Brett and Brenda Kent of Park Rapids are the 2020 recipients of the University of Minnesota Extension Office’s Hubbard County Farm Family of the Year award.

The couple has lived for more than 20 years on a 10-acre property, mostly forested, four miles north of Park Rapids on County Road 1, where the sign at the end of their driveway identifies their farm business as Double “B”ee Honey.

“The unique thing about them was their focus on the beekeeping operation and their honey business,” said Ben Anderson, U of M Extension regional director. “That was the unique sort of family operation that we wanted to highlight. One of the goals of the program is to feature different kinds of agriculture.”

Normally, the Kents would have been honored for the award at the Hubbard County Fair. Also, they would have been recognized by university and state agricultural officials at Minnesota Farmfest, along with other counties’ farm families of the year. This did not happen this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Instead, the Kents received a write-up in a program given to the farm families and posted on the Extension’s website, plus a video of officials’ congratulations and a plaque. Anderson said the Kents will probably be recognized at next year’s county fair along with the 2021 Farm Family of the Year.

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Hobby ran amok

Before their retirement three years ago, Brett was a trooper with the Minnesota State Patrol and Brenda was a secretary in the Park Rapids Area Schools superintendent’s office. Also, they recently stepped down after six years managing the Park Rapids Farmers Market.

Brett called farming “a hobby that ran amok and took over our lives.”

“It’s kind of weird how it started,” Brenda said about their beekeeping business. “We planted a couple of apple trees, and we needed pollination. So, then, it started small.”

From that small start, their honey farm grew to seven bee yards between their home and somewhere southwest of Menahga, each home to about 15 hives.

“We’re not big by any means, but 100 hives is a lot of work,” said Brenda.

The bee yards are situated either on land whose owners want the bees for pollination or in a favorable spot where there’s no commercial spraying going on.

For example, Brett said, they put in a new bee yard at an organic farm south of the Lamb Weston-RDO plant, where there are 80 acres of clover under irrigation.

“We kind of scatter them out and put them in a trail, so we can make a big loop and work all the hives, if we can,” he said. “We check our yards, probably, once a week. So, it’s not a full-time job, but it keeps you very busy.”

Even in retirement, “busy” is the word for their lifestyle, especially with their duties at the farmers market, providing daycare for their granddaughters and tending a large garden with pumpkins, squash, green beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, kale, raspberries, Indian corn and sunflowers – the latter grown mainly for the birds.

“Then, we mix in with the wild rice and the maple syrup and stuff,” he said. “It makes for a little variety at the farmers market, for us, to bring these.”

Wild rice and maple sugar

When they first moved to the area, a fellow law enforcement officer introduced Brett to ricing.

“Rick Knobloch said ‘Hey, I need somebody to help me go ricing,’ because he needed somebody to push the canoe while he knocked the rice,” said Brett.

He took a liking to it, and for many years he went ricing on area streams and lakes with a sheriff’s deputy named Jimmy Knobloch.

“Then, Brenda wanted to give it a whirl, so we’ve been doing it for six years now, I think,” said Brett. “This year, we got about 800 pounds. Last year, we got about 1,200 pounds. It just depends on how the weather is when the rice is ready.”

As for the syrup side of their business, a “friend of a friend” introduced them to a stand of maples on Ottertail Point in Leech Lake.

“Just a spectacular stand of maple trees, trees that are over 100 years old,” he said. “You can’t even reach halfway around some of them. Yeah, we tap those trees. First time we did that, you saw evidence of where people used to tap those trees 100 years ago.”

“Little metal buckets on the ground, rusty,” said Brenda.

“Little stoves in the woods and stuff,” Brett added.

Hauling back 600 gallons at a time on a trailer, they cook the sap down in their yard.

“We burn a lot of firewood. It probably takes five cords of wood to cook that down,” said Brett. “It’s 40 to 1. So, if you bring back 40 gallons, you get a gallon of syrup.”

According to the County Extension write-up, they collect up to 2,600 gallons of sap per year – potentially producing about 65 gallons of maple syrup.

Nevertheless, honey is “the majority of what we do,” Brett said. “We really enjoy the wild rice season, but that only lasts for 10 days, two weeks a year. The same with the maple syrup thing. So, it’s not a thing that you can dive into and make a living out of that, by any means, or expand that season at all. It just depends on what Mother Nature gives you. So, we like the bees.”

The bee’s knees

From late October to early May, the bees winter at Sunflower Orchards in Paola, Kansas, where they earn their keep by pollinating apple and peach trees.

Even considering how much work 100 hives demands, Brett admitted, it’s really only a big honey operation in terms of a hobby. “I have friends that, there’s three families together, they run 1,000 beehives. But they live six months in Texas and six months here, so it’s a little different deal.”

Nevertheless, 100 gives them enough honey to market clover, wildflower and buckwheat varieties as well as creamed and comb honey, according to the Extension write-up.

Their honey farming experiences has also served an educational purpose. For several years, the couple wrote a regular column about it in the Park Rapids Enterprise. Brett has also taught beekeeping classes at the Extension and at a local Scouting camp, and the couple has made presentations to many area clubs and church groups.

“That, along with the farmers market stuff, we’ve really made a full-time deal out of our little business here,” he said.

What Brenda likes about the honey business, she said, is that “it’s nice to have your own schedule. You can work on whatever it is we need to accomplish that day, whatever we have time to. So, you’re not set in a timeframe like a normal job. It’s nice to be out. And the bees are fun. I really like working with them.”

“I think the most rewarding thing of it all is to bring the stuff to the market and to interact with your customers,” said Brett, “because they’re more than willing to buy, but they really appreciate what you’re doing.”