Family mark 90 years in honey

The third and fourth generation to grow up in the Marshes’ honey business are (from (left)...
The third and fourth generation to grow up in the Marshes’ honey business are (from (left) Charlie, Russell, Trudie and Molly Marsh. Photos: supplied
From collecting a swarm of bees for a neighbour to winning national awards 90 years later, Marsh’s Honey has moved with the times while remaining true to its origins.

Russell and Trudie Marsh are the third generation of his family to run the family business while living in the house the others also lived in.

The business, like the house, remains true to its origins with minor adjustments to bring it into current times.

Like his grandfather, Charlie, who started the business, Russell is committed to making sure the bees retain enough honey to see them through the winter and does not feed them sugar syrup.

A neighbour asked the young Charlie, known as Chas, to recover a bee swarm in a tree on their property on what is now State Highway 8. From that swarm literally grew the family business.

Chas’s brothers, Don and Jack, grew strawberries nearby in Marsh Rd, which were a huge drawcard. Buses travelled from all over Otago and Southland loaded with people on a day out to pick, and eat, strawberries. Their berries were flown from Alexandra airport to the Tip Top ice cream factory.

Russell remembered as a toddler being taken to the strawberry farm by his grandfather and sitting in the paddock with a box of strawberries to eat.

However, while pick your own strawberries fell from public favour when carless days were introduced in the late 1970s, Marsh’s name continued in the honey industry.

Bees were crucial for food production well beyond sweet treats, Russell said.

"Approximately 70% of food is touched by bees."

Pollination was an important part of their business: hives go into orchards all around Ettrick and Roxburgh where stone and pipfruit for all around the world are grown.

It was amazing to think their bees pollinated the blossom which became apples at CAJ Apples and were then sold in India, he said.

Their honeycomb consistently wins awards and their clover honey is well known in southern supermarkets. While the packaging has evolved over the decades, elements have stayed the same.

Chas, and all other apiarists at the time, packed their honey in tins. One design was manufactured and each producer embossed their name on it it. Following that came waxed pottles. Then in the late 1960s plastic containers arrived. Today Marsh’s honey is packed in recyclable plastic and glass jars.

Chas shifted to Ettrick Rd in 1948 and in 1968 Russell’s parents, Brian and Lyn, bought the property and the business which had 200 hives by then.

Lyn, like her daughter-in-law, Trudie, was creative and designed labels and containers for the honey. Blue and gold was Brian’s idea, as he was a keen Otago rugby supporter, and Lyn encouraged her children to design a label. Russell’s sister, Mari-Anne, came up with Billy BuzzBee who decorated the pottles for many years.

Celebrating 90 years of their family business are Trudie and Russell Marsh, of Ettrick. Russell’s...
Celebrating 90 years of their family business are Trudie and Russell Marsh, of Ettrick. Russell’s grandfather, Charlie, who started Marsh’s Honey, bought his brand new 1937 Chevrolet truck from Cooke Howlison, in Dunedin, where Russell bought his Land Cruiser last year. It took five years for the Chevrolet to be restored and it was back on the road on Christmas Eve 2020.
A drawing of their home, commissioned by Lyn, has become part of the current labelling.

"About every 10 years we tweak it a bit. There’s ripples [of the past] all the way through. However, the product inside has never changed," Russell said.

Similarly, beekeeping had not really changed over the 90 years.

In the same way, the packaging has evolved taking over a generational business has meant being able to pick out the good bits and keep them going, Russell said.

Bee health and weather continued to be risk factors, as they were mostly out of beekeepers’ control.

Some of the new innovations seemed like good ideas but often were not necessary. For example, plastic bases for hives did not wear as well as wooden ones.

"Bees still only fly so far in some temperatures."

Hive design had not changed significantly and he still had hardwood dovetailed boxes that belonged to his grandfather.

Their bees were also generational as they raised their own queens. That was Trudie’s task until recent times when their only fulltime employee, Emily Buschl, has taken it on.

Trudie now spends her time marketing and managing their online shop.

Couriers call daily for packages of honey to be delivered all around the country.

They did little advertising and many customers sought them out.

Beekeeping was a bit like subsistence farming, Russell said.

"We are landless farmers with livestock we can’t see without taking the lids off their home."

It could be a terribly fickle industry and when Russell and Trudie bought the business from his parents in 2003 they struggled to get finance and now things were no better for those wanting to go into the industry.

Manuka honey’s medicinal properties had created corporate interest in the industry but not all manuka honey had the same properties. Beekeeper numbers had skyrocketed as people thought they could make a lot of money but those numbers were falling, he said.

Charlie Marsh stands by his 1937 Chevrolet truck in the 1950s.
Charlie Marsh stands by his 1937 Chevrolet truck in the 1950s.
As with all farming, disease was always a concern but New Zealand’s biosecurity was good, which was important as there were diseases that could decimate the industry if they were introduced.

Varroa mite and American foulbrood disease, which were both in New Zealand, were manageable as long as all beekeepers did the right thing, he said.

While Russell had hives from a young age, his father did not pressure him to take on the business. However, Russell and Trudie were at a crossroads in their own lives when his parents were about to retire.

Russell, after graduating from Otago University, had held corporate roles with dairy companies and was Nestle NZ financial controller. In five years they had bought 19 companies which Russell had to rationalise and restructure, which meant lots of travelling.

"There was lots of air points but not much family time."

Moving to Melbourne or Sydney from Dunedin seemed to be the next logical step for the couple and their two very young children.

The chance to take on the family business came at the right time.

Friends were concerned about how Trudie, who was a physical education graduate, teacher and provincial netball player and coach, would settle into country life.

However, she had grown up on a dairy farm south of Auckland and thrived in their new home.

With two children in two years she threw herself into play groups, netball and connecting to her new community. Russell found himself meeting people he hadn’t seen since leaving for boarding school.

Each generation so far has guided Marsh’s Honey for around 30 years. The fourth generation of Marshes — Charlie, 23, and Molly, nearly 22, — were busy following their own passions and were encouraged to by their parents.

Russell had worked in Hong Kong, done his OE and enjoyed corporate life before heading back to the hives.

"I think you need to get that out of your system before you come back to something like this. It’s hard to get away once you are here."

The business did not need to get bigger and their focus was on the bees and their health, and how that added value and service to the valley they live in, he said.

"We’ll stick to our knitting — it’s steady as she goes."