Passion For Fate Of Bees Helps Drive Growth Of Business

By Ronald Fisher The Tribune-Democrat, Johnstown, Pa.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) What first started off as a hobby for Darci Sanner soon turned into a viable and sustainable business.

Johnstown, Pa.

Darci Sanner never had plans to set out as an entrepreneur. But the plight of the bees pulled her in.

"Some things just happen," the Rockwood native said.

Sanner is the co-owner of Summer Smiles Honey Farm located in Stoystown, Somerset County. The farm went into full swing in 2013, according to Sanner and her business partner, Amanda Welsh.

Being raised on a farm did make an impact on her, Sanner said, but it was her interest in beekeeping that led to a career on the farm.

Honey bees play a vital economic role as pollinators helping to sustain agricul-tural production.

In the United States alone, that value reaches billions of dollars annually, according to a 2015 White House report.

"It's about the environment," she said. "I guess it's because I was exposed to it, farming, but it's not like my parents instilled the environment into me, that's just something I've always been passionate about."

The decline in bee populations was first noted in 2007 locally.

"I read a lot of newspapers and magazines back then, that said how the bees are in decline and in trouble," Sanner said. "I got bitten by the bug, I guess, and that was it. I just knew this was something I really wanted to do -- and then it just totally snowballed."

According to a report released by the Center for Biological Diversity in 2017, population levels of more than 700 North American bee species are declining due to habitat loss and pesticide use.

The study is merely a piece of the growing collection of research focusing on the threats facing bees.

Sanner said that she researched beekeeping for three years before getting started.

During that time, she was also introduced to Darl Susko, a local beekeeper who would later become her mentor. "He helped a lot, definitely," she said.

Quite a buzz What first started off as a hobby for Sanner soon turned into a viable and sustainable business. The Rockwood Area graduate has been a beekeeper now for nearly 10 years.

Before purchasing Summer Smiles Honey Farm, Sanner and Welsh both owned Curves locations in Johnstown, in which they would sell Sanner's products -- such as soaps, salves and lip balms made from honey and beeswax.

"It started going really well," Welsh said. "We needed more bees and to do that you need more land. So we started looking for farms and this one was in the perfect location, because it was back in Somerset County -- where we're both from -- and we're not too far off from (routes) 219 and 30, so it's easy to get to."

The duo offered field trips and educational tours to complement the products they already offered when the farm first opened. Since then, the business has taken off in many directions.

In addition to the products, trips and tours, the farm now offers a bed and breakfast, authentic farm-to-table cuisine, blacksmith workshops, wood-fired brick oven pizzas, and monthly events such as live music and weddings.

The women said their pizza has recently become pretty popular among area residents, which helps out during the slower winter months.

"We put in an outdoor bread oven during the fall, so we do artisan bread and we do pizzas," Sanner said. "We actually do a weekly pizza pickup where we take pre-orders and then people come and grab a pizza and go."

Approximately 80 percent of what is consumed at the farm is raised and grown there, Sanner said.

"We raise things organically and we use non-GMO (genetically modified organisms) seed in everything from how we feed our animals to the seeds we use to plant our garden," she said.

"That's really important, and rare to find in this area."

The experience With everything that is now available at the farm, Sanner and Welsh said their specialty is "the experience."

"Whether someone pops in for honey, or they're an egg customer, or they come for dinner or even to stay -- we try to treat everybody like family and give everyone a great experience," Sanner said. "We have folks that will come and shop, and as soon as they come they head to the barn to see the animals. We want people to feel like this is their farm, too, and to feel welcome and at home.

"Yes, we do a lot of different things, but the common denominator for all of the different things is how people feel when they're here," she said.

Sanner's beekeeping is just the tip of the honeycomb, she said.

"We offer full beekeeping services from selling bees, selling the equipment, to teaching, to then maintaining bees or setting up hives for people," she said. "We also do consultations, and removals."

Aside from being known as the "Honey Girls," the women are now making a name for themselves with their bed-and-breakfast offerings.

"We have three different places on the farm that we get a lot of people from -- Pittsburgh, D.C., Baltimore -- some out-of-state, out-of-country people," Welsh said. "So that's kind of like our big thing right now."

With the numerous products and services, you could almost forget that there are actual animals living on the farm -- home to more than 60 chickens, pigs, goats and sheep and a cow. Sanner and Welsh also foster livestock for the Humane Society of Somerset County.

"Every animal, except our pigs and the chickens, were humane society animals that we fostered and then adopted," Sanner said.

One-stop shop The passion for business goes beyond fostering animals for Sanner and Welsh, and shows throughout every facet of the business, they said.

"Every year is better than the next," Sanner said. "We are definitely still growing, though."

Welsh said: "We're more recognized each year. People aren't 100 percent sure on the farm name, but when they physically see us they know we are the 'Honey Girls.'

"When we first came here it was just the bees, that's all we had. The next year, we had a couple animals here and there, just for people to see something when they come. Then the (bed and breakfast) came, and then the barn came with doing events. So each year we are doing bigger and better things and we know that things are only going to get better."

Sanner and Welsh say what sets this farm apart is the opportunity for visitors to watch as the beekeepers get to work.

"There's local people who sell products, but there is nowhere you can go to see beehives," Sanner said.

Welsh said, "People can come here and get up in the bees with Darci. They can come down here and see us extract the honey and bottle it. So they can see every step of the process. There's not really anybody else doing that. There's some larger-scale honey producers in Somerset County, but not doing it the way that we're doing it -- kind of your one-stop shop I guess."

Upcoming projects and events at the farm include planting 1,300 trees between now and the fall. The farm will also host its first music event in the spring. The live music event is scheduled for May 25 and will serve as a fundraiser for an 8-year-old Somerset resident who was diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

For more information about Summer Smiles Honey Farm, or to set up a tour, visit summersmileshoneyfarm.com or find Summer Smiles Honey Farm on Facebook.

"I'm just so blessed to be able to be here and do everything that we are," Sanner said. "It's a dream for me that this is my job, because I love every second, for sure."

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