Honey Plant Back in Bzzzness

Times Staff Writer

The party invitation says it all: Life Is Sweet Again at Bennett's Honey Farm.

And so it is for Red and Ann Bennett, who are preparing for the grand opening Saturday) of their new honey production plant, nestled among the fragrant orange groves of the Santa Clara Valley near Piru.

Since fire destroyed their old facility more than two years ago, they have operated out of a mothballed egg ranch near Moorpark. The blaze began a tough stretch for the couple, hard years that saw honey prices plummet, the industry undercut by foreign imports and beekeepers bail out of the business because they couldn't turn a profit.

The Bennetts admit that they too were close to calling it quits.

Instead they are starting over, rising from the ashes to keep alive a venture that has been part of Ventura County's agricultural economy for nearly a quarter of a century.

"I guess we just weren't ready to retire," said Red Bennett, a 61-year-old former NASA engineer. "We decided to bite the bullet and stay with it."

Ventura County was once home to a thriving honey industry, in an era before citrus hit its heyday and when bees were more profitable than cattle.

As recently as two decades ago, there were enough beekeepers to support a countywide association of honey producers. But the group disbanded about 10 years ago, and now fewer than a dozen commercial producers remain.

Few have been at it longer than the Bennetts. The Ojai couple took over a 4,000-square-foot honeybee farm on Piru Canyon Road in 1978 and collected tons of the golden nectar each year from their own hives and those of beekeepers around the state and nation.

The Bennetts' honey was sold at stores around the state and at fruit stands that dot California 126. The product even was available on the honor system at the plant: Customers could drive up day or night to pick up a bottle, leaving money in its place.

But tragedy struck in October 2000 when fire, thought to have been sparked by an electrical short, burned their processing plant to the ground, destroying all their equipment and 100 tons of honey in storage. The loss was put at about $400,000.

The Bennetts, who lived near the facility at the time, were alerted shortly after the blaze broke out.

"It was on fire when we got there," Ann Bennett said. "That was a really bad day."

After working for months out of temporary quarters, the Bennetts decided about a year ago to rebuild on five acres about five miles from their original facility. The process was long, the county bureaucracy a maze of red tape. And they weren't certain at first whether they would even be allowed to build what they wanted.

Then they hired Roger Campbell, a former Fillmore city councilman turned government consultant, who was able to clear the hurdles and allow the Bennetts to move forward with construction of a 12,000-square-foot production facility.

"I think it would have been a real loss to our area to lose the Piru honey farm," Campbell said. "I was glad to help. They are really good people and they have a wonderful product."

Now it's a race against the clock to be ready in time for a private grand-opening party Saturday afternoon. Workers were scrambling last week to put the finishing touches on the aqua blue building, which will feature a honey extracting room, a bottling facility and a small store where the Bennetts will sell their "Piru Canyon Honey" and "Topanga Quality Honey."

A public grand opening will follow in later weeks, and the Bennetts hope to have the plant fully operational by the middle of the month.

The Bennetts said their expanded facility will allow them to increase honey production, currently about 200 tons a year.

They said that couldn't come at a better time, as honey prices have more than doubled over the last six months to about $1.50 a pound.

"A lot of our customers actually found us at our temporary facility, but we expect to regain all of our customers as soon as we can get the doors open," Red Bennett said. "It's been a real struggle, but we're feeling pretty good about where we're at now."

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