Better beekeeping: how Alma Johnson is diversifying the honey industry
A recent partnership with the Sarasota Honey Company (SHC) brought beehives to campus, providing educational opportunities to students, pollen to the food forest and, eventually, honey to the Four Winds Cafe. In addition to advocating for environmental responsibility, the Sarasota Honey Company is committed to the special needs community: the honey is harvested, bottled and labeled by people with disabilities who are compensated for their work. Beyond beekeeping, the company provides free independent living and employment training to transitioning youth with special needs. Owner and Head Beekeeper Alma Johnson’s commitment to the special needs community is deeply personal.
(All photos courtesy of the Sarasota Honey Company)
“My mother was a disabilities rights activist back in the ‘80s and I was diagnosed as a child as ‘mentally retarded’ and she told me ‘as long as you know who you are, you’re going to go into these meetings and hear some really bad things about yourself, but it’s up to you to prove everybody wrong, to get the accomodations and the resources that you need,’” Johnson said.
Before beekeeping, Johnson traveled with Cirque du Soleil. After her time with the circus, she started a free day program offering transitioning services to those with special needs. She also worked with transitioning high school students in a program funded by a grant from the Department of Education. Not long after, Johnson faced challenge after challenge—she was diagnosed with cerebral cancer, her program lost funding and her grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
“My way of gaining control of a situation that I had no control over was to continue my services to people with special needs out of my home for free because I strongly feel like the best remedy for depression—or pity parties, if you want to call them that—is to serve other people and to get involved with the community; to help someone else and see other people be happy, and in the end you’ll be happy too” Johnson said.
Johnson started studying organics and local food, which influenced her to grow a “victory garden.” She was also inspired by her grandmother, who grew these kinds of gardens during World War II.
“My victory garden was to kick cancer’s butt,” Johnson said with a laugh, “but it wasn’t getting pollinated, so as any Texas country girl would do, I started to hand-pollinate my crops with Q-tips and paint brushes.”
The hand-pollination was not very effective, so Johnson looked into getting bees. At the time, she was still offering services to people with special needs from her home. She combined her newly found interest in beekeeping with her commitment to the special needs community, slowly teaching the things that she learned to the young adults in her program. However, Johnson quickly learned that beekeeping is a male-dominated profession.
“I went full-force with learning,” Johnson detailed. “I found that the men in the profession at the time were not all that welcoming to a woman and on top of that a woman who thinks that she’s going to do things with people with special needs. ‘Stay in the office’ is what I was told.”
According to a study conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), there are 969,672 women farmers in the United States. These women farmers make up 31 percent of all American farmers. There are 26,133 women farms in Florida, representing 36 percent of total Floridian farmers. Though Jennifer Holmes is the President of the Florida State Beekeepers Association, she is one of only four women officers within the group. There are a total of 13 officers; approximately 69 percent are male while 31 percent are female.
The Florida State Beekeepers Association is the umbrella group of various local associations. Sarasota and the surrounding region are part of the Suncoast Beekeepers Association. Within this local association, there are four current officer positions: president, vice president, secretary and treasurer. Each of these positions is held by a man.
The kind of reduction that Johnson faced as a woman in a male-dominated field motivated her to push forward, to learn independently and to go about beekeeping in a different, progressive way. She applied to different university internship programs and worked for other beekeepers for free.
Through it all, the Sarasota Honey Company was born, with three important mission values: to increase mentorship and employ people of all special abilities, to support programs and events that provide life skills and promote inclusion, self determination and self advocacy and to continue to provide free independent living and employment training beyond beekeeping to transitioning youth with special needs.
The company prides itself on being a responsible actor within the community and pledges a portion of the proceeds from their Host-a-Hive program to benefit local people with disabilities in the Sarasota/Manatee areas. It also sponsors their special needs beekeepers by completely covering tuition to the University of Florida’s Bee College.
The Host-a-Hive program allows local individuals to host beehives in their “victory gardens” and organic gardens. The staff at the Sarasota Honey Company manages and maintains the hive, while the host individual receives a share of the honey harvest. The host’s garden also gets pollinated by the bees. A free introduction to bee etiquette and behavior will be provided to all families entering the Host-a-Hive program.
New College recently enrolled in the Host-a-Hive program. The beehives are located near the Old Caples building with the intention of helping the Food Forest become pollinated. Interested students will have the opportunity to work with Johnson first-hand to learn about apiculture. The honey that the college receives from the partnership will go directly to the Four Winds Cafe.
Recently, third-year student and Resident Advisor (RA) Hope Sparks organized a student tour of the Honey Company.
“About 10 of us went and toured Sarasota Honey Co, and Alma gave us a presentation explaining how beekeeping works,” Sparks wrote in an email interview with the Tangent. “She then took us outside and showed us the boxes she has on site, and then we got to taste a few honeys. The whole tour was free, and she does a few of them every week—you can sign up online!”
Sparks was unaware about the company’s commitment to people with special abilities until she visited. These values made the trip even more worthwhile.
“My sister has Down syndrome, and I didn’t know SHC worked with individuals who have special needs before we all went on the tour, so it really sold the place to me,” Sparks said. “It’s important to provide resources for those who have different abilities, and creating the environment to let them thrive is amazing.
“It’s a successful company and the employees are good at their jobs, and those individuals should get just as much acknowledgment as Alma herself,” Sparks continued. “A bunch of psychology studies (and personal experience) has shown that inclusivity of those who are different in ability is shown to improve the lives of the differently-abled person and the person interacting with them.”
In addition to fostering educational opportunities, pollination of the Food Forest and support of local small business, New College’s involvement with the Sarasota Honey Company aims to establish a strong community bond and long-lasting support.