Drawing on his grandfather’s firsthand knowledge of beekeeping, Ellis started his bee business. Now, he has 150 hives of bees on about 10 acres and also owns a fruit orchard.
When his grandfather told him stories about selling honey in his youth, Robert Ellis took the tales to heart. Today, he says, those tidbits of family history became his inspiration to start his own honey business.
When he was a freshman in high school, Ellis said, his friends started to get the kind of part-time jobs typical of teenagers, working at fast-food restaurants and similar establishments. He also wanted to earn some spending money, but didn’t like the idea of flipping burgers.
“I never really liked taking orders from anybody,” he said. “I wanted to be my own boss, so I invested money into bee hives. I got 25 and about an acre of farmland.”
Drawing on his grandfather’s firsthand knowledge of beekeeping, Ellis started his bee business. Now, he has 150 hives of bees on about 10 acres and also owns a fruit orchard. Now a full-time beekeeper and farmer, he credits much of his success to a chance opportunity that resulted in a unique product.
“We had a guy that called a couple of years ago and said he had blackberries that weren’t getting pollinated,” Ellis said. “I said we’d have to think about it because we’d never heard of blackberry honey. We took about 10 bee hives, and the honey was so good, we took 25 down there.”
Ellis, the owner-operator of Ellis Farms, also sells traditional sourwood honey, apples, peaches and vegetables at the Kingsport and Johnson City farmers’ markets. He sells the honey in local health food stores too, including Good Food Grocery inside Mac’s Medicine Mart in Kingsport and Natural Foods Market in Johnson City.
He’s also developed a base of customers who he ships to in different states, he said, and he’s hoping to create a successful brand that makes his name synonymous with 100 percent Pure Tennessee Blackberry Honey.
“It doesn’t taste like clover. It doesn’t taste like sourwood. It just has its own unique taste,” he says – and readily offers his customers a taste test.
He has his bees in Sullivan, Greene and Cocke counties – with hopes of future expansion and hundreds more hives. He said working with other farmers is a win-win: pollination by Ellis’ bees means a better blackberry crop for them to sell, and at the same time they produce honey.
The blackberry honey, which has won first-place honors at the Appalachian Fair, sells for $13 a quart. The sourwood honey sells for $15.
Honey is a lot of work, Ellis said; it requires him to check his hives daily to head off disease, parasites and other bee ailments. But the 2012 Dobyns-Bennett High School grad says it’s something that he loves – and that occasionally gives him the opportunity to hire local kids when he needs extra help.
When he’s not busy with the bees, he said, he works as a substitute teacher for Kingsport City Schools and as a volunteer coach at Dobyns-Bennett High School and Robinson Middle School, where he enjoys helping to share the valuable life lessons of athletics.
If his honey business ever grows to the 700 bee hives he’s aiming for, he says he’ll need a lot more help – but he’s looking forward to that kind of challenge.
“We plan on keeping up production and trying to keep growing,” he said. “The goal is for Ellis Farms to be known not just in East Tennessee, but for blackberry honey to be known by Ellis Farms all over Tennessee.”
To learn more, contact Ellis Farms at 423-782-8944.
Fresh from the Farm is a weekly summer series featuring farmers and producers from Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. To suggest a local farmer or producer to be featured in the series, email Sunday Stories' editor Carmen Musick at email@example.com.