Jody Mitchell is used to the early Kaimai mornings. She grew up there, and brought her husband home from Cornwall to raise their own family in the hills overlooking the Bay.
“I was adamant I was going to have my children here, and that they’d go to Kaimai School like I did,” she says.
She had met Ralph after completing an agriculture exchange to Norway at age 19. They’ve now clocked up 30 years together.
“Ralph was doing the same exchange to NZ,” says Jody. “I was the area supervisor and met him on his first day in the country. I was on stage speaking to 150 youth exchange students.
“He came up, introduced himself, and we’ve been together ever since.”
After spending 9 months milking cows and driving tractors in Canada together, they moved back to Cornwall in England for four years, before returning home to go dairy farming, and eventually establishing Kaimai Range Honey. Starting 13 years ago with 300 hives, they now have a 2000-hive, multi-award-winning family business, landing the NBA Quintessential Honey of NZ award in 2009, and the Overall Supreme Honey of NZ Award for 2017 and 2018.
“We are continuing a family tradition of beekeeping in the Kaimais since the 1920s, with our daughters Tamara and Zoe actively involved, and now my youngest brother too,” says Jody.
“My grandmother’s brother got tuberculosis when he was ten. He wasn’t allowed to go to school so they bought him a beehive and he went nuts on bees.
“He was one of the earliest beekeepers in the Kaimai Range, and started Te Poi Apiaries. His son, Don Edwards and my dad started beekeeping too.”
Although growing up with bees, as a child Jody hated them.
“I used to have bad reactions – I’d throw up and pass out. I was petrified of them. It sounds ridiculous as now I’m the biggest bee nut there is.”
This passion has resulted in the couple becoming the overall supreme NZ honey winners for the last two years - an outstanding achievement that has largely gone unnoticed.
From small beginnings, the business has flourished, specialising in Manuka and specialty honey production throughout the North Island and providing kiwifruit pollination services locally.
“We won the first and only Quintessential Honey Competition in 2009,” says Jody. “All conference-going beekeepers were asked to bring a pot of their best honey then vote on which pot they would like to take home.”
Jody and Ralph have had their honeys place in the top three Overall Honey Award winners every year they have entered since 2009, and have either won or come second in the Commercial Mono Floral Awards.
In 2018, their Rewarewa honey represented the Bay of Plenty, winning best honey from the nine regions.
The family ended up winning 12 awards in total.
“We specialise in organically-produced raw Manuka honey from Taranaki and the Central Plateau, along with our local specialty honeys from the Kaimai Range and Waikato.”
Their range of honeys includes Waikato Pasture Honey, Manuka, Rewarewa, Tawari, Kaimai Special and Blackberry.
Around Tauranga, they provide their much-needed kiwifruit pollination service only to ‘bee friendly’ orchardists.
“We love our bees, and believe we must look after them properly, so they can look after us all,” says Jody.
While at college Jody wanted to become a commercial sign writer.
“Our plan was to go dairy farming and ultimately own our own farm. When our first child was five months old, Ralph had an accident.
“He got hit by a truck and trailer on the Kaimai Range. He broke his back and neck and pretty well everything except his left arm and leg.”
Jody was thrust into making the decision to turn Ralph’s life support off.
“I said ‘he’s not going to die’. The medical staff planned to jump start him after I turned it off.”
She watched as her husband jumped back into life by himself, without any medical intervention.
“While he was on life support, I held his hand and talked to him, telling him he needed to see his baby daughter grow up and that he wasn’t allowed to leave me. When he woke up he said word for word what I had said to him, and that it felt so peaceful, he had to resist the urge to drift away.”
They were due to sign a 50/50 sharemilking contract the day after the accident, but instead she finished milking the cows in Morrinsville and nursed Ralph before moving back to the Kaimai family farm.
“We saw a log house kit for sale for $24,000 and decided to build a house while Ralph was recuperating.”
Ralph started working for a beekeeper down the road, with Jody deciding it was time she stopped being scared of bees.
“I started going out with him to the bees.
“That’s about 20 years ago, and we’ve had our own company about 13 years now.”
Their daughters Tamara, 23, and Zoe, 19, who was born after the accident, both work in the family business.
Ralph and Jody were the AFB disease coordinators for the Bay of Plenty for several years.
In June 2019, they plan to go to Italy for the Honey Sensory Analysis course as Jody works towards becoming qualified as a world honey judge. They also want to enter their honey into the 2019 World Beekeeping Conference in Canada.
They sell their premium export honeys to Tauranga’s Farmer’s Market every Saturday, at the same price they get for export.
“I’m trying to get people thinking more about all of our amazing native honeys, not just manuka.”
So what’s the secret to creating the top honey in New Zealand?
“The not-so-secret secret is hygiene, timing and passion.”