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Hobby turns into family business: Clover Blossom Honey to be honored at dinner

By Joseph Slacian

Although it’s been in business since 1959, Clover Blossom Honey could be one of the best kept secrets in Wabash County.

“We’re probably better known out of the state than we are in Wabash County,” said Don Shenefield who started the business.

Today, Clover Blossom Honey, located in LaFontaine, is owned by Don’s son Dave, and includes three generations of family on staff.

On March 10, the Shenefield family will be honored as the 2020 Farm Family of the Year at Grow Wabash County’s annual Salute to Agriculture dinner.

“I started the business in 1959 as a hobby,” Don said. “A friend of mine bought a bunch of bees in Kokomo and he didn’t have the money to pay for them, so he asked me if I would buy half of them, and that was a mistake. Then I had three or four big outfits around that wanted to sell me bees, so I gradually got to the point after 10 years, two jobs and four hours sleep … I decided I either had to do this or that, and if I was going to use my energies to build a business, I might as well build my own instead of somebody else’s.”

But the start of the business can trace its roots back even further.

“My great-grandfather had a couple of bee hives in the orchard,” Dave said. “(Dad) started his hobby in 1959, and, of course, I was a kid and as long as my feet were under his table, I did what he said, and so I worked with the bees.

“I hated bees. I was never so glad to graduate high school so I could get away from bees.”

Following a stint in the U.S. Army, Dave rejoined the business in 1974 when it operated a mere 700 hives.

“My brothers, they didn’t care for it too much because the work always came before other activities,” Dave’s sister, Beth Shenefield, said.

Beth, along with Dave’s son Derek Shenefield, both work in the family business.

“It’s in my blood, I think it’s in (Derek’s) blood,” she said. “We’re very blessed to walk into something like this. It’s rewarding because we make a living at it, but it’s rewarding because we’re providing a service that’s a good thing. I left for a little bit, but I came back because this is what I love.”

Derek said “it’s a big deal, it really is. For my Grandpa to start this, and then my Dad to come back, and my aunt and everyone to be involved with, it means a lot. It’s important to keep it going. And it’s a valuable business … because the service the honeybees provide the world is really a big deal.

“It’s a lot of hard work. It takes away a lot of family time. But that’s part of the advantage of being a family business. You kind of have that family time while you’re at work.”

Dave said having family members want to join the business felt great because “it really made you feel like you were doing something worthwhile.”

“You can have the relationship of not only them being your family, but you get to work with them,” he continued. “It gives you plenty of opportunity to fight and disagree, but other than that, it’s pretty good.”

Clover Blossom Honey is based on five acres of ground Don purchased in 1974. It operates at more than 150 locations through Northeast and Southern Indiana.

“So, our farm extends out basically three hours to the south, two hours to the north and an hour to the east and west,” Dave said. “That’s the ground we cover, where the bees are.”

The business eventually grew from the 700 hives to 2,000 hives.

“More family got involved. My son Derek got out of the Navy, so we had to add more bees,” Dave continued.

It now operates 3,000 hives throughout the aforementioned locations around Indiana.

“Derek thought we need 5,000 hives, but when he found out how much it takes to run 3,000,” Dave said, “he decided 3,000 was a good number.”

The business has five full-time and one part-time employee that work year around, Beth said, with more in the fall when it is time to extract the honey from the hives.

The operation is basically a year-round business. Once the season ends in Indiana and cold weather sets in, the business ships about 2,000 hives to California where the bees are used to help pollinate that state’s almond crops.

That is one of the ways the business has changed over the years, Don believes.

“Back then, they thought pollination, we ought to do for nothing,” he said. “But now it’s gotten to a point where if you’re not in pollination, you can’t make a living at it.”

California needs 1.6 million hives of bees just to pollinate almonds, Dave noted.

“Eighty percent of the almonds that are grown in the world are from California,” he continued. “In California, there are only 200,000 hives of bees, and California isn’t really sustainable for them.”

California beekeepers, he noted, move their hives to the Northwest to help with honey production there.

“We moved our bees out there because in the wintertime bees aren’t doing anything here except huddling up to try to stay warm,” Dave said. “It was a business decision to grow and to buy things and to make our jobs easier here.

“Bees from all over the United States have to go to California for this event. It’s the largest pollinating event that happens in the world.”

Are there plans to grow the business in the future? It all depends, Dave said.

“There’s plenty of room for growth here,” he said. “Our marketing scheme … we were in a lot of grocery stores. But then we had to do more care with the bees, so we had to still get rid of the volume of honey, but we still had to deal with the bees, so ... We started selling in drums so we could sell the same volume, but just less customers. The bee care needed to be more … so now a lot of customers come to us. A lot of beekeepers don’t grow enough honey, so we sell drums, buckets, even bottles to beekeepers.

“So, there’s plenty of opportunity if one of my granddaughters, grandsons, cousins, or whatever, want to go back into marketing and bottling honey, they can do that. There’s plenty of opportunity. But at my age, I’m just going to take care of bees and not worry about marketing anymore.”

In addition to working with the bees, Dave Shenefield can be considered an ambassador for the industry, often working and mentoring younger beekeepers. He also has worked several years at the Wabash County Farm Bureau Ag Day at the Wabash County Fairgrounds, at which fourth graders from around the county learn about life on the farm.

“I’ve always enjoyed kids,” he said. “It’s a joy to be able to share your knowledge with these kids in a venue which I really appreciate. Kids, they’ve got to learn from a book and listen to your lectures, but at the fairgrounds it’s totally amazing because you get to interact with them, and talk about bees and ask them questions.

“Mentoring … I not only do that in the community, but I do it with young beekeepers throughout our state, throughout Indiana. The thing about beekeeping, nobody’s a threat to one another. It’s so hard to keep your bees alive. There’s plenty of opportunity for all beekeepers. Just sharing my knowledge and helping give them an opportunity to be successful … I enjoy that quite a bit.”

 

Like any part of the ag industry, beekeeping can have its pitfalls. The most obvious is, of course, bee stings.

“Bee stings, when you get stung a lot it doesn’t swell up as much,” Dave said. “That’s the good thing. The bad thing is it still hurts, and it hurts just like the first time you got stung. The pain is there.

“But it’s just like a mechanic who busts his knuckles, or if you get a papercut working in your office, it’s just part of the job. You rub it off and go on.”

Don agreed that it’s part of the job.

But, he said, “honeybee sting hurts a lot less than the sting of punching a time clock. A honeybee sting, five minutes and it’s gone, but that factory clock, it’s there.”

All the family members were proud to be named the Farm Family of the Year.

“It’s an honor to be chosen with that, to be recognized, like you kind of done something’s that’s worthwhile,” Dave said.

“I’ve been involved in a lot of different things. Now all I want to be is a beekeeper. It’s an honor to be chosen, but it’s not really necessary for me at this point in time.”

Don said he appreciates the honor, noting that it will help people realize what their business is.

“Farm Family of the Year, that’s kind of a big deal,” Derek said. “Beekeepers, we’re kind of the stepchild of the agriculture community. Nobody knows what a beekeeper does. A lot of people appreciate it, but it’s just a small part of the agriculture community.

“To be recognized, it means a lot to the family and the beekeeping industry as a whole.”

Beth agreed, noting, “it means a lot to be recognized. It’s been a long time coming.”

The 2021 Salute to Ag Dinner will take place at 6:30 p.m. March 10 at the Heartland REMC building, 350 Wedcor Ave. in Wabash.

Posted on 2021 Mar 02