Meet a Beekeeper

John Murray- From Wanna Be Farmer to Banker

We hear a lot about bankers and financial types who want to become farmers ... Green Acres, Wingfield Farm are two fictions on that theme and it is a fact that the NSDAM introduction to farming course is dominated by 50-somethings. There's often a touch of romanticism and middle-age craziness in these farm enterprises. And that humorous stereotype is one of the things that make John Murray's career trajectory interesting and contrarian. Essentially John went the opposite way –from wannabe farmer to banker, but beekeeping is a big part of his back story.

John grew up in Truro and from a young teen into his twenties worked during the summers for his uncle in the Annapolis Valley, and, at his uncle's suggestion for other farmers, too, and got a taste of livestock, apples, vegetable and grain farming. He graduated with a farming technology diploma from NSAC and went to the Farm Labour Pool in Kentville looking for a placement. He was looking for dairy, but wound up working for Eric and Lynn Nickerson at Applebee Acres in Aylesford as a beekeeper. Encouraged by Eric, John returned to the AC and got an economics degree. While at AC, his summer gig in 1986-87 was bee disease inspector, and in the fall of 1987, Endel Karmo sought him out to help him pull honey. Initially John worked for pay, then Endel proposed "two days of work for three hives". The incipient banker in John preferred money, but John did take one hive. He wintered it successfully, split it three times in 1988, worked for Endel again and did accept hives as payment this time. He now had 12 hives which he rented in 1989 to C.L. Stonehouse (now part of Bragg Lumber). "How do I know the hives will be any good?" their agent asked. "They will be," John said, and I guess they were because the day after he delivered the hives John was paid $50 rental for each one. He used his profits to buy 10 more hives, rented all 22 next year, then got a bank loan to buy more, getting the loan in April and paying it off in July with the money from his now 69 hives. He made increase and wintered 75 hives in 1990-91, losing only one hive ... both a Midas and a magic touch at work here, but John says it was easier to keep them alive back then. This beekeeping business was better than compound interest. By his fourth year as a beekeeper, John was up to 100 hives, where he stayed for about four years until a federal/provincial incentive program encouraged beekeepers to expand. He went up to 150, stayed at that level for a number of years, then increased to 200, He has run as many as 300, but now keeps it somewhere between 200 and 300 ... and all the while he has had a full time job, and that full time job wasn't beekeeping.

And this is where the clear-eyed, hard-headed accounting side shows. It's management and priority setting that make it all possible. John's time is limited, so he focuses on the beekeeping. He pays other people to move his hives to pollination and back, to extract his honey (he's never extracted a comb of honey in his life) and even to mix sugar syrup. He plans his beekeeping sessions the night before, keeps big bee yards with up to 50 hives, and abandons yards that won't support many hives. His dad, Bob Murray, has always pitched in when needed is still helping him in his late 70'. John's other helper is his wife Cathie. They pack and market the honey ... when the sun isn't shining.

Since his early days of zero losses, John has seen his hive winter mortality climb to about 20%., and occasionally it has hit 40%. He thinks the pressure of varroa mites and attendant viruses have just made beekeeping harder of late. He believes that spring success –and 80% survival is now accounted success- starts in the fall with taking honey off early (John's honey is off by Labour Day) and treating immediately for mites. Regular comb replacement is also key. He supplies his hives with pollen patties in the spring and fall and even sends them to blueberries with a patty on. Not stinting on meds and renovations comes from knowing your costs and generating income. John figures that he should generate $200 per hive annually to cover capital and operating costs and profit. His income derives from pollination rental, selling honey and selling bees.

In John's working life he has never been the conventional farmer he once envisioned, though he did work for a number of agricultural enterprises before joining the Farm Loan Board in 1996 and becoming the banker/beekeeper he is today. Most of his many outreach activities pre-date the Farm Loan Board Job. John became vice-president of the NSBA in 1989 and president in 1991. He was Canadian Honey Council rep in 1990 and he chaired the Atlantic Winter Fair Honey Committee for seven years in the 90's. He audits the NSBA books annually. He was involved in setting up a beekeeping curriculum at an agricultural college in Jamaica in 1991, spent parts of 1993 and 1994 visiting California commercial beekeepers and queen breeders and researchers at UCLA. Through the 90's he co-authored, mainly with Leonard Eaton, a number of papers about bees and pollination and his name appears on three NSDAM "Fact Sheets" dealing with honeybees and blueberry pollination.

John's practical and scientific interest in beekeeping has led him to meet with and work with many people who share his interest, and when he and Cathy travel he makes a point of looking up and visiting beekeepers in the area. Among his mentors and influences he lists Eric Nickerson, Gary and Gerry Smeltzer, his bee inspection clients, Monique van Staden, Ken Margeson, Frank Woolaver, Paul Kittilsen and, of course, the late Endel Karmo.

One of his fond memories of Endel involves their returning from pulling honey in Endel's Econoline van. The bee blower had broken, but they had finished pulling honey anyway. They had stopped at a restaurant. After the meal, when they returned to the van, the bees, drawn by the light, were clustered on the windows. Endel opened the windows ... in the restaurant parking lot. A little further down the road they were pulled over by the RCMP for disturbing the peace, but Endel, arguing that "you shouldn't arrest people producing food for a hungry nation", got them out of it.

Wishing to give back, John has recently helped mentor a couple of new beekeepers, and he is willing to talk beekeeping and business with anyone, and he is uniquely qualified to advise anyone interested in moving hobby beekeeping "up to the next level".

John may be reached at