By Molly Priddy, 6-20-12
||Caption: Courtney Fullerton, front, and her husband Greg Fullerton stand in front a wall of hive boxes at their Glacier County Honey Company warehouse in Babb. The boxes will eventually house frames of honeycomb on their property. - Lido Vizzutti/Flathead Beacon
BABB – The towering curtain of mountains on Glacier National Park’s east side seemed to catch the mid-June rainclouds for a moment last week, and though there was wind – there’s always wind here – the promise of summer heat was just around the corner.
Greg and Courtney Fullerton can only hope the most recent haul of firewood into their 80-by-120 foot warehouse is the last of the season, and that the summer warmth will help their 6 million employees to be as busy as possible.
As the owners of Glacier County Honey Company, Greg, 28, and Courtney, 32, are partners in business as well as life, married in 2009, the same year they built their first warehouse on their property near Duck Lake.
Since then, they’ve had the lovely addition of Maggie Rose, 1, who was staving off afternoon crankiness and napping in her crib last week as her parents gave a couple of visitors a tour.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that nearly everything sweet in the Fullertons’ lives is currently housed in that 80-by-120 foot warehouse, since just a few doors down from Maggie Rose’s room is the honey production area and Courtney’s wax room, where she makes candles and other goods from beeswax.
They have 1,000 hives, and each hive has about 60,000 bees. And that’s small scale compared to some beekeepers, Greg said; he knows a guy who has 16,000 hives.
Still, the Fullertons produced about 150,000 pounds of honey last year, with 90 percent of it selling to other packaging companies. For Courtney, who says multiple times during the tour that she wishes there were more hours in the day, it’s just about right for now.
“It’s a start, and I’m excited about it,” she says in her Southern accent.
This isn’t where she expected to be. Before Babb, she was practicing family law in Missoula. A native of southwest Virginia, Courtney’s family visited Glacier Park each summer, beginning when she was 9.
In 2007, when Courtney was visiting her family’s home near Glacier, her brother introduced her to Greg, a second-generation beekeeper from Glacier County.
Greg’s father began beekeeping in the 1970s as a hobby while working as a government worker at the border. It eventually turned into Chief Mountain Honey. Greg worked with his father in the summers and started courses at Montana State University.
“I went to college and decided it wasn’t the thing for me,” Greg said.
He began working with beekeepers in California and founded Glacier County Pollinators, and took the bees to the Sacramento Valley to pollinate almond orchards.
Greg Fullerton pulls a frame from a hive to show the mixture of bees, brood – eggs and larva – and pollen at Glacier County Coney Co. in Babb.
Greg and Courtney hit it off quickly, and started Glacier County Honey in June 2009. They were married the following July. They bought Greg’s father’s equipment and built their first warehouse, followed by the bigger warehouse, which houses the honey-extracting process. And with the addition of an apartment in that warehouse, it quickly became the Fullertons’ “warehome.”
The first summer in production, Courtney and Greg spent their honeymoon extracting 125,000 pounds of honey. Their bees still head to California each January and come back in April.
Last week, the bees were just getting out into the surrounding fields. In the full bloom of summer, they gather pollen from alfalfa and sweet clover, buzzing a maximum of about five miles from their respective hives. They start making honey in early July and the harvest begins a couple of weeks after that.
“We just happen to be in an awesome location for very light wax and very light honey,” Courtney said.
Montana is consistently in the top 10 states for honey production; according to the state Department of Agriculture, Montana is sitting at fourth. A report from the Montana field office of the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, apiaries with five or more hives produced 13.3 million pounds of honey in 2011, up 15 percent from 2010.
That same report said there were 145,000 colonies statewide producing honey in 2011, down from the 157,000 hives in 2010. Montana honey prices also hit a record high in 2011 at $1.64 a pound.
During the extraction process at the Fullertons’ warehome, the light, sweet wax is eventually separated from the honey and ends up in 20-pound blocks. Courtney uses these blocks to make smaller chunks to sell to local candle makers and crafters, and she makes her own candles.
The beeswax Christmas ornaments are a big seller, she said, and she’s planning on taking her wares to local festivals this summer.
Their initial goal was to get rooted in their business, and now that they’ve got a foundation, the next step is to figure out where to branch out. This is where extra hours in the day would come in handy, Courtney said. She plans on talking to grocery stores in the Flathead Valley about selling their honey, which is “as close to organic as you can get.”
The Fullertons are hosting a new event this year, a Pour Your Own Bucket day on Aug. 11 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Patrons bring their own containers and get honey for about half the price per pound. Their one-pound containers are normally $5.
Courtney also packages comb honey, which keeps the hexagons of wax the bees create to house the honey intact. Those are popular in many organic stores, Courtney said, but they are tough to make because it annoys the bees to have to start over on their comb every year.
Now that Maggie Rose is a bit older, Courtney said she’s looking forward to having her own set of hives to create the comb honey, to get in there hands-on and get stung like Greg does.
That’s just part of the job, the couple says, as are electric fences around their hives to ward off curious grizzlies. Near the warehome, 80 hives sit next to an aspen grove, and the bees are already hard at work.
Greg lifts a frame of comb out to look at it, barely reacting to the sting on his knuckle. Next to the hives is an open field where they play kickball and host other festivities with a clear view of Many Glacier and St. Mary’s.
Living and working out here has its tough moments, the couple concedes, but there is just so much sweetness to this life that it’s hard to get stuck on the rough spots.
And that’s why they are grateful for the ever-present wind. If it weren’t for that, Courtney said, everyone would live out here.
For more information on the Glacier County Honey Company, visit www.glaciercountyhoney.com
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