Aid in Securing USDA Loan Places Southwest Georgia Product on Store Shelves Across the U.S.
Ray Crosby knows his bees and honey. A third-generation farmer who lives with his family in Omega, a rural southwest Georgia town, he understands what makes his product—packaged as pure, unfiltered raw honey— unique. His knowledge, in fact, resonates with the customers from coast-to-coast who buy Weeks Honey.
“Working with Ray, I’ve learned a lot about honey,” says Heather Sharpe, a University of Georgia Small Business Development Center consultant in the Albany Office. She confesses her honey-buying habits have made her a “honey snob.”
“Ray has a passion not just for the quality of the honey, but for the bees and beekeepers,” she says. “He’s an advocate for Georgia’s local honey, an advocate for local honey’s health properties. He believes in handling honey with love and great care. Weeks produces a pure, quality craft product without damaging its properties, and Ray is committed to this mission.”
Crosby grew up helping with the family hives, but left home at 18 to make his mark in the corporate world.
“I said I’d never end up in this business getting stung by bees everyday, but I came back in 2001 when my parents asked if I would help our family business for the next generation,” he says. He’s been running the business since 2009. “When we lost my Father, I stepped out of the bee yards to manage the honey side as well.”
By 2015, Crosby realized that to leave a strong, viable business to future generations, he had to move it to the next level. To spur growth, he would need to restructure the company’s debt and expand.
He contacted Lynn Bennett, Area Director of the UGA SBDC’s Valdosta office. “Ray needed some guidance in producing a solid business plan that would capture his current structure and provide a pathway for growth,” she says. “He was looking for assistance with his cash flow projections and also wanted to develop a new marketing strategy.”
Bennett helped Crosby develop the plan and projections. She also introduced him to Sharpe. She worked with his staff to develop marketing strategies including social media and a plan to target new customers out West.
“We had to get bigger or cut back a lot to be profitable, so we made the leap. Our expansion was very expensive,” says Crosby, “so I talked to Lynn and Heather quite a bit.”
Weeks Honey Farm successfully secured a seven-figure loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Crosby used it to refinance the company’s debt and expand product sales to 28 states across the nation, from California and Arizona, across Texas to New York and New Jersey.
“The loan refinanced the equipment we needed for our expansion and the inventory and supplies. It funded the labeling equipment, machinery, inventory, bottles, jars and lids,” he says.
Weeks Honey Farm’s product placement has expanded from 150 to 3,000 stores. Overall sales have increased 30 percent, and they continue to grow.
The business maintains anywhere from 6,000 to 8,000 hives of honey bees for production. Crosby also rents hives to other farmers for pollination services. In Georgia, Weeks Honey provides pollinators for watermelon, cantaloupe, cucumbers and squash. It also provides hives to California farmers who need to pollinate their almond groves.
In 2017, Weeks Honey was nominated and named the Small Business Administration’s Family Business of the Year. The expansion has ensured Crosby’s family and friends will continue to hold their jobs at the farm, he says, and it has allowed him to hire another full-time employee. The company also supports 60 beekeepers, up from 20 just a few years earlier.
“We’re just stewards of God’s blessings,” he says. “We love everybody and want to help others, our beekeepers and families, feel this great love and know they’re important and a valued part of something good.”
“Many in agribusiness have a lot of faith. There are so many variables in what may happen,” says Sharpe. “It’s a lifestyle for many, but they also understand they need to make good decisions for their businesses.”
“I tell others, if you need advice or someone to hold your hand to get through any process in your business, whether fixing problems or going to next level, the consultants of the SBDC are not afraid to get their hands dirty and do anything that needs to get done,” says Crosby.