Mark Rogers: Beekeeper, Farmer, Conservationist
PUBLISHED: 15:21 22 June 2009 | UPDATED: 16:04 20 February 2013
Stephen Swann talks to a man who is committed to conservation and to sustainable, chemical-free and diverse farming - with help from a few worker friends...
There's a workers' revolution getting under way near Dorchester. Fear not though, capitalism is safe: this is a revolution spearheaded not by the proletariat, but by bees. The man behind it is farmer Mark Rogers. I was lucky enough to spend a morning with him recently on his farm at Lower Muckleford and I began by asking him to tell me a bit about his background.
Mark was born in 1982 into a farming family. He went to school in Charminster, before going on to Hardye's and then to Kingston Maurward where he studied agriculture. Like most kids who grow up on farms, he learned the craft (or should it be science?) of farming almost through a process of osmosis. "I could drive a tractor at seven," Mark tells me, "and a combine harvester by the age of 16." Needless to say, he was raised against a background of modern chemical-based farming. Today he still works on the family farm but he has taken on some land on the farm where he puts into practice less intensive, more ecologically sound and sustainable techniques. And central to his way of doing things is the keeping of bees.
"This is not hobby beekeeping, the bees are an integral part of a more holistic approach to farming," says Mark. "The first year we had some bees the set of flowers in our small orchard was incredible - we got twice as many apples and for the first time ever the pear trees bore fruit. It convinced me that we needed more bees!"
Today Mark has more than 20 hives and has plans to increase that number to somewhere near 50. Now, the 'crop' when you keep bees is, to state the obvious, honey. In addition, the bees also provide wax and propolis, the latter being a resinous, aromatic substance which is collected by the bees from the buds of trees which they use in the construction of their hives, and with these two additional crops Mark makes various hand salves, balms, wood sealers and polishes.
For the bees to thrive they need sources of nectar and these days this can be in short supply. "Modern farming methods are almost totally monoculture," explains Mark. "Nectar is available from only a small range of plants and for the bees this is very boring." To overcome this he has planted around 40 acres in a novel rotation of sanfoin, phacelia, buckwheat and four varieties of clover, thus providing the bees with a changing source of nectar, which in turn results in honeys of different flavours.
Now, being a cynical old hack, I have to say I needed proof that this was indeed the case and, what do you know, Mark had jars of honey available for me to sample. Picture us then, if you will, sitting in the sunshine eating spoonfuls of the lovely stuff and discussing it much like a couple of wine buffs would do with wine. The honey from phacelia was light, floral and delicate - "like taking the field and putting it in a jar", to use Mark's phrase. The honey from buckwheat was sweet - "good toast honey" to quote Mark again. The clover honey was rich and very deep in flavour. And as we tasted, Mark told me that he currently markets more than 2,000 jars of the scrummy honey largely though farmers' markets and health food shops.
But this is only half the story. Buckwheat is a superb ground conditioner, it makes a great fodder crop and the seeds can be used to make flour suitable for people who cannot eat conventional flour. The seeds from the phacelia are sold to seed merchants who sell them on for use in headland game mixtures, and the clovers, another good fodder crop, have the ability to fix nitrogen in the soil. Nor have the bees finished working for Mark yet. As I write he has just completed planting some 700 apple trees. 'Ashmead's Kernal', 'Lord Derby', 'Farmer's Glory', 'Court of Wick' and 'Annie Elizabeth' are varieties that were once grown locally but which are now virtually forgotten. They will provide the bees with another good source of pollen and nectar and thus give yet another different-tasting honey, whilst the bees will ensure heavy crops of fruit and another income stream for Mark.
"Five years from now I would like to be growing gluten-free cereals in addition to all the rest and with the land under organic stewardship," says Mark. "And I want to keep it local. Today you have oats grown in the south of England which are transported to Scotland to be milled and are then transported to the Midlands to be packed before being sent out to supermarkets back here in the south. How bad is that? I am building a model here for how I believe farming should go in the future and bees are central to that model. In the end, though, the world needs bees and at the moment they are facing very tough times, with populations falling alarmingly for reasons not yet fully understood. We lose them at our peril."
With men like Mark fighting their corner we have every reason to be optimistic.