Wilkesboro Couple Turns Passion into Lucrative Success
One Wilkesboro company is buzzing with excitement.
Steve and Sandy Forrest always enjoyed being teachers. Then in 1977, they became students. “At my first school, there was a beekeeper and he signed us up to help him, explains Steve Forrest. “We got up to where we had 100 bee hives.” Steve is president of Brushy Mountain Bee Farm in Moravian Falls, just outside of Wilkesboro. “Our customers are small beekeepers and we want to have two hives in every yard,” he says. The company makes wooden bee hive components, protective clothing, and other items beekeepers need. Sandy is treasurer. She describes the early years as lean. “I worked at the office and Steve built the equipment for the first several years,” says Sandy. “Then we started hiring people. We didn’t take out any money for a long time as we built the business.”This week, the Small Business Administration recognized them as the 2013 Small Business Persons of the Year. Steve believes their family-oriented work environment and a focus on web marketing helped them win this award. Now they have 70 employees, a branch in Pennsylvania and have just moved their manufacturing division into a 32,000 square foot warehouse in Wilkesboro. And of course, they keep a few hives.
Brushy Mountain Bee Farm exports hives, clothing, and equipment to beekeepers across the United States and in parts of Australia and Europe. According to Steve, the company is a success because of the extensive support he and Sandy got from agencies dedicated to helping small businesses. He believes the more state lawmakers invest in these groups and in small businesses, the more North Carolina’s economy will improve. “80% of the businesses in North Carolina have less than 50 employees. So if you want to affect the lives of North Carolinians you have to work with the small businesses. As opposed to bringing in large companies that come in, get tax breaks and then leave after a few years.” The next market Steve and his partners want to expand into is Canada.
Shane Gebauer is vice president and general manager. He says the bee population is in trouble because of what the industry calls Colony Collapse Disorder. “This year, about 40% of the colonies have been lost nationwide,” according to Gebauer. “They believe several factors are weakening the hives: bees are carrying pesticides back to the hive which kill some of the bees; poor nutrition because commercial farmers tend to grow one main crop and bees need access to a variety of flowers and crops as a food source; and the varroa mite, a tick-like pest that transmits a virus especially to drones.”
Gebauer calls this a perfect storm that will adversely affect the U.S. agriculture system because one-third of all food eaten results from insect pollination. Gebauer says that because Brushy Mountain Bee Farm is a small company, they can work closely with customers and educate them on how to keep their hives healthy. “They can be more attentive to keep the varroa mite population low so viruses don’t cause health issues,” says Gebauer. “Also they can be more diligent about rotating out older equipment and putting in newer fresh equipment so pesticides don’t accumulate to unhealthy levels in the hive.” Gebauer says some essential oils have been found to kill the mites without harming the bees. They evaporate out of the hive. The team has plans to sell some organic oils and acids to help their customers protect their colonies.