By Vanessa M. Gezari
Sunday, May 10, 2009
Phillip Ramsey, 62, has kept honeybees on and off since he was a boy. He can reel off a litany of their favorite nectar sources from Florida to Maine and is full of arcane details about how changes in agriculture and animal behavior have affected the nation's bee population. But it was only after he'd started two companies and quit his job at a third that he set out to turn small-scale, sustainable honeymaking into a profitable enterprise.
"I pretty well decided, being in my early 50s, that I wanted to return to my roots," says Phillip, of Warrenton. "Since we'd been in Fauquier County, we always had hives. People always had my honey and said, 'You should sell this.' " In 2002, after leaving his job in advertising and cashing out his stock options, Phillip invested $10,000 to start Stoneleigh Farms. Today, his raw, lightly processed honey and honey-based soap and shampoo line shelves and display racks at a handful of specialty shops and dozens of Bloom and Giant grocery stores in Maryland and Virginia. Along the way, Phillip has developed a unique way to keep his bees producing honey from spring to fall.
Many bees are owned by professional pollinators, who load their insects onto trucks each winter and make a grueling journey in search of nectar, beginning in Florida's citrus orchards in February and ending in August among the blueberry bushes of Maine, Phillip says. Farmers pay for the service, but travel taxes the bees' immune systems -- a possible reason, according to scientists, for the mysterious disappearance of honeybees around the world. If the bees stay put, they face a shortage of nectar, because more-focused agriculture and a rising deer population have meant fewer of the fruits and flowers that they favor.
But Stoneleigh Farms' bees never stray far from their 21 apiaries on farms across Virginia, Phillip says. In some cases, Phillip pays rent to put his hives on farmers' lands; in others he purchases the honey of farmers who own the hives. In the spring, the bees feed on wildflowers and black walnut, tulip poplar and honey locust trees, producing high-grade honey that Phillip packs in thick glass jars with cork tops. In the summer, when flower and tree pollen are scarce, he feeds them liquid sucrose, from which they produce a non-food-grade honey product. Phillip uses that to make antibacterial, scented hand soap and shampoo.
In 2008, the business grossed $105,000 in sales, with a 39 percent profit margin, Phillip says. The soap and shampoo, which each retail for $9.99, bring the biggest profits. Phillip reinvests most of his earnings in the company. He also has substantial savings from the aviation and public relations companies he owned. His wife, Joanne, teaches music in the Fairfax County public schools.
Stoneleigh Farms honey, soap and shampoo have sold extremely well against national brands, says Ranse Streng, Bloom's merchandising manager. For Janet Jameson, buying honey directly from the beekeeper is a big draw. A few years ago, when her teenage daughter Laura became severely ill with Crohn's disease and adopted a special diet that substituted honey for sugar, Janet and her husband contacted Phillip and asked to buy his honey, Laura's favorite, in bulk. Phillip agreed to make special deliveries himself.
"I want some of that old-world appeal to what we do," Phillip says. "We're passionate about what we do, and people want to connect more now than ever before . . . to the farmer and the land, and have a closeness that we lost."
Have you recently started an unusual, profitable business? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.