One local woman turned the bitter news of a doctor’s report into the sweet success of business. For her tenacity, courage, and commitment to her community, we’re proud to award this month’s Locavore award to Alma Johnson and Sarasota Honey Company.
➤ HOW SWEET IT IS
“Almost five years ago I went to the doctor and they gave me troubling news,” says Alma Johnson, owner of Sarasota Honey Company. “They said they had found cervical cancer cells. They were able to remove them, but it frazzled me. In addition to that scare, my husband and I had trouble conceiving, and I was diagnosed with a hormonal imbalance. I was put on steroids and infertility treatments. We ended up stopping the treatments, but the whole experience caused me to evaluate what changes I could make to live a healthier lifestyle.”
Those changes eventually grew into Sarasota Honey Company.
Johnson grew up in Texas, with a grandmother who was a beekeeper and a successful gardener. Her health issues prompted her to return to her roots. She planted an organic Victory Garden, but noticed the plants had trouble producing. “They weren’t getting pollinated,” says Johnson, “so I did what my grandmother taught me. Every morning I would use a swab to cross-pollinate the plants. Unfortunately, humans don’t cross pollinate as well as bees, so I didn’t get a very good harvest.”
Realizing her garden needed bees, Johnson set up a little bee yard, or apiary, in her backyard. When a family illness coincided with threats of a job loss due to budget cuts, Johnson opted to stay home. As a Transition Specialist at Family Network on Disabilities Statewide, she helped kids with special needs transition from high school into the workforce and community.
Though no longer employed, she continued to volunteer, helping “her kids” find employment. The family emergency passed, and Johnson found herself with free time. Her husband Glen asked what she loved most. “I told him I love helping my kids, and I love my bees. He said I should marry the two to create a job. And so I did,” says Johnson.
She turned her backyard hobby into Sarasota Honey Company and contacted Community Haven, a local not-for-profit that creates employment opportunities for people with special needs. “The money they charge me to harvest, bottle, and label my honey at Community Haven helps keep their staff of people with special needs employed,” said Johnson.She also helps in another way: Johnson donates bottled honey to Community Haven so they can sell it at 100% profit.
In December 2014, Sarasota Honey Company was granted a permit that allows them to sell honey through retailers. Prior to that, they were selling under the “cottage law,” which allows sales from hand-to-hand. Johnson said this is good news for her business and for her kids. “That means I can send more work to Community Haven. It’s one of the things I really love about this business,” says Johnson. “I like knowing what we’re doing here is helping people and my community.”
➤ MORE TO THE STORY
“When I was young, I received the label ‘severely learning disabled.’ My mom was a polio survivor and an activist for the Americans with Disabilities Act; she and some people with special needs tutored me to help me learn in a way I could comprehend,” explains Johnson.
“I wasn’t supposed to graduate from high school with a regular diploma, but I did. Then I went on to college with zero accommodations, because I had learned how to overcome my disability. I wanted to pay it forward, because I would not be here today if it wasn’t for other people with special needs who taught me a person is not disabled, but rather ‘differently abled.’ This is one reason for the career I chose and why I continue to help adults with disabilities.”
Johnson laughs as she tells the story of one of the special needs teens with Asperger’s who helps her with the bees. Socially, school can be difficult and the teen was telling Alma how the kids at school pick on her. All of a sudden the teen stopped her story and said, “You know, they think picking on someone that is different makes them tough, but I’d like to see them do what I do! Lets see them keep their cool with 600,000 bees buzzing around. I’m a beekeeper and that makes me a badass. I’m a badass beekeeper!”
One year after becoming a beekeeper and taking honey and royal jelly regularly, Johnson experienced unusual pain in her abdomen. At the hospital she was told she was ovulating. Since maintaining honey as a regular part of her diet, her cycle became regulated and her hormones stabilized. “I haven’t done anything different other than eat better and consume my raw honey and the royal jelly from my hives,” says Johnson. “I’m not saying it’s a cure-all for everyone; I’m saying that’s what it’s done for me.”
WHERE TO FIND IT
Sarasota Honey Company, Community Haven, 4405 Desoto Rd, Sarasota, sarasotahoney.com
Learn more about what it’s like to be a beekeeper when you read BEEKEEPERS: A Day in the Life.