By Dave Yanko
Honey produced in southern climes—even top grade honey— can look and taste very different from that produced in Canada. Fortunately, for Saskatchewan’s Hannigan Honey, the Japanese much prefer the variety produced in Canada at the company’s Shellbrook home. Hannigan shipped no honey to Japan several years ago. Today it sends about 85 per cent of its annual million pounds of product to the land of the rising sun.
“Our Asian market has latched on to our honey because of the mild flavour and beautiful white colour we can present to them,” says Murray Hannigan, president of the business. “It stands out as unique against most of the honey they’ll find throughout Asia and, really, the rest of the world. They really respect what they’re getting from us.”
That mild flavour and white colour come from the nectar of canola and, to a lesser extent, alfalfa and clover that Hannigan’s bees use to make their sweet potion. However, the Japanese demand consistency in the quality and quantity of their imported honey. “Japan is very discerning about its food imports—they have some of the toughest scrutiny in the world,” says Hannigan.
He says his company has three main “secrets to success” in navigating the Japanese market. “First, there’s this little situation that we call ‘winter’ that really works in our favour,” says Hannigan, whose father Albert started the company in 1940. He explains that the fittingly named varroa destructor parasitic mite attacks and feeds on honeybees and carries viruses suspected of causing colony collapse disorder, which has ravaged the industry over the last 25 years. Varroa survives but cannot multiply during Canadian winter because queen bees stop laying eggs, so brood production, where mites propagate, is almost nil through the coldest and darkest months. While it survives winter by living on adult bees, Hannigan each spring employs a treatment developed in France to eradicate the pests. “So part of the secret to our success is our northern climate.”
Incidentally, he says, this northern advantage has not gone unnoticed south of the border. “I was in Tempe, Arizona last winter and discovered American beekeepers are renting big potato sheds and cooling their hives down to try to replicate our situation so they can use the same treatment.”
A second contributor to Hannigan’s success is its annual breeding program used to select for traits such as productivity and ability to overwinter. The third is the firm’s comprehensive hive management program, a system unique to each beekeeper. Thanks to chief beekeeper and business partner David Philp, he says, Hannigan’s program is stellar. “For about 15 years now, we’ve had a less than two-per-cent loss in our beehives when we go out to check them in March of each year. I don’t know any other beekeepers that are claiming that low a level of loss.”
Even when all goes well at Hannigan’s 5,400-colony operation, a host of factors beyond its control can pose serious challenges. For instance, all Hannigan honey shipments are subject to independent lab analysis before export. Yet Hannigan and other legitimate producers are forced to compete with unscrupulous foreign companies selling cheap, syrup-blended honey or products tainted by pesticide and antibiotic residue. These issues result in wild price swings but are difficult to police because testing is complicated and expensive.
On the other hand, he says, consumers tend to see honey as a natural product and the best sweetener available. While that positive image tends to have a buoying effect on prices, it’s no safeguard against deep drops in price.
Hannigan’s first foray into international markets occurred in the mid-1980s when it began shipping to the United States—today, the vast majority of the company’s production goes to export markets. Price fluctuations were common then but not extreme. That changed in later years when honey fetching US$2 a pound in 2014 dropped to US$1 and then US$0.92 per pound in 2015. “It was a huge hit,” says Hannigan.
A provincial government representative who was aware of the price plunge suggested Hannigan consider joining the Saskatchewan Trade and Export Partnership, which assists provincial businesses with international marketing opportunities. He did just that. And in 2016, he visited Japan and launched what’s become a profitable business relationship with the Asian country. Hannigan is happy with the new market and appreciates the assistance he received developing it. But he notes that doing business with Japan requires constant, careful work. “There are a lot of hoops to go through and it’s an ongoing learning process as we present to the Japanese buyer.”
Hannigan is working on a succession plan that will see relatives and key people like Philp assume full control of the business. It’s not surprising, then, that his voice takes on a philosophical tone as he talks about his long career in the industry.
“Beekeeping is vulnerable because it’s not viewed as essential, like dairy or eggs. But we love what we do. We love the challenge. We love the chase.”