Preserving the Legacy of Marshall’s Farm
June 13, 2018
Next week is National Pollinator Week, a time to celebrate the vital role of bees within our ecosystems and agriculture. And there are few people in the world who have advocated for bees as sweetly as Spencer and Helene Marshall of Marshall’s Farm Natural Honey. Through Bay Area farmers markets like the Ferry Plaza, the Marshalls have educated thousands of market-goers about the importance of bees, with a focus on their delicious varietal honeys, sourced from our Bay Area food shed.
Since Helene’s sudden passing two years ago, Spencer has been beekeeping and running the honey business on his own, and he is getting ready to retire. The farm is for sale, and the family is looking for a buyer who will carry on what the Marshalls started. Helene’s daughter, Tamara Rubin, shares why the Marshall’s Farm legacy is so important to preserve.
Unexpected Environmental Activists
I was born in 1969. My friends and I have chosen the label “environmental activists” for ourselves—and that’s somewhat normal for folks our age. My mother, Helene, and her husband, Spencer Marshall—born in 1942 and 1943—weren’t part of a generation in which that was already a popular distinction. But as beekeepers and the founders of Marshall’s Farm Natural Honey, they lived and breathed environmental activism in a tangible way.
From the Classroom to the Garden
Helene and Spencer were raised in the post-WWII generation, with the popularization and widespread use of things like baby formula, “better living through chemistry,” and mechanized food processing. Yet both of them instinctively rebelled against the industrialization of our food and culture, and even before they met, they pursued similar paths, with interests in teaching and working with their hands After graduating from Berkeley, Helene taught art for high school and junior high kids, while she practiced her art and fine-tuned her craft as a functional ceramicist. Spencer taught in the Bay Area at a new and progressive “free school” for young children, and also worked on homes, becoming a fine craftsman and woodworker.
And they both had a love of bees.
In 1970 Helene moved to Hingham, Massachusetts, and the house her young family bought had some land. They started a large organic garden (before “organic” was a thing) and began keeping bees, and her kids grew up in the garden, playing with dolls under the fruit trees next to the tall corn stocks in the late summer and fall, picking berries and making pies all summer long, and harvesting honey from their own hives. Around the same time, Spencer started exploring more of his family’s century-long tradition of being farmers and beekeepers. He soon began cultivating queen bees and renting his hives out to orchards to help with pollination.
Pollinating the Movement
Fast forward to the early 1990s, when Spencer and Helene met. She had raised her children as a single mom, making a living selling her hand-made ceramics and wind-chimes. Spencer was making a living through a combination of his hives and work as a contractor, while also being a primary caregiver for his father.
In 1991, Helene and her kids sold her pottery at the San Rafael Farmers Market, and once she started getting involved with Spencer and his bees, she thought to add honey to the booth as well. Things took off from there. Soon their synergistic individual backgrounds—of organic farming and bootstrap business savvy—were grafted together to produce a rare and beautiful flower: Marshall’s Farm Natural Honey.
As the farmers market movement blossomed across the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1990s, the Marshalls got involved and joined committees and boards of directors to help make the movement stronger, making sure farmers’ voices were represented. They were one of the first farms to join CUESA’s Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in 1994, when local, varietal honey was a fairly new concept.
They also had a blast doing what they did, and the spirit of fun Helene brought to the markets engaged customers in new ways. In 2001, they bought land in Napa so they could expand their impact through outreach programs, including demonstrations and classes for school children, senior groups, culinary students, and tourists interested in California agriculture and beekeeping, bringing their backgrounds as educators full circle.
Saving the Bees
When the sudden alarming decline of bees known as colony collapse disorder (CCD) began getting attention in the 2000s, the Marshalls incorporated the mission to save the bees into their work and their outreach efforts. This was not because they considered themselves “environmentalists,” but because that is what they needed to do. Preserving the bees and generating awareness of the fragility of our ecosystem were integral to their work.
Together, Helene and Spencer popularized microclimate honey cultivation (as special varietals and for treating pollen allergies) and reinvigorated the art of urban beekeeping. They partnered with the top restaurants, chefs, and specialty stores in the Bay Area, such as Chez Panisse, Zuni Café, and the Fairmont Hotel—people and institutions who made local and organic a priority in their product sourcing.
For the Marshalls, like many hard-working small farmers today, “just doing what is right” ended up constituting the most profound environmental activism, though they never thought of themselves in that way or loudly proclaimed it. In doing so, they made Marshall’s Farm Honey a beloved Bay Area institution, and raised awareness about the importance of honeybees in our food supply for thousands of farmer market visitors.
Farm for Sale
It’s now been two years since Helene passed away (far too young!), and Spencer is ready to retire, yet the business they built together still thrives. He has an indispensable knowledge base about bees and honey that he hopes to pass on in a profound way to future generations, but he does not have family members able to carry on the knowledge and traditions. It is an all-too-common story these days, as America’s farmers grow older.
So that is why Marshall’s Farm is for sale—4.5 acres of farmland in American Canyon, the honey business, and the brand Helene and Spencer built together over 25 years. Spencer would like to not just “sell” the business as a mere “brand asset,” but to find buyers or investors—new family members, really—who have an genuine, strong commitment to the planet and the environment and the bees, and who will carry on the farm’s legacy.
Please be in touch if you can help in some way to be a steward for the bees and the future of Marshall’s Farm. Check out the website we have put together at HoneyFarmForSale.com.
For now you can continue to find us at the farmers market, and we thank you for your support of Marshall’s Farm Natural Honey over the last 25 years. May your own journey make an equal impact on the planet and your community!
Find Marshall’s Farm Natural Honey at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Saturdays.
Photos by Jen Heflin.