A Mesilla Valley Tradition. It’s well known that the Mesilla Valley produces world-famous green chile and some of the largest crops of pecans in the world. It’s a bit of a secret that Las Cruces also has nearly a century of rich history in producing unique, local varieties of honey.
Jerry Garcia, owner of Garcia Honey Farm, stands as one of the few local beekeepers who’s experienced most of that history first-hand. Time spent with this affable beekeeper and his tight-knit family is not only entertaining; it’s also extremely enlightening about bees, honey, and life in the Mesilla Valley.
Bees… A Mesilla Valley Tradition
Jerry’s father Felipe Garcia began working the bees at the age of six, and continued to learn the trade at Mr. Powell’s side until Felipe left to fight in World War II. Mr. Powell promised to keep his bees until Felipe returned. “In 1942 my grandfather took it over from Mr. Powell, the original beekeeper here in the valley,” explains Jerry’s oldest son, Pancho Garcia, who has been working with bees since the age of 10. “The history goes back so far no one can even remember Mr. Powell’s first name. We just always called him Mr. Powell,” Pancho adds, laughing.
Today the Garcia family, along with a few of their favorite hives, still resides on the same Mesilla property that housed the original Powell honey house in the 1930s. In 1947, Felipe moved the honey house, where you can purchase honey and watch it as it’s extracted from the combs, to its current location on Calle de Los Huertos in Mesilla.
At Garcia Honey Farm, being part of the family means being part of the bee business. Nearly everyone in the family pitches in at one time or another. Jerry, his wife Rose, and son Pancho do most of the day-to-day work. Daughter Veronica, Jerry’s brothers and sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and even close family friends pitch in on weekends and holidays to help make the family business successful. “Everyone else has a job, but on the weekends is when I take advantage of them,” jokes Jerry. “The best part about it is it’s cheap labor! They love it though. If they have a stressful job they come work and just sweat out all the stress.”
Jerry has spent his lifetime working with—and getting stung by—his bees. “I’d say we get stung like 10 to 15 times a day when we’re working with the bees,” says Pancho. Over a lifetime that adds up thousands of bee stings. But a little bee sting never gets in the way of this enthusiastic family and growing the business they love.
The Garcias produce four main varieties of honey from over 2,500 hives scattered around Southern New Mexico. The most popular variety, mesquite, is produced in early spring and can be identified by its light, whitish color. After the mesquite, the bees turn their attention to alfalfa, then cotton, and finally, depending on summer rain, to purple sage. Garcia hives can be found in 85 different locations across the Mesilla Valley, as well as Los Lunas, Soccoro, the Gila, and Deming during certain times of the year. The Garcias mainly wholesale their honey for sale at farmer’s and flea markets, however they have a strong following of local customers who bring their own jars to the Garcia honey house to purchase their fill.
Mesilla Valley honey is unique not only for its history but also because if its thickness. “You go to the East Coast and West Coast and the humidity is so high that the honey runs like water, whereas here it runs really thick,” explains Pancho. Mesquite and purple sage varieties are also unique because New Mexico is among the few places in the country where bees can find these flowers.
Bees… Good for the Health Many of their loyal customers return year after year to Garcia Farms for the health benefits of their raw honey, which contains absolutely no additives or preservatives. Jerry warns buyers looking for health benefits to avoid honey sold in grocery stores or labeled simply as ‘pure.’ “Make sure the word ‘raw’ is in there, not just ‘pure’ honey,” he adds. “You go to the store and it says ‘pure’ honey but it has been pasteurized.”
According to Garcia customers, there are many health benefits to a daily dose of this sweet elixir. Jerry says that many customers use raw honey as a remedy for allergies, and for winter illnesses like the cold and flu.
Some distance runners use honey as a quick way to replenish energy after a long run. There’s also a home remedy combining vinegar, honey, and lemon to relieve arthritis pain. Another benefit is that unlike sugar, most diabetics can eat honey (after first checking with their physician). “It’s got to be pure and raw,” warns Pancho. “You buy honey from the store and it’s got a lot of additives. If diabetics buy honey in the store, they’ll end up in the hospital.” Jerry tells the story of one diabetic customer who did just that. In a pinch she decided to buy honey labeled ‘pure’ from the grocery store. After two weeks in the hospital and a near death experience, the customer came back to Jerry and said, “I want you to throw this stuff in the trash, and give me your honey!”
Because of its antioxidant properties, Rose says that honey can also be used topically to heal cuts. “Look at my arms,” says Rose, holding out both hands. She used honey on her wounds after having surgery on both arms, and the scars are barely visible now. Pancho adds that one local veterinarian uses their honey on horses to prevent infection when the animals are cut on barbed wire.
A bee’s super power isn’t limited to the honey it produces. Pancho says several customers come in to purchase the honeycomb to rub directly on arthritic joints. Pain sufferers have also approached the Garcias to use bees for the express purpose of being stung. “There were some tennis players who came by to get stung for tennis elbow,” says Pancho. “They drove off with the bee stingers on, left them there for about an hour, and then told us the pain would be better for about 10 to 12 days.” Bee stings for pain relief may seem far-fetched, but Jerry is quick to point out that despite doing the hard physical labor of beekeeping most of their lives, none of the Garcias suffer from arthritis pain.
In terms of health benefits, not all honeys are created equal. In addition to selecting raw honey, there are also differences in the color and thickness of different varieties. Generally the darker the honey is, the thicker it is. “Everyone likes mesquite honey because of the light, golden color,” says Jerry. “But me, I don’t care for it. The darker the honey is, the better for you if you’re using it for allergies.” Pancho also adds that Alfalfa derived honey is most effective in combating local allergies.
One thing about raw honey that customers should be aware of is that it will harden and crystallize over time, especially in cooler temperatures. Honey bought from a grocery store doesn’t harden because it has been pasteurized and contains additives to keep it runny, explains Jerry. Once raw honey has crystallized, it can be used in solid form for cooking or melting into hot beverages.
Or, says Pancho, you can remove the lid and warm the honey jar in hot water or heat it over a flame to melt it back to a liquid form. Rose warns not to put the honey in the microwave, as it kills all the nutrients and antioxidants.
Bees… Are Under Attack Many consumers are noticing an increase in the price of honey. Over the last decade, challenges in honey production have increased dramatically. Where there used to be only a handful of diseases that could affect a bee, Pancho says that today there are 23 varieties of diseases and viruses that can kill a bee. This, along with drought in most of the country, has severely impacted honey production.
The Garcia family has been producing around eighty 55-gallon barrels of honey per year for the last seven years. Pancho explains that this is a sharp decline from what they call the “golden years” in the 70s and 80s when they would routinely produce nearly 200 barrels per year. “We’re also getting less and less honey every year because of the housing developments on the farm land,” he continues. Bees need pollen to make honey. As the production of crops decreases in the area, so does the production of honey. Pancho says the main thing sustaining the family business is that their bees are rented out to farmers in California every winter.
Every January, the Garcia beehives, along with all the bees that survive the first month of winter, are carefully stacked on pallets and loaded onto a semi truck to head to various areas in California. In California the bees are rented to local almond farmers who need bees to pollinate their trees. Pancho says that nearly every commercial hive in the country is sent to California from January to March. This also spares bees from the coldest winter months in most of the country.
Despite all the challenges faced by bees and their keepers, Pancho says that he is confident honey production in the Mesilla Valley will eventually come back up. “It’s just going to take a long time and rain,” he says. “But it will come back!”
Article by Tiffany Etterling
Photography by Russell Bamert and Donicio Madrid