Mark Jensen has been running Smoot Honey Co. since 1996. With over 50 years of business in Teton County, Smoot Honey is in the middle of this year’s harvest.
“We produce roughly half a million pounds of honey each year," said Jensen.
Half a million pounds sounds like a lot, and it is for the size of the farm. It competes with some of its largest competitors across the U.S. producing over one hundred pounds of honey per hive.
The honey process is quite simple: Beehives are placed around the state in early spring and harvest begins in August. Depending on the cold weather, the honey making season can run short for Smoot. It’s important to give the bees adequate time to produce.
Truck loads of hives are still pouring into the Smoot Honey Co.’s warehouse. Employees work diligently to harvest as many hives as possible to meet production standards and hit deadlines for resale. Jensen's goal is filling 20 barrels of honey per day.
“They're coming out of the hot room with boxes to be extracted," he said. "So in theory, every one of those boxes is filled with frames filled with honey.”
Nine slats of honeycomb line each box in the Hot Room, which sits between 95 and 96 degrees; the temperature that bees keep their hives. All of which showcase the intricate work of a hive of bees.
“The whole thing is filled with honey and all those little…Hexagons are cells. And so, they're filled with honey in there…”
A lot of Smoots honey that is processed did not have full beeswax caps on them. Because of their timeframe in harvesting the honey, they pulled the hives before bees could finish the wax caps. This doesn’t change the quality of the honey but merely work to protect their product from spillage.
The extracting process starts at the “uncapper.”
A machine that removes the wax caps. Following the first steps in the extraction process an employee uses a drywall knife to remove excess wax then moving the slats up a conveyor belt.
“When that whole conveyor tray is filled with cones that need to be extracted, then they'll go in that machine there.”
That machine is a centrifuge that uses centripetal force to drain the honey from the comb.
Following this step, the honey is funneled into a drainage system to the first form of filtration that removes the gunk that shouldn’t be in the finished product.
While all of this is happening, a heating system within the pipes heats the honey to the temperature it sits in the hive for easy transport. Next stop, storage for Jensen to barrel.
“That's all I do is I open that Syracuse valve there.”
A golden stream of sweet goodness flows from the spout into a barrel that will then move to packaging.
Jensen keeps a log of the weights of the barrel, the average tare weight sits at 650 pounds of honey per barrel.
“The crop is coming in better than we had anticipated. It doesn't look like we're going to make an average crop this year, but it hopefully will be better than last year, which was our fifth worst of all time,” Jensen said.
The changing effects of the Earth’s climate and the ongoing drought continue to negatively affect farmers like Jensen. Bees are essential when it comes to pollination of plants and sparking new growth. Bees in Central Montana are at a greater disadvantage for foliage because pulse and cereal crops don’t pollinate like other foliage. Bees manage but rely on the basic building block to life.
“Water is the key word. We don't grow anything on the ground, like you said, but we rely on plants that do grow on the ground, or the bees rely on the plants for forage. And so that's where they get their nectar, which then translates into honey.”
It’s an ongoing battle for Jensen and farmers alike and a year to break even or just below average is a positive outcome.