A Manitoba-Saskatchewan honey farm has brought home high honours from the 2020 London Honey Awards.
Wendell Estate Honey, which practises both conventional and organic production, entered the only Canadian honeys to receive platinum awards in the competition, appearing alongside honey from Greece, Italy, Spain and the U.K.
To reach platinum status, the honey must score an average of 95.5 out of 100 on the judge’s scorecards.
Jeremy Wendell said he wasn’t sure how judges would receive their delicately flavoured, white Prairie honey, “which is quite different from quite a lot of European honeys,” he said.
The Wendells’ honey — produced from canola, alfalfa and clover — appears strikingly white beside its European competitors — some produced from thyme, chestnut, Scottish heather and wild oak. A glance through other winners shows honeys ranging from gold to deep brown, and Wendell said his European friends prefer a darker, more robust flavour.
But for Jeremy Wendell, brother Nathan, dad Tim and mom Isabel, raw Prairie honey is what they like and take pride in.
“We are beekeepers first, honey retailers second,” Tim Wendell said in a news release. “In these very challenging times for anyone trying to earn a living beekeeping and producing honey, we take great encouragement from these recognitions of our ongoing dedication to quality and authenticity.”
Indeed, the farm’s website spends no small amount of space outlining their beekeeping practices and queen rearing program.
Tim Wendell has been raising his own queens since the 1980s, something he hoped would help with winter survival and efforts to keep back disease. The program is now, “a key component to our success as a honey producer,” the farm’s website says, and includes a team of staff beyond the family also familiar with queen raising in places like South America, U.S., the Philippines, Mexico and Europe.
“Successively breeding many generations of queen bees combined with selective crossbreeding with other strains has gradually resulted in highly productive, disease-resilient bees that are well adjusted to our local environment and gentle enough that we often work with minimal protective clothing,” according to the farm.
Wendell Honey Farm
The Wendells’ honey farm straddles the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border near MacNutt, Saskatchewan.
The original farm site sits on the Saskatchewan side of the line. Jeremy’s grandfather, John Wendell, bought his first beehives over 80 years ago and expanded to make honey his primary source of income shortly thereafter.
“We have a time difference between one side of our farm and the other,” Jeremy Wendell told the Manitoba Co-operator.
John Wendell and his wife, Alvera, had four boys, Jeremy said. They all worked the farm together. Tim Wendell took over the farm in 1974. At the time they had about 600 hives.
Isabel Wendell is daughter of Manitoba horticulturalist Frank Leith Skinner, the farm’s website says. She grew up at her family’s nursery near Dropmore, Manitoba.
Jeremy Wendell, who received his doctor of medicine at the University of Manitoba in 2002, according to LinkedIn, worked abroad for several years before returning to work the farm. There he spends most of his time in the office, but occasionally chips in with the farm work.
The farm now has about 4,000 producing hives, Jeremy Wendell said, and produces about 1.5 million pounds (about 680,000 kilograms) of honey per year.
They sell honey in bulk, but they select the very best and jar it on farm during harvest. It goes from extraction into the jar raw, and as quickly as possible — usually the same day it’s extracted, or the next day. This is important for keeping the honey as fresh as possible, and to ensure they don’t need to heat it to make it workable, Jeremy Wendell said.
Heating the honey destroys some of the enzymes that give raw honey its health benefits, he said. Their motto is to take out nothing but wax, and to put nothing in.
The result is a premium honey product, housed in elegant Italian glass jars. It’s not cheap. One kilogram (2.2 pounds) retails for $44 on their website (for contrast, the same amount of regular, Bee Maid honey sells for about $11).
They pitch it on its quality, health benefits, and premium look, which is what they did when the company appeared on CBC’s “Dragons’ Den” in an episode airing January of 2013.
At the time, the company had just begun selling Wendell Estate premium honey. Previously it had just sold bulk.
Marketing director Martin Neuhofer, in an orange beekeeping suit, gave each of the “dragons” a jar of honey to taste.
“Oh is that awesome,” said dragon Jim Treliving, licking the honey off a spoon. Treliving ended up making Wendell Estate an offer, which it accepted.
Just appearing on the show gave the company a big boost, Neuhofer told the Brandon Sun in 2014. It boosted morale and opened doors with distributors, he said.
The London award is also not the farm’s first brush with international success. In 2019, Wendell Estate Honey took home a gold medal from the World Beekeeping Awards.
Today, Wendell Estate Honey is sold in stores across Canada, including some Co-op grocery stores, health food stores and specialty shops.
A lot of honey ends up in China, Jeremy Wendell said, and they’ve sold some into South Korea, though tight import restrictions and duties have hampered this.
He added that they are working to break into Middle Eastern and East Asian markets, including Japan.
“Japan just seems the perfect match for us,” he said, explaining that, in his experience, Japanese culture values spending money on quality food. “Somebody might pay, say, C$100 for a watermelon if it’s a really good watermelon, especially if they’re going to give it to someone as a gift.”
Gifts of food are also common in Japan, as tight living conditions make consumable gifts ideal.
However, Wendell Estate Honey won’t be appearing alongside other platinum award-winning honeys in Europe any time soon. Because of strict anti-GMO regulations there, honey with canola pollen can’t be imported.