Experiences of an American woman who was married to a Serb.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Why Can't Serbian Honey Be Like Italian Olive Oil? Expensive and Highly Sought After

Recently we attended the Annual Sombor Beekeeping Convention. Here is the President of the Convention Committee Mr. Nebojsa Filipovic with his lovely daughter. Behind them you can see some of the equipment on sale, including a beekeeping hat my husband promptly purchased.

There were about 25 tabletop exhibits, mostly beekeepers offering a full range of honeys - ranging in color and taste depending on which flower the bees were gathering pollen from. They also offered propolis, which our family (as well as the ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians) use as a type of natural antibiotic to help cuts, scrapes, and even canker sores heal far more quickly. You could also get bags of pollen to help with allergies, and royal jelly to boost hunger and energy (especially useful for invalids.)

Most booths had a token gargantuan wheel of wax (like a huge wheel of cheese) included as decor, but none that I noticed sold actual candles. I'm pretty sure that's because most extra wax is sold to the Serbian Orthodox Church which makes candles, blesses them, and sells them on at very low prices to the public. Why buy an unblessed candle from your local beekeeper when a blessed one is available?

None of the beekeepers mind that. What they do mind is the lackluster honey market. You can't sell much, and you can't sell it for a proper price. Honey keeps nearly forever, so many Serbian professional beekeepers have literally tons in storage. In fact, as you can see below, what I thought was an unusually lumpy bench on my neighbor's front porch turned out to be the unsold honey supply he's got on hand. I've perched on that "bench" many times drinking tiny cups of coffee, so lifting the sheets was rather a surprise.

Here's a photo of my beekeeper neighbor Andre and his life companion Milica. He keeps his hives on a plot of land by the Danube a few miles way. Here they are processing the beeswax from the harvested frames in their backyard. At the right you can see part of the giant boiling vat of scraped wax and water. And in the middle they are pressing out the pure wax from the mixture:

Serbian honey is fantastic stuff, probably far better for you than the honey on supermarket shelves because it's not overprocessed, and the bees were very likely gathering pollen from entirely organic sources. However, most producers are like Andre, sole owner-operators who do it themselves and then can't move much product locally because too many Serbs have a hobbyist relative who gives them honey for free. (We have scads of them and haven't bought honey in years.)

The US market is also flooded with ultra-cheap honey from China and parts of South America. They fill up a tanker, send it to the US and sell it for next to nothing. Pennies per pound. Guys like Andre can't begin to compete globally.

What's the solution? Speaking with my business hat on, I think it comes down to cooperative organization and global marketing. The local guys have to pool product and resources to present a united front and make large export sales possible. At the same time, they need to establish a Serbian Honey Brand marketing team to brand the product as a whole and educate the world market that this is something rare and special.

Olive oil producers in Italy and the fine wine industry in California have accomplished this under somewhat similar circumstances. They had a whole bunch of small, independent producers, and a brand nobody cared about. 20 years ago the Italian oil industry was languishing in nearly the exact same circumstances. Now prices are so high that the New Yorker magazine recently did an expose on cheaters trying to hone in on the crazy profits by selling faked oil.

Is this a crazy dream? If the Serbian bees are not infected by the horrific Colony Collapse Disorder that's currently killing off up to 90% of US bees, I think Serbian Honey as a widely sold gourmet delicacy could happen. For Andre's sake, I hope it's sooner than later.


sanja said...

hi, i was wondering if you had any luck promoting serbian honey in the us?

Gary said...

Our shipment of serbian honey has arrived! We ship to Canada and the US. http://www.wildflowerbees.com