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Mares: Coffee with honey

02/26/09 5:55PM By Bill Mares
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(HOST) Some people collect stamps or coins, but commentator Bill Mares has been collecting beekeeping techniques in Central America to share with coffee farmers in that same region.

(MARES) I just spent two weeks in southern Mexico working on a project to teach coffee farmers how to keep bees.  Our object is to help reduce their economic dependence upon coffee, whose widely fluctuating world price is beyond their control.

For three years I have been picking away at this idea on my own.  This year I persuaded Professor Dewey Caron, a leading beekeeping scientist and teacher to go along with me.   Born and raised in Vermont with a UVM degree Dewey has spent 40 years teaching beekeeping in the U.S.  and studying in a dozen countries in Latin America. Among his books is one about killer bees.  Best of all, he’s fluent in Spanish.  The result of our research will be a three-part manual of best practices in beekeeping for members of coffee cooperatives which already produce honey or are thinking about it.

Honey has a long tradition as a natural sweetener in Central America.  Twenty years ago, when the killer bees swept trhough the region, traditional or rustic beekeeping stopped, and honey production went into steep decline.  Recently, however, pent-up demand and a readiness to adopt modern methods have brought  honey back, and how as a product for the local, national and international markets.  The manual has three parts.  One deals with technical matters, such as production of one’s own equipment or raising queen bees.  The second section covers organizational challenges such as cooperative governance, the relationship between coffee and honey production and the distribution of money among members.   The final section covers the marketing of the honey.  For example, how might the cooperative "brand" its products, or  spread their efforts between local, national and international markets?   All the information comes from the beekeepers themselves.

In discussions with managers and farmers across the region we confirmed one of our pre-conceptions that none of the beekeepers were "hobbyists" as in U.S;  they all wanted to produce honey for real income.  We also made several counter-intuitive discoveries.  Several cooperatives, for example,  chose not to sell their honey for the highest (Fair Trade, organic) prices, because they can sell everything they produce at the local level.

Several experiences stood out.

Alfredo Contreras, a second generation beekeeper in Oaxaca, Mexico. had an extraordinary 'hive-side manner teaching the craft to young and old.   He was also passionate about empowering women who have long been marginalized from primary economic activities.  In Chiapas we met beekeepers who had formed their cooperative after a 1997 massacre of members of a civic organization named ironically, LAS ABEJAS, "The Bees."

In Nicaragua we saw Mexican beekeepers helping Nicaraguans to set up their first honey cooperative.  These activities made this project particularly fulfilling,  because Dewey and I were not gringos bringing the tablets of wisdom and experience from afar, but rather gatherers and sharers of information.  When the trip ended, we came home fired up to work with our own bees.  In Delaware, Dewey had no problem.
        
My hives, however, are under a foot of snow.

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