#iamamodernfarmer Q&A: Mike Howerton
One of Mike Howerton’s earliest memories involves weaning pigs on his family’s farm in Chilhowee, Missouri. He was four and already working with his father to learn the fine art of farming—just as his father learned from his father, and so on back seven generations to 1839 when the farm was founded.
These days Howerton, 34, isn’t raising pigs or large livestock. The critters he tends to are much smaller. He’s a beekeeper in Nashville, where he and his wife are busy both with Honey Creek Bee Company and their three young kids.
“It’s a very busy, sometimes chaotic, but crazy-fun season,” says Howerton in an email to Modern Farmer.
In his teens, Howerton believed he was destined to work the land his forefathers had, but he instead received a degree in aircraft maintenance, which led to traveling the world and managing airline maintenance departments. But that was until he got hooked on bees.
While Howerton may be hundreds of miles from his family’s farm—which is pictured in his winning Instagram post circa the 1920s—the traditions he learned continue to inform what he does. His company even bears the name of the creek in West Central Missouri near where his family’s farm is located. Besides producing honey, Honey Creek Bee Company is developing a line of all-natural beeswax and honey-based products, like body butters, aftershave balms, pomade, and cosmetics. They also have an innovative hosting program that allows local residents to keep a hive on their property, which Howerton maintains. This way, customers gain the benefits of pollination, learn about beekeeping, and end up with lots of honey—without the pitfalls often made by first-time beekeepers.
Modern Farmer: Why do you consider yourself a modern farmer?
Mike Howerton: I am the seventh generation from a family farm; it’s nearly inescapable that I would consider myself a farmer. Many farmers I grew up around, including my family, are innovative. When working with limited resources and time, creativity thrives from necessity. My career diversion in aircraft maintenance has sharpened my management skills, and I have learned how to manage using business excellence concepts and industry-leading continuous improvement practices. The convergence of these two fields—agriculture and continuous improvement—that’s what makes me a modern farmer. As I began learning the ropes with beekeeping, I learned that owning a large plot of land is not a necessity for keeping bees. I started my first apiary right in our backyard on less than an acre. I’ve since outgrown our neighborhood and have several hundred acres at my disposal, but I am part of a movement of modern farmers who are keeping bees in urban settings. I enjoy working out ways and making plans to make my business sustainable to the next seven generations.
MF: Why is it important to you to support local agriculture?
MH: For several reasons: As humans, we were made for relationships. That’s why we have small groups, communities, towns, cities, and so forth. We feel more deeply human when we are in relationship with each other. So it’s a satisfying experience to meet salt-of-the-earth people, like farmers, and know more about their story as they provide their produce. People are extremely complex and diverse, and each has creative ways of bringing their product to market. I also love being able to support these types of people, and knowing that my local community, and small businesses, like mine, are supported each time local farmers make a sale. I know the thrill of converting hard labor and creative thought into amazing products people love and can’t wait to buy.
MF: If you could grow or raise any food or animal, what would it be and why?
MH: I’ll go a step further and include insects, so that I can include the honeybee. These are infinitely interesting creatures. They are the only insect that provides food for human consumption, and it’s a superfood at that. They provide billions of dollars in pollination services in the US alone, they increase crop yields, and every single honeybee is pre-programmed to carry out their mission. Each time I observe my colonies, or do an inspection, I see something new and fascinating.
MF: What’s your favorite vegetable?
MH: I love the garden-fresh tomato. Whether I eat one straight from the garden, or add them to sandwiches, salads, appetizers, salsa, it’s an easy win to add vegetables to my diet.
MF: If you could give other modern farmers any advice, what would it be?
MH: I would encourage others to not limit yourself to conventional ways of doing business. Although being conventional has its place, like where conserving a method or serving a specific market or culture is necessary, boldness and innovation are traits that can make a brand unique and special. I’ve often found myself overthinking branding or products or an Instagram post for example, thinking that I need to make it look like someone else. It’s great to look at what others are doing and mimic, but I’ve found a niche in taking my passion of observing my bees, taking unique video of them and sometimes putting a music track along with it. It’s sort of eccentric, but it’s what I love to do. I don’t know of anyone else doing that right now.
MF: Do you have a farming/agricultural hero? Why do you admire them?
MH: Both my father and my grandfather are my farm heroes. They both taught me so much about life. My grandfather lost his father when he was 19, at which point he took over the farm. I can’t imagine how much of a struggle he had grieving the loss of his father while learning to manage a farm so early in life, but I also know that part of who I am is because of his experiences. I spent thousands of hours working with him. He taught me many of the things I know about maintaining equipment and about field work. My father is one of the hardest working men I know. He taught me many of the things I know about operating farm equipment safely and how to work a project through to completion, no matter the obstacle, without whispering a complaint. I’m endlessly grateful for who they are and how their lives have shaped mine.
MF: What was the biggest mistake you’ve ever made in regard to farming? How did you solve it?
MH: I did not arrange to learn alongside a mentor when I began keeping bees. I made many beginner mistakes, which led to a lot of waste. I lost a colony because I didn’t take appropriate actions soon enough in the year. There is so much that, as a beginner, you can’t know. I watched a ton of YouTube videos and read books, but it’s a steep learning curve to begin beekeeping. Since starting my first colony and making so many mistakes, I’ve surrounded myself with more resources (podcasts, YouTube searches, books, local beekeeping clubs, etc.) which have helped me continue to learn. Experience is a great teacher, too. Although I’ve made costly mistakes, I’ve gained a great base of knowledge to continue to grow my business.
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