Sweet spot: Demand for local honey is fine with Carmichael’s

Some of Nathan Carmichael’s earliest memories are of bee hives, a little 6-year-old boy in a protective suit and veiled headgear to keep the stinging insects from getting to him while he helped his father.

“If you lived in the household, you were expected to work bees. It was part of growing up for the Carmichael boys,” he said.

Carmichael’s father, who in turn learned beekeeping from his father, always kept bees as a hobby but began producing honey commercially in Acadiana about 25 years ago, growing to one of the largest honey operations in the state.

But most folks have likely never heard of his honey because the hundreds of thousands of pounds of the stuff that his bees produce each year have generally been sold to large food processors or other honey companies who package it under their own name.

“Even since early childhood, I remember seeing honey in the stores and wondering why we didn’t see our honey in stores,” Carmichael said.

He is now working to change that.

Carmichael said he bought out a share of his dad’s beehives and launched Carmichael’s Honey last summer, and in a few short months, the business has grown from one account at a small grocery store in Lafayette to a distribution list that includes some 200 stores in Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi.

“My goal at first was to get anywhere from 10 to 20 mom-and-pops and see how it went,” he said. “ That’s kind of the miracle of it. The doors have swung open.”

Carmichael said that in addition to a roster of small local grocery stores, his honey can be found in several large chain s in the region — Albertsons, Rouses, Fresh Market, Whole Foods Market and Market Basket.

The success has surprised no one more than Carmichael, who serves as his company’s only salesman and still personally delivers about 80 percent of his accounts, loading up cases of honey in a Dodge Ram and heading out before dawn to distribute it.

“I didn’t know anything about it, but I just started hustling,” he said.

Carmichael’s decision to launch a new local honey brand benefits from timing, capitalizing on the growing demand in the food world for all things local. He said people were always asking whether his family had any honey for sale.

“There is a big push right now for local honey,” he said.

The advantage is that consumers know where it comes from, he said, and what goes into his bottles is just a few steps removed from the bee.

“It’s straight out of the hive,” he said.

The base of operations for Carmichael’s honey business is on the outskirts of Sunset, and at this time of year, workers there are busy preparing for the so-called “honey flow,” when flowers are blooming and bees are busy turning nectar into amber-colored honey.

Carmichael said the family expects to enter prime honey season with 6,200 hives, spread out in locations from Ville Platte in the north down to Iberia Parish in the south.

In recent years, he said, those hives have produced roughly 500,000 pounds of honey a year, enough to fill about 10 large tractor-trailer tankers.

For now, most of that honey will still be sold to other companies, because the Carmichael’s Honey brand has the distribution to use less than a fifth of total production, Carmichael said.

The majority of the hives are still owned by his dad’s wholesale honey business, which remains a separate entity, but Carmichael said he hopes sales of his locally branded honey one day will be strong enough to take everything the hives can produce.

“In the next three to five years, I see myself growing into my dad’s business,” he said.

Carmichael said he has plans on expanding in Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi and also has his sights set on Alabama and Florida.

“We just know we’re going to grow,” he said.