It would be a mistake to call 15-year-old William Austin and his cousins, 14-year-old Eric Carney and 12-year-old Clay Carney, typical teenage boys.
Sure, they’re growing boys and can demolish a pot of spaghetti in no time at all.
When you ask an open-ended question, they shrug their shoulders and look away. “You talk ﬁrst,” they say, and jostle each other.
But ask them about their bees and honey operation and the boys open up. William, Eric and Clay are also known as the proprietors of Paonia-based Austin Family Honey, and produce a pure, raw, unﬁltered fruit blossom and wild ﬂower honey.
Starting a business, a beekeeping and honey procurement business at that, isn’t typical kid stuff. And William and Clay are quick to point ﬁngers, literally, at Eric when asked why they started this business.
“It’s my fault,” Eric said, smiling, proud of the fact. When he was eight years old, he attended an agriculture seminar in Nashville with his grandparents. He heard a presentation from a man who was a beekeeper and, ever since then, he was hooked.
He came home and bugged his Papa, Glenn Austin, a Paonia farmer and orchardist. Glenn and his wife Tony rented bees to pollinate their orchards, and it was Eric’s idea to raise bees for that purpose.
“He really had to beg for three or four years,” said mom Tina.
But the begging paid off and, a few years ago, Papa bought the boys eight hives. That ﬁrst year a bear got into their hives, and they got nothing from the swarm. They bought some bees from a commercial producer in Cedaredge, Chris Williams. They turned the eight hives into 12, fenced the portion of the orchard where the bee yard is, and watched the bees work like mad.
The idea, that ﬁrst summer, was to use any honey they extracted for their own consumption, Clay said. But when they extracted more than they could use, they decided, hey, why not sell it?
So the business came to fruition. Because William was their favorite cousin, Clay said, they asked him to help. He and his parents, Tim and Dierdre Austin, live in Colorado Springs, but William has spent the last ﬁve summers here on his grandparents’ orchard, working along side his cousins.
One of the ﬁrst things the boys decided to do was name themselves. They threw around The Three Abeegos. Clay was partial to another name. “We were almost the Three Buzzketeers,” he said.
Eric gave his little brother a look. “No we weren’t,” he said. The trio instead went with Austin Family Honey, after their grandparents’ operation, Austin Family Farms.
After the name was decided, the important stuff had to happen. “It was all or nothing,” said Tina. A family friend and neighbor, Jean Van Duzen, gave the boys a $5,000 no-interest loan as seed money.
“She was instrumental in encouraging them,” Tina said.
They took the money and formed a business, with a help from Eric’s and Clay’s father, Don. Utilizing their grandfather’s sales list for his produce, they contacted his customers and tried to sell their honey.
Their ﬁrst year in production, the boys had a whopping $30,000 in sales.
Locally, their honey is available in Paonia at Black Bridge Winery, Old River Road Trading Post, Don’s Market, Homestead Market and Delicious Orchards; in Hotchkiss at Hardin’s Natural Foods; and in Cedaredge at Grand Mesa Discount and Drost’s Chocolates.
The business has grown. In addition to the bee yard in their grandparents’ orchard, they have one at the home of a friend. They’ve replaced their small extractor with a larger, more efﬁcient one.
As Vision students, Eric and Clay are able to work on their business through school. Chris Williams, their mentor and teacher, has taught the boys about medicating the bees through sugar water, and about disease and mites, and about feeding certain cells Royal Jelly to produce queens instead of workers.
He guides and helps the boys in their production. “He’s the hands-on mentor,” Tina said.
“We’ve learned a lot, just watching the boys,” said Don.
The operation starts in the spring when the hives are placed in supers, which are like stackable boxes. Each super has a number of frames in it, which the bees ﬁll with honey.
During a wet spring, when there are more ﬂowers, the bees produce more honey. During a good honey ﬂow, a strong hive will ﬁll a super in about two weeks. Once a super is ﬁlled, another is stacked on top, until the bees stop producing honey, usually in late summer.
At that point, donning their beekeeping suits and armed with a smoker, the boys smoke the bees back down the stack of supers to the bottom box. The smoke calms the bees down, and they surround the queen in protection and leave the honey alone, giving the boys the chance to extract it.
Using an electric hot knife, they scrape the wax and the honey from the frames into barrels. The honey is then run through an extractor.
“It’s hard work,” Tina said about the harvesting process. They boys do all harvesting in one day, and it takes them between 10-12 hours to do so.
Once the honey is extracted, it’s time for ﬁltering. “There is a bunch of, like, bee legs in there,” said Eric.
“And wax,” his brother added. So they ﬁlter all that out and then bottle the honey, by hand, and label, also by hand.
Commercial honey can be up to 17 percent corn syrup and still be labeled pure honey; Austin Family Honey truly is pure, with nothing added.
The boys currently have 36 hives, which produce about 5,000 pounds of honey each summer.
In the fall the boys medicate the bees against disease, and prepare for the next season.
Like any good entrepreneurs, the boys continue to better their business through education, and have attended a bee seminar through CSU in Grand Junction. They’ve also been certiﬁed to be on the Delta County Bee Registry and are three of only a handful of people contacted to catch swarms.
They’ve also won an award, the Young Entrepreneurs of Colorado in their age group from the Young American Center for Financial Education, last year. They received a cash prize, which they put back into their business, as they do all proﬁts.
The boys have plans to continue their honey business at least until high school, but after that they don’t yet know the future of the company or their roles.
Aside from the business of beekeeping, the boys are busy with school and sports. William is an eighth grader in Colorado Springs, and his family is preparing to move to Paonia this summer. He plays football and wrestles. Eric plays basketball and raises beef for the family, and Clay plays football. The Carneys are also involved in their church.
You can ﬁnd the company online at www.austinfamilyfarm.com/honey.
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