Talking Honey with Steven Hawrishok
A lot of times, it’s easy to guess what someone might be passionate about: an athlete pursuing a professional sports career or an artist travelling the world to find inspiration for their next project. Other times, someone might be doing what they love in a field you might not expect. For Steven Hawrishock, owner and proprietor of Kitako Lake Honey, it’s definitely the latter.
He comes from a family of beekeepers, and while many of us might run away at the first sight of those little striped stingers, he couldn’t think of anything else he’d rather be doing. We recently had a (virtual) chat with Steven to learn about life as a beekeeper and producer of honey. Within a few minutes of talking, it became crystal clear just how much he loves what he’s doing, so I had to find out how someone becomes as big of a lover of bees and honey as he is.
The Family Business
Gabe: I think it’s pretty unique not just to grow up on a farm, but to belong to a family of beekeepers. So we might as well start at the beginning.
Steven: For sure. Dad moved to the farm when he was in his 20’s, so that would have been, I guess, in the late 70’s. He didn’t start beekeeping until the late 80’s, and I was born in 1990, so by the time I was 3 or 4 I was already getting involved. There’s a picture of me at that age in the full beekeeping outfit.
Gabe: That’s awesome. It was the same for me growing up in a family of bakers. At one point or another, every family member has spent time making bread or selling it.
Steven: Right. You know, we didn’t have too many summer holidays. If I wanted to go to camp for a week, I was definitely allowed to do that. But there was always that aspect of being in the family business, as you know, the expectation, although a gentle one, that if you were around in the summer, that you would be working with the bees.
Gabe: I know exactly how that goes.
Steven: I remember having to start fourth grade late because we were extracting honey.
Steven: Ya, we were removing the honey from the combs and I got stung a few too many times and my face was a little bit too swollen up so I had to miss my first day of school.
Gabe: Oh jeez.
Steven: It was nothing too serious, but when you talk about being kind of intimately involved from a young age, I can definitely understand that.
Gabe: Ya, and I’m sure it’s the same for you, but my family has some stories and memories that we find very funny but most other families wouldn’t find so humorous.
Steven: I do have one that comes to mind. From mid-March to November, you’re kind of going pretty constantly, so not too many days off. In the summer is when we need the most outside help, so my dad would hire high school kids from the town of Macomb, which is about 20 minutes Southwest of where the farm is. I remember these older high school girls were there, and just being this really skinny, pretty small 11 year old and having to work with these older girls I had a crush on and trying to, you know, act tough and try not to yell when I got stung and stuff like that.
Gabe: Yet you still stuck with it?
Steven: Well I remember being young and just not wanting to work. I was at that age, I’m sure anyone can relate. I had worked pretty much every summer of my life, so by the time I was finishing high school, I was pretty sure I wasn’t coming back. I wanted to go out and do a bunch of different stuff, and beekeeping wasn’t in my interest anymore.
Gabe: So what did you do, then?
Steven: I would still come back to help in the summers, but I worked elsewhere, doing piecework like planting trees and picking pine cones, various jobs like that and travelling. I never anticipated that I would take over the business or that I would want to, so that came as a bit of a surprise to me.
Coming back to the farm
Gabe: What was it that made you come back or that reinvigorated that passion?
Steven: I don’t know the exact date, but I think it was probably sometime in late May or early June. And I just remember being there at a certain point to help my dad out for a bit and we were sitting in this beeyard. You know, the sun was shining and we live in an area where there’s still a little bit of a forest around, which is really nice. So the sun was shining, the trees were swaying and it was this lovely kind of cathartic moment where I thought to myself, ‘I could do this and I could do this happily.’ Not only did I realize that I really enjoyed beekeeping, but that I wanted to find a way to be on that farm, to be in that place.
Gabe: That’s pretty special. It’s not like you were forced back into it, but it was your own decision. That’s pretty unique because it seems like a lot of times in family businesses, especially in smaller towns, that the business is passed down to the next generation so there isn’t much of a choice.
Gabe: So when did you officially take over?
Steven: It would’ve been 2013, when I filed for sole proprietorship. My dad retired a few years after that so I’ve been doing my own thing since then. But to give credit to where credit’s due, my dad’s always been the kind of guy that’s always worked and isn’t a dude that can sit around very happily. So I’ll always call and get advice from him. I’m always learning from him. If it wasn’t for him, the farm would definitely not be in the same shape it is today.
Beekeeping after November
Gabe: So you mentioned that from March to November is more or less when the main beekeeping is done, what do you have to do for the rest of the year?
Steven: Ya, the actual beekeeping is in that time frame, but to maintain the business aspect, it doesn’t necessarily slow down. There’s always stuff to do. So for the rest of the year I’m focused on honey sales or making sure the cash flow is good and the books are in order, things like that.
Gabe: What are the bees up to after November? What’s it like for them in a Saskatchewan winter compared to somewhere in a warmer climate?
Steven: During winter we keep the bees in a temperature controlled building until Spring, but even the Spring weather can be a total crapshoot. We don’t have to worry about it, but that’s because we’ve taken the necessary steps.
Challenges with Beekeeping
Gabe: Are there any other challenges you think you face when it comes to being in Saskatchewan?
Steven: Not just in Saskatchewan or Canada, but beekeepers all over the world are facing different pressures from disease right now. Larger corporations that treat for certain pests and diseases that can lead to an immunity or resistance to medications that smaller beekeepers use. So in lots of areas we’re dealing with unhealthy bees as a result as a result of a globalized honey trade. That wasn’t really Saskatchewan specific, but you know Saskatchewan honey is some of the best honey in the world.
Steven: Yep, the honey from the prairie provinces, specifically Saskatchewan, is sought out. It depends on the floral source, but the stuff that’s sold in bulk has this beautiful white, smooth, ubiquitously pleasing honey. There’s a big market for honey from here, specifically in countries like China or Japan, and even in South America. So we’re definitely local producers here, but because of the demand for Saskatchewan honey in other countries, we’re making good all over the world at this point.
Gabe: Well there’s something new I learned today, and something I never would’ve even thought about. I’ll add that to the list of things to be proud of Saskatchewan for: being a great honey producer. That’s pretty cool.
Steven: Totally. And there’s definitely some of the beekeeper propaganda in there, but for the most part it’s entirely true.
Gabe: So then do you sell jars of honey as a way to focus small and locally?
Steven: Ya, so I sell the jars and I’ll sell buckets of honey to restaurants, bakeries and anyone who’s interested in having a local honey supply, but that’s probably 10% of my sales. I’m part of a cooperative of prairie province beekeepers called the Manitoba Honey Co-op. So that’s where the rest goes. And that’s packed up in 650 pound barrels and shipped to Winnipeg to be packed.
Gabe: Once again, that’s very cool and something else I would’ve never thought of.
Steven: It’s a cool industry, and it’s pretty dynamic. There are lots of really big beekeepers who will just sell all their honey in bulk, and then there’s people like me who are more interested in the subtleties and nuances of honey that we’re able to get in this province at different times.
Are bees endangered?
Gabe: I’ll ask this for my own education, but I know there’s worry about the endangerment of bees and extinction of certain species, so how closely do you follow that news and does it affect you here in Saskatchewan?
Steven: Ya, unfortunately there’s pollinators of all stripes, to use a bad pun, that are under threat. And then habitat destruction is happening at a rapid rate, especially across the prairie provinces. There seems to be an insatiable need for clearing land for new farm land or development. So ya, pollinators have been under threat for a long time and for beekeepers we have not only a business interest, but a personal interest in making sure our bees are healthy. And bees are often only as healthy as the ecosystem that surrounds them. It seems sort of illustrative of a larger trend of habitat destruction and an increased disregard for natural systems.
Gabe: That is true.
Steven: But to be more optimistic, at least with having six months of winter, I don’t think we really have to worry about those murder hornets.
Gabe: I’ll be sure to include that, make sure there’s one less worry for people. One last thing before I let you go: When you took over the business, that’s when you decided to start doing more unique flavors or add a smaller scale operation?
Different types of honey
Steven: Ya, definitely. I was and I’m still really interested when the opportunities are available in doing different floral types in honey.
Gabe: Could you expand for us non honey nerds?
Steven: So if you have honey that’s derived from the nectar of a dandelion, it’s going to be different from the honey derived from a sweet clover flower, for example. Sometimes multifocal varietes don’t always work out, but that’s what I’m most interested in. And trying to make it affordable. I know my honey isn’t necessarily the cheapest on the market, but it’s really great honey and it’s not priced outside of the range of affordability. And to do something unique that’s made here and also marketed here. There’s a number of Saskatchewan companies that have employed an ambition that’s national in it’s scope. I promise I’m not reading off a script. It probably sounds like it, but I do just want to make and sell honey in Saskatchewan and have people appreciate it.
Gabe: Not at all. If anything I can feel your passion for what you do. And when you expand to that level, you tend to sacrifice quality.
Steven: You’re right. But it’s cool that there are different metrics for success everywhere.
Gabe: And I think a lot of times when you go to a small business over a franchise or chain, you’re paying for that passion and personal touch you wouldn’t necessarily get from a conglomerate. You saved money, but you don’t really feel the same energy or warmth from shopping locally.
Steven: Totally, and that has to mean something right? Everyone’s talking about shopping local and that is totally fair, but it should also continue to mean something when we support the people we know. Community should mean something.
Gabe: That’s a great quote. And I think, especially this year, I’ve seen that feeling of comradery in Saskatoon. I don’t want to take anymore of your time so I’ll let you get back to it.
Steven: Thanks for the conversation, hope it wasn’t too boring.
Gabe: No I really enjoyed it, I learned a lot and it was great to hear someone talk about what they love.