water, soil, and the people and animals who inhabit our shared space, and a concern for the renewable health of our shared space.
What does a “day in the life” look like at Austin Honey Co.?
Our activities vary with the seasons. Typically, both Raul and I are up early and when it is necessary we get our bee work done as early as we can. One or both of us are working with the bees tending to their needs as needed. Administrative tasks are always present on a daily basis, also filling honey order requests, delivering honey, and bottling/preparing for the markets. We do receive a lot of marketing help from our respective wives, Martha Vergara and Brenda Bradley, as well as, personal care product and beeswax product preparations.
What would we be surprised to learn is part of your “job description”?
When the grass gets too long in our bee yards, we must go and put on our bee suits and mow the grass as fast as we can! We don't spray any weed or grass killers around the hives, so mechanical control is the only way to do it. So, it is interesting that I came from a commercial landscape environment and from time to time still find myself cutting grass! Keeping the grass knocked down under and round the hives also minimizes pests and ants, and also allows the bees to cool themselves down better.
What do you find most rewarding about raising food?
Knowing that our activities and their effects are contributing to higher overall societal value. Our broken national industrial food system model must change, and the only way it changes is when citizens are and create the change. Never underestimate a committed group of concerned and engaged citizens.
What do you find most challenging?
The perpetuating drought and inconsistencies of rainfall, essentially boom and bust when it comes to rain around here. Bees, like all other natural living beings, need water to survive. Water not only for hydration purposes, but also to help them create evaporative cooling in their hives, essentially their own air conditioning by fanning their wings in sequence.
What do you feel is the biggest obstacle faced today by folks who want to create good food for a living?
Inconsistent and non-uniform incentives and regulation concerning the production of organic food. Lack of recognition by our national and state governments that organic food production systems actually have higher overall economic incentives for our economy not only the direct effects, but also the indirect cost savings effects, such as lower overall health care costs and the direct link of health care costs and diet.
Why should we shop at the farmers’ market?
To get to know and support your local producers. To be the change that you feel inside is inherently right and vote with your pocketbook. To also connect with others who feel the same way.
What is the best news in food you’ve heard recently?
That Whole Foods has made the decision to take control of the national conversation concerning the labeling of GMO's and that in the near future all products sold in their stores that contain any GMO ingredients will required to be labeled indicating that they contain GMO. As their customer base generally does not prefer such items, they will tend to go away over time.
What inspires you?
Seeing real tangible results from our activities and contributing to the health of our local environment.
What is one thing everyone can do (or a few simple things) to create a better, stronger food system?
Purposely source as much of your food as you can from local sources, and choose to question ingredients that seem suspect. Find you nearest community garden to help grow some of your own food and connect with your neighbors. Much more grows in the garden than food. Demand national labeling standards of all foods that contain any GMO ingredients, so that consumers have the choice of whether they want to purchase such items. Inspire young people to make better food choices and volunteer to help SFC in their mission.
What are some of your favorite market finds?
Red Rabbit Cooperative donuts, Dos Lunas cheese, Swede Farm goat cheese & milk, Mill-King Creamery milk, Pate Letelier assorted pates and spreads, Confituras jams, jellies, and spreads, Texas French Bread pastries and breads, Princess & Moose's Sister Bakery biscuits and gravy and pies, Happy Vegan cinnamon rolls, cookies, and scones, B5 Farms heirloom tomatoes, Indian Hills Farm various meats, produce, and pecans, Southern Traditions grass fed and finished beef, Flintrock Hills Farm produce...I could keep going!
What are you cooking this week?
We routinely cook Southern Traditions grass fed beef at least 3-4 meals a week. Typically making soups, stews or roasts. My father-in-law, Raul Vergara, or my mother-in-law, Martha Vergara, typically do the cooking. I am learning through osmosis, but I am not much of a cook...yet!
What’s your favorite dish using honey?
Honey mustard roasted potatoes, recipe available through the National Honey Board. Many excellent recipes and honey ideas found there.
Tell us about some of your new products?
We have several new products to include four types of beeswax candles, a honey sugar body scrub, and a Holiday honey gift basket with smaller sample sizes of all our popular items.
Favorite breakfast: Hot coffee with honey and whole milk and biscuits and gravy.
Favorite comfort food: Completo, the Chilean version of a hot dog.
Favorite book about food: Omninvores Dilemma by Michael Pollan.
Favorite cookbook: The Honey Cookbook.
Favorite winter fruit/veggie: Leafy greens, onions, broccoli.
Favorite food indulgence: Milk chocolate chip cookies using whole milk and real butter.