A Buzz About Beekeeping

Time in the tech world prompted Jessica Gonzalez ’13 to return home and update her family’s farm business.

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Jessica Gonzalez ’13 puts her Mills computer science degree to work on her family’s Central Valley farmstead.

By Sarah J. Stevenson, MFA ’04 | Photos by Jonathan Ventura

Just a few miles off California Highway 99, in an area of Merced peppered with small farms and ranchettes, is Happy Organics, a family farm specializing in honey and managed by Jessica Gonzalez ’13. The 10-acre farm, which also includes citrus trees, fig trees, and a variety of flowering plants that provide forage for bees, is a sustainable oasis in a part of California that’s better known for its large-scale agriculture.

You’d recognize many of the names throughout this part of rural Merced County: E&J Gallo, Foster Farms, Blue Diamond. Dairy products, cattle, and poultry are major industries, and almonds are one of the most widespread and lucrative crops in the region.

Of course, almonds rely heavily on bees, also a multimillion dollar industry in the county. But small farms need bees too, and it’s those farms Gonzalez is interested in partnering with—particularly those owned by people of color. POC comprise just over a quarter of Merced’s farm producers, and that number has been slowly growing, according to findings from the National Agricultural Workers Survey and the US Department of Agriculture.  Networking can be a serious challenge, though. Many small farmers have only a minimal internet presence, if any; profit margins are low, financial resources are scarce, and competition is high. Enter Gonzalez, and the degree she earned from Mills in computer science.

“Traditionally, in agriculture, everything is like a trade secret,” Gonzalez says. “Nobody really shares information with each other.” She has long been interested in fostering a more community-minded approach—one that leverages technology to bring farmers together.

After her Mills graduation, Gonzalez initially went to work in agricultural technology, or AgTech—an industry that covers everything from irrigation systems and farm equipment to “precision agriculture,” such as the installation of sensors to track water usage. After working as a software developer for a while, she went on to co-found an AgTech software company in Salinas called HeavyConnect.

Before long, she became disenchanted with the “bro culture” of the tech world, and in 2016, she returned to the family farm to help her ailing parents. Her mother died later that year, and then her father was diagnosed with cancer. Around that time, he began teaching her how to take care of the farm and its bees. “I think he saw how unhappy I was after my mom passed, so he would bring me along to whatever he was doing out there,” she says. “He was the one maintaining everything, and when he couldn’t physically do that anymore, it was really sad. He talked about having to sell everything, because he knew what was coming.”

Though Gonzalez was interested in the idea of beekeeping, the reality was somewhat different. “I was always really scared,” she says. “I mostly started learning about them because of my fear of them.” Over time, she discovered a true passion for beekeeping. The focused attention required to tend to the hives also helped take her mind off her grief.

When her father got sick, they began exploring cannabis—specifically cannabidiol, or CBD—for his pain management. “I started to mix it with the honey to make it a more enjoyable, pleasant experience for him,” she says. “Then I started giving it to friends and family, and then slowly it became a business.” In 2018, Happy Organics was born, specializing in honey (with and without CBD infusions), beeswax, candles, and CBD-infused wellness products such as muscle balm, pain relief salve, and— Gonzalez’s personal favorite—massage oil that also helps soothe burns and cuts.

By the time her father died later that year, Gonzalez was managing the farm with the help of several of her siblings and a nephew. They sold the sheep and horses her parents had owned, and most of the chickens, and focused instead on the fruit trees and bees. (In fact, she is a third-generation beekeeper!) She made a few changes to the beekeeping methods used by her parents, moving in a more sustainable direction. Many of the beehives on the farm are now covered by a layer of dried weeds and branches to naturally keep them more shaded and cool, and she’s looking into different types of hives other than the usual commercial bee boxes.

Additionally, she stopped treating the bees for mites and other diseases, which many beekeepers do on a seasonal basis. Instead, she relies on natural selection, letting the bees do their best on their own. She wants to mimic their existence in the wild as much as possible, while still providing them with ample flowers to forage on all year. “I want them to continue on even when I’m not alive,” she says.

Gonzalez can manage only a limited number of hives at the farm, which is why she started looking into placing some elsewhere. She wasn’t interested in commercial pollination, so she started researching smaller farms in the region, particularly those run by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) farmers—but only after searching far and wide could she even identify them.

Putting her AgTech experience to good use, Gonzalez put her mind to the problem of connecting small farmers—not only to one another, but to their communities, larger agribusinesses, and potential funding sources as well. She started with a simple goal: trying to gather everyone in one place. The result was Our Farmers, a national directory of BIPOC-owned farms that has garnered attention from the likes of Forbes magazine.

“It’s been so great connecting with farmers and placing my hives somewhere reliable where I know they won’t get stolen, or where they’ll have the best chance of survival,” she says. “It’s just been really reassuring, and this season is not as stressful as last season.” So far she’s been working with two farms, one in Hayward and another in Livermore, tracking the hives from a distance with sensor technology.

Right now, she’s in the process of redefining the purpose of the directory, as well as exploring how small farmers might be able to benefit from direct community support rather than having to rely on uncertain government funding sources.

“Most government funding goes to big commercial farms,” Gonzalez says, adding that only recently has there been more of a focus on grant and loan programs for historically disadvantaged groups. “It’s hard to be a small farmer. The profit margins for farming are very low. If you’re not growing in huge amounts or in bulk, your pricing isn’t the same as the grocery store, so sometimes people are put off.

Growing up on the farm gave Gonzalez a first-hand look at the difficulties of operating a small plot. Her parents were immigrants from rural, mountainous Michoacán, Mexico, a place she describes as idyllic in many ways yet lacking in opportunity. Her parents initially settled in the Salinas area, where they worked in the fields. “

After nine kids, my dad realized he had to make more money, so he started selling produce door to door, and eventually that turned into a wholesale business,” says Gonzalez. They sold at Bay Area flea markets, which was sustainable at first, but competition kept increasing.

The family moved to the Central Valley when Gonzalez was five years old, living in Dinuba for a year before landing in Merced. There, her parents were able to buy a 10-acre farm. “I think my parents probably wanted to recreate what they had in Mexico, so they started getting sheep, chickens, other birds, lots of animals—to try to either recreate it for themselves or for us,” she says.

Her older brothers did most of the heavy lifting to help maintain the family produce business, but even as a youngster, Gonzalez had some farm chores, pitching in to help pick fruit and pack it into containers to be sold at the local market. “Growing up, I hated it,” she said, adding that she’d make up excuses not to work in the heat and dust.

When two of her older sisters left Merced to attend UC Berkeley, Gonzalez was motivated to follow in their academic footsteps. Private colleges weren’t really on her radar, but after recruiters from Mills came to her high school, she decided to apply, and a full-tuition scholarship made the College an easy choice.

At that point, she didn’t necessarily plan to end up back in Merced. She was often told that if she wanted to make something of herself, she had to leave the Central Valley. “In high school, they never really told us to stay and develop the community here, or try to give back,” Gonzalez says. But her years working in software development and AgTech changed her perspective, and the reality of having to grapple with her parents’ failing health prompted her to move back to where it all began: “Everything seemed to kind of fall into place after that, either in the right way or the wrong way.”

Now that she’s returned to farming, she’s been looking for ways to use her degree and experience to get back into AgTech, starting with community-minded ventures like the Our Farmers directory. One of her ideas is similar to the existing directory: connecting small beekeepers to farmers with sustainable practices for long-term hive placement.

Gonzalez is also working on ways to support and empower small farmers in their communities, connecting them more directly with consumers and, as she puts it, decentralizing agriculture.

“You think of CSA boxes—community-supported agriculture—but I’m thinking, what if we do community-funded agriculture, and instead of relying on the government to decide what food they are going to make readily available to us, we as citizens can decide: ‘This is where I want my food to come from,’” she says.

She’s not sure yet whether it would be a subscription service, a direct donation system, or some other funding model, but no matter what, she wants it to start from the community.

For Gonzalez, farming has always been a family endeavor and a community effort, and that hasn’t changed. She, her siblings, and her nephew still sell produce at the little local market down the street, plus donate some of it to those in need. A lot of what they grow is just for the family, such as the herbs in the medicinal garden next to her parents’ original farmhouse.

A few years ago, her sister built a new house on the property, which is where they live now, along with three small family dogs. Five more dogs live outdoors on the farm, along with the few remaining chickens and an active, noisy colony of blue jays. And, of course, the bees, roaming the citrus and fig trees, the sunflowers and tomatoes—the self-sustaining, living network making all of it possible.