As a foundation board member of Apiculture New Zealand (ApiNZ) Russell Marsh has spent the past four years advocating for beekeepers. After a slimming-down of the board he is now stepping aside, having helped to bed-in the industry body, establish a positive relationship with government and oversee the implementation of a new mānuka honey export standard. There were challenges at the management table too, and unification within the industry will be essential if it is to reach its potential, he believes.
"Harmony" is the word that comes to mind when Marsh thinks back on his two terms of ApiNZ Board meetings.
"That board I have been involved with is pretty high-calibre. We were never poles apart and when we had a challenging topic to discuss we would always come to a meeting of minds, once we had worked through the detail."
In the wake of Covid-19 and the national lockdown, ApiNZ has decided to trim its 10-person management board to eight in the short term, with commercial beekeeping representative Marsh and Sean Goodwin from the market sector stepping down.
"It has been blimmin' interesting for me, no doubt about it," Marsh said of his four years at the top table of the largest body representing New Zealand beekeepers.
"Joining an organisation like that and basically helping build it from ground zero up, I was happy to donate my time as someone within the industry, knowing, even if we only got things half right, it was going to be of benefit to me as a beekeeper."
Marsh is speaking from his base in Ettrick, Otago where he runs Marsh's Honey, a third-generation business of around 1000 hives.
Both he and Goodwin will remain available to offer input to ApiNZ and the wider industry if seconded to do so. He also remains on the American Foulbrood Pest Management Plan Board as the ApiNZ representative for the time being.
The Otago beekeeper and chartered accountant, who prior to beekeeping spent a decade in financial controller roles with Nestle NZ and Mainland Dairy, says he learnt a lot while on the ApiNZ Board. Industry politics provided the biggest learning curve, while ApiNZ's strengthening relationship with government was a major highlight.
Stronger by the day
"It is essential, with discussion between a peak body and government, that you trust each other and have a decent relationship. It is critical to make progress and get decisions right," Marsh said.
With ApiNZ now in its fifth year of existence, having emerged following the restructuring of the National Beekeepers Association in 2016, Marsh has witnessed first-hand the dealings between the apiculture industry and central government.
"I am much more confident as I leave, that the relationship is getting stronger by the day."
That cohesion extends to the Ministry for Primary Industries too, a department that has frequently drawn the ire of beekeepers.
"From where we started to where we are now, in terms of listening to each other and working together, we are so much further ahead and that is a real plus," Marsh said of dealings with MPI.
"It is easy to beat MPI up over detail at times, but during Covid-19 they looked after our industry well. They did a lot of work to make sure we would be open for business and able to look after the bees. That wasn't as straightforward as everybody thought. It moved really fast and we all think we were essential and would be allowed to operate, there was still a lot of work that went on behind the scene to make sure that was the case and we didn't have too much disruption."
Singing from the wrong song sheet
While harmony might be found within the ApiNZ boardroom, as well as increasingly in their dealings with government and MPI, Marsh believes wrong notes are being struck elsewhere within beekeeping.
"There is still a void when you get down to the next level, in terms of industry relationships and the progress there. At some point we do need to have some unification at the grassroots level."
The third-generation beekeeper describes legal action taken at the changing of the mānuka honey standard in 2018 and argument over a recent change to the AFB PMP Levy as intolerable.
"If that is where the industry is going to continuously go, and fund that type of thing to persuade government otherwise, we are not going to get ahead. That is the old-style industry politics, which, if you want harmonious relationships and you want to progress on a constructive basis, that is no longer tolerable."
The most damning lack of unification among beekeepers came when the honey producers levy proposed by ApiNZ was voted down last year, but that discussion will come around again soon, he hopes.
"Looking back now, there must be some beekeepers who are thinking twice when they consider the positives which could have come out of it," Marsh says of the rejected levy.
"If you have a look at the turnaround of the honey industry and resultant bubble bursting in the last two years, you have to say it would be quite nice to have something sitting there that would help the industry, finance some useful initiatives and help reduce the demise of parts of the industry."
Marsh believes unification within the industry is essential to establish future investment, and apiculture's lack of investment in itself through a levy is "a blight on the industry".
"When I look at the calibre of the board and the construction of that levy proposal, that was as good as we were going to get. It was done professionally, we had everything in place in terms of what we thought the industry needed for the future, but once again it was undermined by industry politics and it swayed the result."
It would have been too difficult to ask the existing ApiNZ Board to tackle the levy dilemma again immediately, but Marsh says he hopes the idea can be tweaked and brought forward again.
He will not be directly involved in that potential task though, and instead the Otago beekeeper is looking forward to focusing more on his own business operations.
A "three-speed industry" is how Marsh describes the current state of New Zealand beekeeping.
Mānuka honey producers are setting the pace, diverse businesses with some mānuka honey fall in the middle, while those focusing entirely on non-mānuka honey production are struggling.
Despite the struggles for some, Marsh is optimistic about the honey industry's future.
"We just have to deal with what we have in front of us. Sure, there is an oversupply of honey, but at the same time, when you look at how much honey we supply to the world, we still have good opportunities.
"I think we will continue to produce the good monoflorals we have got. We have such a good variety and range compared to the rest of the world and there are some unique factors about them."
As he steps back from his board position, Marsh still feels a calling to help make improvements within the industry.
"Really the industry, in some parts, needs a helping hand commercially and some sort of consolidation basis. We have large companies that are doing well overseas, but we have a whole host of good community beekeepers who are struggling to get ahead. I suppose, given the work I have been doing and understanding the industry dynamics, I am in a reasonable position to team up to help out with some of that if I can.
"There seems to be a lot of doom and gloom, but when that happens you have to start shining a light on the opportunities.
"I'm sure they are there, it is just a matter of us lighting them up and getting a framework which makes them sustainable."
- This article was first published in Apiarist's Advocate beekeeping eMagazine, subscribe for free at www.apiaristsadvocate.com.