The Jeff and Kristi Lawhon Family 2011 Wakulla County Outstanding Farm Family
Selected by Wakulla Extension and the North Florida Fair.
By Jennifer Jensen
The Lawhon family: Kristi and Jeff, son Hunter, and daughter Gracie.
Since 1998, Jeff Lawhon, of Sopchoppy, has been the keeper of bees. Well, the keeper of about 500 beehives located in the Apalachicola National Forest.
Lawhon, who was born and raised in Sopchoppy and lives on the same piece of property he grew up on, said he grew up around beekeepers and was always interested in it. He had several friends from Smith Creek who were beekeepers. He would go along with them to harvest the honey and asked questions during each step of the process.
“They made fun of me because I was always asking questions,” Lawhon says.
He then decided to give it a try himself and purchased 30 beehives. His wife, Kristi, suggested he start small, making sure it was something he wanted to do.
“If he felt good about it, I felt comfortable with it,” Kristi Lawhon says, who describes her husband as a thorough researcher.
“I know he won’t do something that isn’t a worthy investment,” she adds.
Once Jeff Lawhon started, he was addicted. The following year, he bought out another beekeeper and then had a total of 500 beehives.
“I kind of fell in love with it,” Jeff Lawhon says. “I dove head first into it.”
Now, 13 years later, the business continues to thrive and has expanded to not only harvesting honey, but leasing out bees for pollination to other farmers.
Beekeepers are beneficial to the environment, Lawhon says.
And to recognize these contributions, the Lawhon family was selected as the 2011 Wakulla County Outstanding Farm Family of the Year by the Wakulla County Extension and Wakulla County Farm Bureau. The Lawhon family includes Jeff and Kristi and their two children, 11-year-old Hunter and 8-year-old Gracie.
Jeff Lawhon says in the past couple years, people have begun to understand what beekeepers do because wild bees have started to die off, which means a lack of pollination for farmers and gardeners. The wild bees are being killed by pests and insects. Beekeepers are able to keep their bees alive by treating for mites and other insects and keeping a close eye on them in the off season.
He adds that many people have started to buy bees to put in their yards for pollination. The extension office has also bought bees and have started classes on beekeeping because of the decrease in the wild bee population. For years, people didn’t understand beekeeping and all that it involves, he says.
“It shed some light on it,” Lawhon says.
People started to see how in depth the beekeeping is, he says. He began receiving calls from the extension office after they bought bees asking different questions about how to handle and take care of them. So then once it was time to select a Farm Family of the Year, the Lawhons were mentioned.
“It is farming,” Lawhon says. “It’s farming for honey.”
Lawhon’s grandfather used to keep bees, so it is something he has always been around.
Before starting his bee business, he had a landscaping company, but decided it was time for a change and was ready to truly be his own boss and be on his schedule. He says he has always loved the outdoors and agriculture so beekeeping seemed like a good fit. Plus he loved his workplace, the forest.
“The solitude of the forest, that really kind of spoke to me,” Lawhon says.
During the Spring, bees make excess honey, which is taken by the beekeepers and is called “robbing the honey.” Harvest season runs February through May, Lawhon says.
“It’s honey and money making time in the Spring,” Lawhon says.
The bees fly during the day and work from dusk to dawn. No matter how far they travel, the bees always manage to make it back home, to their hive, at night.
“They’ve got internal GPS,” Lawhon says. “It’s really interesting to watch them.”
In each hive, at the bottom of the box is where the queen lays her eggs. The other layers is where the one honey collects. Once a box is full, another is added. When the honey begins to flow over, the boxes are pulled.
The honey can weigh up to 70 pounds, Lawhon says.
“It’s hard work, but it’s rewarding,” Lawhon says.
Once the honey is removed from the hive, the wax is uncapped and it is put in an extractor which slings the honey. It then pours the honey into a tank, which goes into another tank and is poured into a 55 gallon drum. These honey-filled drums are sold in bulk to a man in New Jersey. That honey is used for baking, Lawhon says.
There is one type of honey that Lawhon doesn’t sell to a wholesaler, instead, he bottles it with the help of his family and sells it.
This honey comes from the Tupelo tree and is called table grade honey, Lawhon says.
Halfway through the harvesting season, the boxes are cleaned out and Lawhon moves all of his hives to the riverbank and the bees only work the Tupelo tree. The Tupelo Tree is only found in this area, Lawhon says.
“It’s our specialty item,” he says.
The honey is raw, natural and unfiltered, he says. Nothing is added, it isn’t pasteurized or heated, so it still has all its natural attributes.
“It’s just straight up from the bee to you,” Lawhon says.
After harvest season, Lawhon says he is then just trying to keep the bees alive, treating for mites and keeping them away from bears. In the winter if the bees do not produce honey, he gives them a supplement.
“That’s the management part of it,” Lawhon says.
During the busy season, Lawhon says he uses part-time labor. His family helps with bottling, but Kristi says she stays away during the harvesting.
“Whey they sling honey, there are bees everywhere,” Kristi Lawhon says.
“It’s hard to find help, because of the bee stings,” Jeff Lawhon says.
He adds that Hunter travels with him and has just gotten big enough to start helping with slinging the honey.
“He hasn’t quite found the love for it,” Lawhon says. He adds that it may be because Hunter was stung when he was younger.
Lawhon says he is a determined person and once he started beekeeping, he was going to make it successful.
“I don’t give up,” Lawhon says.
Jeff Lawhon is not only a beekeeper, he is also a firefighter with the Tallahassee Fire Department. Kristi Lawhon is a registered nurse and teaches at the Medical Academy at Wakulla High School. The two have been together since 9th grade when both attended Wakulla High School.
The family was recognized at the North Florida Fair in Tallahassee by the Fairboard and is featured in the Wakulla County booth at the fair, which ends Nov. 13. The family will also be honored at the Farm City Breakfast to be held on Nov. 23 at 7 a.m. at the Livestock Pavilion.