Pollinating a resilient county

It’s a long drive down a rutted road to the front lines of the pollinator wars.  We’re following Johnny Thompson’s beat-up truck to the high tech lab of Broke T Honey near Choctaw, Mississippi.  Broke T keeps honey bee hives buzzing across the country.  They sell queens and  nucleus colonies or nukes–which consist of a few thousand bees and a queen.  The business provide the key ingredients needed to combat the pollinator crisis. The US has been losing billions of bees every year to a mysterious malady called colony collapse.  In the year ending April 2016, 44% of all the nation’s bees died.  To combat the crisis, someone must provide the bees to replace those lost.  Broke T is doing that.  In addition, Johnny is helping new producers get started:  “Many of my customers are repeats who are dividing their hives in half or i thirds and need a queen for each of the additional hives. If I had time, I could easily sell 5000 queens a year.”


Johnny is a big man and tells us his story in a deep Mississippi hills accent. From his kitchen table, he describes his honey bee system and how it is part of a resilient farming system in Neshoba County.

Johnny got started in bees long before the pollinator decline. “I started raising bees in high school. Now with all publicity about bees dying out, everybody wants to be a beekeeper.  We sell a world of nukes.  We increase queen production every year and can’t produce enough. This year we sold close to 2000 queens.  Ship them all over the United States.”

“We raise queens in the spring. I buy breeder queens and put them in a hive. Queens are  bred and selected for certain trains like seed stock for cows. All workers bees are females and males are drones.” Their sole purpose is mating with the queen.

“To get queens we maintain cell builder hives.  These are strong hives which don’t have a queen.  When a queen lays an egg, it is female and the only difference between workers and the queen is what they are fed.  On the 4th day the egg hatches into a larva.  It’s about the size of 1/10 of grain of rice.  Just can see it with naked eye.

“I go into breeder queen hives and pull out frames and find one covered in eggs and young larvae just hatched out.  I have cups I put day old larvae in. These cups or queen cells are like thimbles and look like a peanut and textured like a peanut.  Normal cells in a hive where workers eggs are laid are horizontal.  Queen cells are turned vertical.  The cups with the larvae in are on a bar with 15 cups and a frame has 3 bars in it.  So 45 queens all together. Then I take them to a cell builder and put in the frame with 45 cups.  The cell builder bees want a queen.  They will feed those larvae and turn into queens.

“So I put bee larvae into these special queen cell cups that are affixed to bars. Then the bars are placed in frames and the frames are inserted into queen-less cell builders containing lots of worker bees.  Since the hive doesn’t have a queen, the nurse bees rush to feed the larvae a whole lot of royal jelly, a protein-rich secretion from their glands.  An excess of the royal jelly is needed to develop a queen.

“From the time the egg is laid to emergence is 16-17 days. At about 15 days I  put them in minihives which is a box with 3 frames.  A honey producing box has ten frames. These three frames are: a frame of honey, a frame of brood, and then I add a frame with with nothing in it but some worker bees and one queen cell.  In a day or two the queen chews her way out, flies out and mates flying in the air.  Then it comes back to the box and starts laying a couple days later.

“I come back 21 days later, find the queen, put it in a cage, add attendants, sell her.  Then the next day I put another queen cell in and in 21 days pull another queen out.  We do the cycle over and over  every 21 days.  We start the first week in march. First ones come off the last week of march.  Then I keep going till August. We don’t get a queen out of all of ’em.  Some fly out and get eaten by a bird or dragon fly.

“We ship queens in little cages: a queen and five attendants. You can see the queen–it’s the big one with a yellow dot on its back where I’ve marked her.  In a large box, I can ship 100 queens; in a smaller box, I get 30 in it.  This year I sold a couple of guys 100, but most of my orders are 10-15-25.  Sometimes I ship just one.  For small shipments, I use flat rate express mailing envelopes.  I get them free from the post office, poke holes around the edges.

“We can get them to most places overnight, but in the Southeast it takes 2 days. Everywhere else–east coast west coast–they come overnight.  Due to whether trucks or planes to meet 2 day guarantee.  I can get them to California overnight, but to Alabama it takes two days.  UPS makes me put it in a box and the smallest box I have is for 30 queens and costs me 6 bucks.  Express mail envelopes, I can ship for $24.  For a box the cost is $50 for shipping.  For some folks, it might be worth it for even just one queen if they’re going to lose a hive and they don’t have a local source for queens where they can drive down the road and pick one up.

“Nukes we don’t ship. We used to build the containers for nukes ourselves; now we buy them. We buy sheets of corrugated plastic like the politicians make signs out of.  It’s really tough plastic. We pay 8 bucks a piece for the plastic. It’s a sheet 4 foot square, stamped and cut so when fold up it’s a box 8 inches wide, 20 inches longm 10 inches high with perforated lid–all from one piece of plastic. When people come to get them, I close the perforated door, set it in their truck and they take it home. In these packages we have a queen and about 3 lbs of worker bees that people can dump in hive and start hive that way. Can’t ship nukes.  Some are trying it, but I don’t.

Johnny’s one of the few people in the country who provide queen bees.  “Four guys in Mississippi raise and sell queens.  We’re all small scale.  Most of queens produced in US are produced in South Georgia and California.  There are several big producers in California and two or three produce 100s of thousands a year.  Some produce 2000 a day.  There are a couple of those in Georgia and about  6 in California.

The queen bees are just one part of his operation.  Like any resilient farmer, he has a diversity of enterprises.  The most directly related to queen production is honey. He has about 800 bee hives devoted to honey production.

“We keep growing our beekeeping operation.  Me and Daddy had a few bees when I was in high school.  When I left home he sold them. Daddy was a row crop producer and President of Farm Bureau. When he retired, I took over the cattle and chickens. Then, about 14 years ago, a neighbor had a swarm in his yard and we decided to go get them and starting raising bees again–partly as a retirement project for Daddy. Now we are up to 800 hives producing honey.  There are maybe 20 commercial beekeeping guys in the state.  Big enough they are making money at it.  It’s not something that a lot of people like.  When its hot outside, you gotta put a bee suit on, you get stung.  When they find out you keep bees, folks look at you like you’re crazy.  There’s pretty good money in it, though.”

“We produce raw honey, but raw honey has lots of definitions.  Some filter it and still call it raw.  Others say you can’t heat it and call it raw. Our honey still has pollen in it since we don’t filter it.  We do heat it to 120 degrees, but never over that.  We heat it so it will flow well over the baffles to get the honeycomb and junk out of the honey.  Most honey in the grocery store heated to 160 F and filtered.  High heat keeps it from crystallizing.  Any pollen, or anything for crystals to form on will make it crystallize quicker.  Ours will crystallize in 3 months; heated and filtered honey lasts for a year.  We just pick it up if it turns to sugar.  Then we set it in old fridge set up with light bulbs and a thermostat set at 100 F and it turns back to liquid honey and we take it back.

“Doctors say no scientific proof help with allergies, but we sell a lot.  Some folks begin eating a  t teaspoon a day and swear up and down that all their allergy problems went away.

“Bees feed on whatever pollen is available: clover in spring, blackberry bushes.  We put 48 hives to a yard.  Bees fly up to 3 miles in all directions, you never know what they are getting.  Certain times of year you know.  Henbit is first, clover blooms early.  Privet hedge in late april.  Fence rows covered in it.  When it blooms if 10 days of sunshine, they will pack in the honey.  Once privet is over, not a lot blooming in these hills.  Some near pearl river swamp and make through summer.  Load up first of June and move over to Delta on soybeans.  We give owner a case of honey for each yard we put in.  Just picked up first one from there this week.

“Watermelon producers will pay a little to get hives brought in.  Almond producers in CA pay a lot early in the year, then apple orchards, blueberries, cranberries pay a little bit. The fruit in Florida needs bees, but so many want citrus honey that they don’t pay you to bring down bees.

“There are lots of specialty honeys. Tupelo honey comes out of Georgia on the Florida panhandle.  I can make tupelo honey out of bees I put down in the Pearl River swamp, But the producers down there have a lock on the Tupelo specialty honey. People think it has to come from Georgia.

Sourwood honey comes from the Carolina mountains.  Conditions have to be just right to get a lot of it.  It’s a real premium market.  A friend from Illinois brings bees down for winter and had me taste his honey made from basswood, a tree that grows up there, I took a bite and its the awfulest stuff.  Everything is local.

“In the Rockies, fireweed grows after they log a tract of timber.  The honey it produces is clear as water.  It’s really rare and guys that make it don’t market it very far away.

“I don’t make any specialty honeys.  Most grocery store honey, like Sue Bee honey, all will say they are clover honey.  Out west and up in the Dakotas they do have sweet clover–both red and white.  Before corn got so big, all the CRP land had good clover honey.  Down here all we have is a little white clover in the spring and red clover on side of road.  If dairy hay producers let their alfalfa bloom, you can get good honey, but they like to cut before it blooms.

“Soybean is a little lighter honey.  We blend all honey together.  When we first started, daddy tried to separate it.  Spring honeys is real light.  Fall honey is real dark. Most fall honey produces really strong flavor from goldenrod.  You either like it or you don’t.  So we keep fall honey separate.  We put just a little in with spring honey to darken it a little.  Most want it a little darker.  If it’s too light they think you’re trying to sell them corn syrup. So we mix and keep same color year round.

“This year we didn’t get much honey.  Just too much rain.  All over southeast.  Some spots in Wyoming and the Dakotas they didn’t get any honey because of drought.

Creating a complementary system. Like most resilient farmers, Johnny is diverse.  His bees are complemented by cattle and chickens. “Daddy and grandfather both had cows as far back as I know.  Me and daddy did raise purebred Charolais.  He had them in 70s and 80s.  Then we  went purebred for awhile.  There’s a pretty good market for bulls, but return on investment was just not good enough.  Labor and land input is so high.  Bulls you are trying to sell at 16 to 24 months old. That means  you have to hold them way longer than commercial calves sold at 6 months.  You have to have a place for all your bulls and replacement heifers.

“So we got out of purebred and went to all commercial.  By eliminating bulls, we went from 150 mama cows to 350 mama cows on the same amount of land.  Time wasn’t as much, though return per calf is not as much either.

“Now I run about 385 cows.  Two hundred mama cows I own.  Another 85 I have on shares with a neighbor.  He had dairy and shut down and was looking for something to do.  I supply cows and bulls, he provides hay and pasture and we split the calf crop.  That give me more time for bees.

“Here’s our system. We wean cows at 7-8 months.  They weigh 6-700 lbs.  Sometimes I overwinter weaned calves on planted ryegrass.  Last year the price was good in fall and looked like it was getting worse, so we sold em.  Those calves probably went to ryegrass for winter to get them up to 800-900 lbs and then to feedlots in Texas to get them up to 14-1500 lbs and then off to slaughterhouse.

“We used to fall calve  most of ours to take advantage of the peak calf prices in March, to May because most calve in spring.  Most calve in Feb Mar and sell Sept Oct Nov.  The problem with fall calving is you put bull in Dec 1 just when winter hits.  If you don’t have something good for a cow to eat, its hard to get her bred back.  We planted lots of ryegrass with chicken litter for fertilizer and its gets down a lot of time you have to invest in it.  If you have a dry fall and get no ryegrass or it’s late, then you have to buy feed. About 3 years ago we sold cows all the cows we had breeding in fall.

“We no till ryegrass for spring grazing  and it’s easier to put in the bull May 1 on good grass.  Calves not worth as much if really cheap will overwinter and sell next spring.  But though cheaper, got lot less in them, especially time.

“Cattle industry has been good the last few years.  Last year was down a bit, but historically its been really really high last few years.

“A lot of guys have 20 to 30 cows and have a job in town. Farming is just a hobby for them.  Not a lot of people that make a living from farming.  A lot of em are subsidizing their cattle business with a job in town.  It hurts the guys trying to make a living at it.  For them, its like a savings account.  If they need cash, they load up cows and take them to town.

What’s kept farming going in Neshoba county is chickens.  In 70s and 80s there was still some row crops in the county, now all its all cows and chickens.  Almost all cow guys got into chickens and got fertilizer from it.  Chickens kept them in the cow business.  Cattle wouldn’t be a fourth of what is now if hadn’t been for chicken industry. Ones without chicken houses have a full time job.

“Biggest problem about the chicken business is that after 30 years, your houses are worn out and obsolete.  Today it costs $1.5 million for a new 4 house farm, not including land.  You get a 20 year loan and have to shut down in 30 years.  Most businesses you run 30 years and you have something you can sell.  But these chicken houses, they are worthless.

“I shut four houses down that were built in the 70s.  I have another four built 21 years ago and I want to run another 10 years.  I can’t sell them because I don’t want to sell the land they’re setting on.

Policy and sustainability. Over last 10-25 years in Neshoba County there’s been a world of pine trees planted.  CRP or ARP was paying folks to plant pine trees.  That has taken three fourths of the cattle out of Neshoba County.  In the 80’s I’d go up to the auction on sale day sale and it would start at noon and not finish selling everything until 1 or 2 in the morning.  Now they start at noon and by 3 or 4 they are through.  It’s all went into pine trees.

“Government came along said we’ll rent your land, pay to plant trees, give payment every year for 10-15 years.  Ride down road and you’ll see a lot of fences that used to keep cattle in and now are just fencing in pine trees.  For example, I had a neighbor who spent his whole life cleaning up a farm and getting it into pasture and the day after the funeral, his kids set it all out in pine trees.  They lived up town, had jobs ad didn’t want to fool with the farm.

“Now you can’t give pine tree away.  When pines get to be 15 to 18 years old and need to be thinned, you can’t get anything for it.  You have to pay to get a logger to come in and thin.  Lot of mills won’t even take pine for pulp.  It’s another government program which put a lot of folks our of work.

“I don’t want to plant in pine trees. I’m making decent money off cows and the bees are doing good.”

Diversification.  “My older son wants to get out of cows and just do chickens and bees.  Its working 24 7 with all that and he wants to get out of cow business.  When honey is good, its good.  But this year honey is down and cows can take up the slack.  We have friends in South Dakota who do nothing but bees.  They run 10-12,000 hives.  In the fall they load up and haul the hives to East Texas for the winter.  They are maybe down to 6000 hives when they get to Texas but they build up over winter.  Then they split them and they are back up to 10-12000.  But they had a drought this year.  Where normally they make 100 plus lbs of honey per hive, this year they’ll make 20 lbs per hive.  That won’t cover expenses, much less leave anything for salary.  With cows, chickens and honey odds are they won’t all do bad.

Redundancy.  “My oldest son couldn’t wait to get away from here.  All his friends at school didn’t do nothing.  We work around here.  My kids had to be at houe working.  He joined air force.  After 6 months in Afghanistan, year In Korea, year in Nevada.  He swapped to Guard after 4.5 years.  Got 3 kids now and thinks Neshoba County is a pretty good place to live.

“My youngest has been in college 3 years.  He’s fixing to join Air Guard and let them pay for his school since he didn’t want to show grades to his dad.  I was tired of paying for him to figure out what he wanted to do.  He’s working this summer for me until he goes to basic and tech school.  Started out wanted to be engineer.Then he did an internship designing big forklifts in Louisville, Mississippi, and didn’t like setting in a cubicle on computer all day.  After that he decided he didn’t want to be an engineer.  He likes being outdoors but who knows if he’ll come back.

“Most of the farmers in the county are getting old and has no one to take their farm over.  My neighbor had 2 daughters and nobody to take over his operation.  Another guy near here used to run a lot of cows and had chickens and chicken litter but also had 2 daughters.  One grandson has some interest, but he’s already sold his cows and shut down chicken houses.

“Most younger kids don’t want to work 24 7.  We do take vacations but to make it you can’t work 9-5 and take off weekends.  Very few of folks I know has someone to take over.  I know every generation you hear the same thing, but I think its getting worse.

‘It’s different for the big row crops guys in Delta most farming 10-15-20 000 acres.  They are managers. They don’t do any of the field work.  They have consultants.  With honey I work with one, an entomologist who spends his summer scouting fields looking for insects.  When he finds a high level in a field, he tells the farmer that such and such a field needs to be sprayed with this chemical and then owner calls in a spray pilot.  Most have a manager who handles people.  Owner spends more time marketing, figuring out what he needs to plant, working with his accountant, banker, marketing firm, and consultants.  So it’s more a 9-5 job.  Some more kids are staying in over there.  Sometimes you see a kid here who just has the bug, likes to work with cows, but not often.

Connectivity, social capital and Neshoba County Fair. Johnny’s family has been involved with the fair since its earliest days.  The original Thompson cabin in number 90 not too far off founders’ square.  “Daddy helped build it when he was a teenager around 1955 to 60.  When built, there were outhouses around.  Eventually the fair association put in a septic system and got commodes. As far back as I remember our cabin had running water but I can remember when we put in the hot water heater.  Bathroom was built on the back later.  When we put on the bathroom it had a 60 gallon tank on the roof. Water sat there all day and got lukewarm, so at least it wasn’t a cold shower.

“Daddy had 3 brothers and 4 sisters.  The cabin had two floors. Upstairs was two rooms full of beds.  Downstairs one big room.  Daddy and his sister’s family, got in back bedroom and built platform, with mattresses on bottom, full size bunk beds.  My parents on one, aunt and her husband on other. Two couples in each and kids on bottom.  A lot of cabins still are that way.

“Then the fair association was letting more cabins be built.  So daddy and his sister got cabins across from each other and their brother got another.  These were built in 1980.  Even then there was no AC.  We left top 16 inches open for ventilation.  We built ours with AC upstairs for sleeping.  We had a sawmill for boards, pulled commode etc out of old houses. The only things we bought were naisl and tin for the roof.    Daddy didn’t spend $2000 building it in 1980.  Now people are buying cabins like ours for $100,000.  People are paying $100,000 for cabin like that, tearing it down and building a new one. They’ll put down a concrete slab and spend $150,000 for new 3 story cabin.

“Now fair association isn’t going to let any more lots be opened up, so you have to buy an old one and if don’t like it tear it down and build a new ones.

“They turn electric on in mid-May and when fair over turn it off.  You don’t have title to land the cabin sits on.  You have lease for the lot your cabin sits on.  The original families were in Founders’ square with old pavilion where all speeches and bands are at night.  .  Horse races occur every night.  Beef cows come in Saturday night and Sunday, then show on Monday.  Dairy cows come in on Tuesday and are shown on Wednesday.  Petting zoos on weekends.

“Lots of people take week of vacation to come home for fair. Weather is two choices: hot and wet, hot and dry.  And may be both same day.  Dusty in the morning then rain and tromping in mud at night. The old Wiliams Brothers general store in the week leading up to the fair is the busiest all year by far, as everyone is buying up food for the fair.  The week of the fair, the population of county doubles.  It puts s strain on water and electric company.  Like establishing a medium sized town for that week. Lot of counties around have county fair, but basically carnival and cow show.

“People that wudn’t born and raised doing it aren’t as interested.  My wife’s family didn’t have a cabin and she still don’t care that much about it.  My boys love it.  My oldest son’s daughter was born first weekend of fair.  His wife was in labor at the fair.  His son came this year during fair.  Lot of their friends have cabins so wherever they happen to be is where they stay–our cabin or somebody else’s cabin.  Lot of people, look at it as one night and that’s enough.  When I was growing up we stayed almost every night, but have to get up and go bale hay or cut hay.  But if nothing had to be done, we stayed.  All my cousins and friends we there.  We hit midway, get on top porch and play cards, go to horse races, back to midway at night, then cards again.

“Originally it started just as a get together.  Everyone had a farm, crops laid by.  They had an in between time when haven’t started harvesting, kinda dead period. It was just a campground to start with.

“Most folks I know over there, their cabins are owned by the same families for 3-4 generations now.  Seldom does a new family come in.  Sometimes one is torn down and replaced, but by someone with connections to the community.

“It’s a community thing.  The ones who are new are ones who grew up here staying in someone else’s cabin and now want to come back and need a cabin to do it, so come back and buy one.

Infrastructure and resilience.  In surrounding counties, a few families or companies own nearly all the land.  Neshoba is still a county of small farms.  “Owen Birches had a trucking company, made a lot of money, and bought land back when it was cheap. For years he had cattle, running a couple thousand mama cows. But as he older, he slowed down and finally set it all out in pine trees.  All his land has been in timber now for 15-20 years. That family’s by far the biggest landowner in the county.  No one is even close to them.  Lot of guys with several hundred acres, but no really big operations.  Kemper, on the other hand, is a timber county owned by big timber companies.

“Kemper county has no chicken houses.  I’ts got few areas where there are any cattle or anything.  Just not many farmers up there.  Nothing to do.  There has to be infrastructure to keep everything else going along with it.  Neshoba has partly gone that way, more and more timber and less open land, but in Kemper there’s nothing but timber. Well, they do have a few chicken houses, but hardly any.

“Do need a llittle open land to farm, even for chickens, but not for the litter anymore. Now a world of litter is trucked off of here.  Used to be when built a house, all the litter stayed here.  People would even give it to you just to get rid of it. Today, a couple guys make a living cleaning out chicken houses and trucking it to grain farms in the Delta even big cattle farms in other counties.  So you don’t need land to put litter on as much.”

Still a lot of farmers in Neshoba County.  Chicken industry has kept more farmer going in Neshoba county than anything else. That and cows took place of job in town. Wife still going to town so they can have insurance.

Lee Leake County comparable to Neshoba County.  Good many folks with cows, lot of chicken houses,  Scott Co comparable.  Newton a little bit.  Kemper never had faming anyway so nothing to save there.  Winston Co too far away to have chickesn.  Chicken business is regional.  Neshoba, Leake and Scott, esp Scott.

Without chickens, cattle guys would have quit a long time ago.

Kosiusko still milk plant, plant in Newton shut down.  Don’t have dairies don’t have milk for prcessing plant.  Once processing plant shut down have to truck way off, puts at cost advantage so they have to shut down.  Cotton gins and cotton farmers.  Used to be cotton gins in every county.  The modules so some shut down, then cotton cheap and corn high and gins left went out of business.  Now having to truck cotton 150-200 miles to find a gin.

Dependency hypothesis.  Johnny provides more depth to the discussion of the effect of high paying jobs on the resilience of the farming community.  He contends that in Neshoba County, people took the jobs in town but never lost touch with their farming roots. “Compared to surrounding counties, Neshoba has had some of the better paying jobs.  Lost most of them.  40 years ago, Philadelphia full of factories.  Wells-Lamont made gloves. Grandmother worked there all her life. They had several hundred people there. Running sewing machines, not high paying, but good and steady.  Lot of folks worked their whole life there and retired from there. Newmanco sewed pants and shirts.    US Motors and  Emerson Electric built motors.  Good jobs.  High paying jobs disappeared 15 years ago.  A lot of industry has left. A lot of people now that were working in Philadelphia may be driving to Canton to work for Nissan.  Most of the manufacturing jobs have left. Philadelphia is struggling to find factories to come in.  The county spent $1 million refurbishing a building and then the company never showed up.

“At one time we had 3 sawmills in town.  Now we’re down to one sawmill and it don’t employ a third of what it used to due to automation. We had a battery plant.

“Almost everyone got up in the morning and went to town to work. Most who had a good job also had cows at home. At both of those motor places.  When I was growing up everybody had some cows.  Even though they may have only had 40 or 80 acres.

“Back then, if a cow got out, someone would call you and help you put it back in.  Now I’m the only one left out here and if cow gets out and knocks over a flower pot, they’ll send me a bill.     I paid for two swimming pools in last 10 years. There were in ground pools, but had a heavy rubber liner.  Cows fall in, swim to the shallow end and knock a hole in liner. In town they have to fence their pools, I guess not out here. One of my pet peeves is people who move to the country for country life but don’t want smells, cows, or dust.  They want it to be like living in city.  It’s getting harder and harder to keep doing it.

“Most folks don’t really care whether steak comes from US or Canada or wherever, they just want it good and cheap.”

We hate to end on a down note, but we’ve been talking to Johnny for two hours. We can tell he is antsy. We thank him for his time, saying we don’t want to keep him from his work.  He mentions the next projects he’ll be working on. He and his son see us out and we head back down the long rutted drive way.

We drive past plenty of excellent pollinator habitat with dozens of flowering plants, past his older son’s house where his grandchildren live. Healthy children, overgrown fence rows and honey bees are safe from chemical pesticides here. Johnny’s resilient farm is an oasis for pollinating bees.  Just as Neshoba County is an oasis of resilient small farms.

Johnny’s oasis is a beach head in the pollinator wars. Neshoba County is a beach head in the fight for resilience of agriculture in the South.

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