(First published in the November 23 issue of The Oxford Journal)
Jerry Draheim puts two glasses of homemade apple juice on the table. The juice tastes almost tart and naturally sweet; in the glass it looks a little murky but its taste is pure. The apples come from the orchard Jerry planted in the 1980’s but that’s getting ahead of the story.
“My wife and I were working in the States in the late sixties and wanted to find a place in the country,” he says. “We looked around where we lived, in Wisconsin and Minnesota, but didn’t see anything we really liked or could afford. We came to Nova Scotia in 1971 on vacation in August when there are no black flies, no mosquitoes and fruit hanging everywhere. We fell in love with the place.”
With the tourist brochures came a list of farms for sale and Jerry couldn’t believe how cheap land was up here so he and his wife decided to move to Canada. They arrived as landed immigrants in February 1972, started working in Dartmouth, and looking for land.
“We found a farm for sale around Oxford so we drove up and I guess the old lady liked my wife and me, and it was a winter when it was really open and we could walk around. We decided to buy the farm right then.”
And that is how a city planner from Minneapolis ended up on 70 acres in Roslin with half a mile of frontage on River Philip.
Three weeks later, Jerry was laid off so he traded his car and bought an old pickup and at the beginning of April, moved to the farm in Roslin. There was a foot of snow on the ground.
“It snowed every other day and we got a normal amount of snowfall that year,” Jerry remembers. “It certainly was an adventure.”
Having grown up on a farm, Jerry wanted to return to what he loved. He had plans for ducks and goats and some bees, for gardens but the first thing he did was start bee keeping, even though he’d never had bees before.
“The bees came in little packages in the mail,” Jerry says. “I remember sitting at the end of my lane waiting for the mail in the pickup truck because there was a huge snowstorm and I remember thinking, Here it is the middle of May and it’s snowing out. Maybe I made a mistake.”
The bees arrived and so did the goats and the gardens.
“I didn’t like the goats at all but we milked them,” says Jerry. “We got some geese. These things came and went.”
So, too, did Jerry’s wife; unable to handle the isolation, she returned to the States after a couple of years. For five winters, Jerry supported himself through a federal program that hired people to work on public projects, providing him with enough income to get started with the farm.
“I also had enough bees that I was making money from the honey, and from selling eggs.”
More heartache. Jerry didn’t realize that the equipment he’d bought from a neighbour was infected with a disease until the provincial apiarist explained why the bees weren’t doing well.
“I had to exterminate the bees,” Jerry says. “It was really hard. Seeing them die, I said I’m never doing this again. I’m going to learn to keep bees so they are healthy. I started over right with new equipment.”
A series of fortuitous events allowed Jerry to eventually declare “bee keeper” his formal occupation. In 1976, the price of honey doubled from 25 cents to 50 cents per pound, which Jerry says was significant. He also benefited from government subsidies encouraging expansion of farm operations and by the 1980’s, Jerry had 250 hives. He began renting bees for blueberry pollination then in the 1980’s, our border was closed to bees from the States due to a nasty infection.
All was not golden, however. Jerry’s second wife died of cancer. They were together for five years. Unlucky in love, Jerry discovered he had a knack with a different kind of female.
“I had a hive of bees that produced a lot more honey than the others and I found out that it was genetics. The queen was not aggressive and I wanted to know how to get all my queens to be like that one.”
All Jerry had to do was learn how to breed queens from that particular queen so Jerry went to California to learn from a bee breeding expert.
“I got all the hands-on training I needed to start my own breeding program. I did artificial insemination and really refined my breeding program which I’ve carried on ever since. Selling bees to other beekeepers became very lucrative for me.”
Love came around again. Jerry first met Carol at a party in 1974 but they were both married to other people; then Carol saw him at a sugar bush party in New Brunswick in 1998.
“I love it here,” Carol says from the kitchen where she’s cutting onions for pickled beets. Despite his truck breaking down on their first date, they’ve been together for 12 years.
In 2005, after three decades in the old yellow farmhouse, Jerry built a new lovely, light-filled home that he designed himself. He’s also done all the landscaping around the property, including the planting of 10,000 daffodils and narcissus that come up in the spring.
An astrologer once told Jerry that he should live on a hill near water, and he does. After 41 years, four wives, thousands of bees, and one recent battle with cancer, what does he love best about his life on Honey Wind Farm?
“My freedom,” Jerry says. “Being able to do what I want to do whenever I want to do it. I would hate to work for someone else.”
by Sara Mattinson