Steve and Nicole Simmons, the power couple behind Nicole’s Honey

One of the things I’ve truly loved about working with the Farmer’s Market has been the cultivation of community. I get to meet all these wonderful farmers and artisans carving out a life in our neighborhoods and all the families who come out to support them.  I love to hear their stories. It’s a beautiful feeling to have in this day and age, where so many people feel disconnected from each other. It gives me hope. Our farmers this week embody this community spirit. This product is truly a community effort and is bringing people together for the sweet, sometimes savory, magical goodness that is Nicole’s Honey. Nestled in a beautiful little neighborhood in Hurricane is Nicole’s Honey headquarters, which is the beautiful home of Steve and Nicole Simmons. They welcomed me in and we sat down.

 

We started talking about the market, honey, and how it all started back in 2012. Nicole was a school teacher and a janitor at the school was offering beekeeping classes. He convinced Nicole and Steve to take the course. “After the first class I was hooked. I thought they were the coolest, most interesting creatures ever. I mean save the bees and all that,” Steve said laughing. That’s another thing you’ll notice about Steve and Nicole, they’re hilarious and always joking. They got their first hive that season and over the past 6 years have built up to their delicious 80 hive empire. When I asked where all the hives were, Steve replied “Everywhere.” To which Nicole promptly added, “Yes, if we’re driving around and we see a good spot, Steve will knock on their door. He’s not afraid to ask. We mainly trade honey for land use.” A pang of jealousy shot through my stomach. 80 familes are getting a sweet honey deal for helping with this local business. “We’ll do hive splits this year and next and hopefully have 300 hives.” At the mere mention of this, I could no longer hide my excitement. 300 hives!!!

A teaching comb that Steve brought out to show me when I first arrived.

I began asking about breeds. “We have Italians, Cordovan’s, and we’ve started using a Canadian breed Saskatraz. They are all super gentle breeds. Not aggressive at all. You want to go out and work the hive?” Steve threw in casually. Trying to judge if he was serious or teasing, I of course, said yes. Within minutes, we were all suited up and I was getting the run down of all the equipment. I was put in charge of the smoker (well… I held the smoker until Steve needed it). I followed him to their hive and he started explaining to me the basic set up. The bottom chambers are for the queen to lay in and build the hive. There is a little screen called a ‘queen excluder’ to keep her out of the top boxes that are reserved for honey collection. I was overwhelmed with how many working parts there are in a hive. We walked over to a ‘nuke’ hive which means they are just getting established and not yet producing honey. Steve coached me through cracking the lid. I have to say, it made me feel pretty rad. Suddenly, this golden sea of moving insects was exposed, which should have been terrifying, but instead was hypnotizing.  Steve started pulling out the frames and explaining the patterns that were appearing before me.

From left to right: Smoking the hive, bringing out the first frame, and examining the second frame

“See right here? They are just filling this in with the wax for the comb. It takes 7 pounds of nectar to create 1 pound of drawn out wax.” I don’t think Steve could read my shocked expression through my veil. He carefully set the frame aside. “We’ll keep going until we find the queen.” He pulled out the next frame and showed me completely different stages that were happening in front of my face. It was unreal. Every single frame was unique and had a whole different part of the bee’s journey unfolding in front of me. Steve and Nicole walked me through what happens in each stage of the comb cycle and how it effects the health and prosperity of the hive; again, reiterating how much love and attention goes into keeping these high maintenance fuzzy little girls happy and thriving. That’s another thing I learned: hives are not just ruled by a queen, but almost all the inhabitants are female. There are very few male/drone bees. As we were getting deeper into the hive, Steve pointed out the laying patterns of the queen and how productive she was. “This is a good queen. She’s doing everything right.” As we were examining the middle frame, I spotted a huge red dot on the back of a bee. Nicole congratulated me for spotting her first, and I felt like a bee rock star. Steve then explained how they mark the queens to keep track of them. A different color is used each year.  We watched her for a few amazing minutes. Steve was right, she was a good queen.

Try and spot the queen with her big dot.

We reassembled the hive and took off our gear. Steve, Nicole, and I went into their garage where all the processing happens. They have a radial extractor that does 400 revolutions per minute. “Before we had this electric one, I had one that was a hand crank. It sucked.” I laughed, and as they explained the process of hot knifing the comb and spinning out the honey, it didn’t take long to understand how grueling the work would be by hand. “What we’re known for is our creamed honey. No one does it to the extent and quality that we do. It’s a 14-day process of adding crystallized honey and liquid honey at certain temperatures and letting it evolve.” They walked me through the process of achieving there many different flavors. It was mind boggling to think that every jar represented months of bee collecting and weeks of processing. “Oh this is something else we do. Pure comb straight in the jar. We built these custom frames so we can just cut the comb out and drop it in the jar. Completely unprocessed, untouched by human hands.” He handed me a jar and as I examined it I realized that this was probably the closest I’d ever come to holding liquid gold.

from left to right: the radial extractor, the working hive, and raw comb honey.

It was getting late in the evening, so we said our goodbyes and I started my drive back. The whole night kept replaying through my head and it wasn’t hard to see the similarities between the hive of bees and the Farmer’s Market. We are all these individuals going out and harvesting little patches of earth or creating wonderful products, then we bring it to the heart of the city to spread out and share and build our hive. It’s so perfect. It’s almost as perfect as having an amazing evening learning about bees and looking over at the passenger seat and seeing a jar of fresh, sweet, local honey that was gifted to you by an amazing couple. You can grab yourself a jar of the same honey this Saturday at the market. You can also follow Nicole’s Honey on Facebook , or if you’d like to learn more about bees, get your own hive, or order honey during non-market season you can visit Nicole’s Honey here.

Quick back story: nine years ago, my husband and I visited St. George because his band was playing a show at the Ancestor Square Farmer’s Market. As they picked some tunes, I shopped and enjoyed the local scene. I stumbled upon a cheese vendor. Blown away by the product, I bought a huge square of sharp cheddar and when the show ended we went back to our friend’s house. We all stood around this block of orange goodness and devoured it in less then an hour. I, no joke, have made reference to that cheese once a month for the past NINE YEARS, and every time cursing myself for not remembering the brand. This cheese was that good. Fast forward to last April when Utah passed HB 181, a law allowing raw milk to be sold from a refrigerated van, making it possible for Winford Barlow (a.k.a Finney) of Finney Farm to sell at the Farmer’s Market again which I had just joined as management. My excitement about solving my-cheese-that-got-away mystery was more alarming than flattering I’m sure, but I still managed to convince Finney it was safe to take me on a tour of his dairy.

 

The Finney Farm store front against the beautiful scenery.

If you take the UT-59 out of Hurricane you’re in for a glorious drive past Gooseberry Mesa, Apple Valley, and the quiet town of Hildale. It’s a small unassuming town that is slammed up against magnificent red rock faces. In my mind I refer to Hildale as “Tiny Zion.” I followed the little wooden signs promising ‘raw milk’ up a winding back road until I saw the small red store front emblazoned with two gigantic white Fs. I got out of my car and immediately tried to capture the early morning light hitting the gigantic rock face that backs up to the property. When I looked down the dirt road I saw Finney walking up to greet me. He had a big smile on his face and waved. “Isn’t it beautiful?” He pointed up at the mountain. He then began to tell me about all the great hikes up there and how next time I should plan one out. I nodded in agreement still trying to get my bearings. He beckoned me to follow him back down the dirt road. As I trailed after him, I asked why they chose cheese. Finney quickly answered that his wife had always made cheese and she got him into it. They have been in the industry for over 25 years graduating from both the Washington State University and Utah State University Cheesemaking programs.

We came down upon a beautiful red barn that matched the store front we had just left and in front of me were the sweetest Dulce de Leche colored cows I’ve ever seen. Finney started introducing me to the cows telling me their names, their birthdays, when they gave birth, favorite sleeping positions, and where they like to hang out. He would call out a name and a cow would look at him. I was struck by how responsive the cows were to him, they seemed more like gigantic dogs than the angry Black Angus that I grew up with. They are Brown Swiss cows. Finney said they chose that breed because they have high milking yields and they are extremely resistant to heat, which is the deciding factor of day to day life here in the desert. I asked if they used hormones on the cows. He shook his head, “We don’t use anything like that. We have a system. If they need rest, we rotate them out. We keep them healthy and they do just fine.” In a moment of naivety, I thought to myself that this was probably the case for most small, back yard ranches but not serious operations. I was about to learn just how serious of an operation Finney Farm was.

Inside the stainless steel dairy and the list of the registered cow’s names

As we walked through the doors into the big red barn shaped building, I was overwhelmed with all of the stainless steel and the high-tech instruments. Finney explained how the temperature is carefully monitored, how they test daily for bacteria in their state of the art lab on the top floor (they measure 0% bacteria by the way), and how they process 260 gallons of milk a day. “A DAY?!” I asked. Finney nodded. “Everything is processed within 24 hours of milking.” My jaw dropped. He showed me the milking and sanitization processes. He took me outside to their Mozzarella smoker. Picking up on how excited I was getting, Finney showed me their new experimental batches of cheese. He pulled out the most beautiful cheese wheel I had ever seen. It was their new bandaged wrapped English style Cheddar (which means it’s coated in butter before it starts aging). He then pointed out their new feta and sheep milk cheeses. I stood there flabbergasted. “Is this all your storage?” I asked with a hint of jealousy. “Oh no, we have an aging hanger across town. We have about 16 tons aging right now. Most of it over 5 years old.” I started laughing. That means somewhere in the small quaint town of Hildale is hiding 16 tons of some seriously delicious cheese. It brought a whole new kind of treasure hunt to mind.

From left to right: Finney’s famous curd, Finney showing off the English Cheddar, and aging sheep milk cheeses

 

Our tour was wrapping up and we walked back through the building. One of Finney’s daughters was filling frozen yogurt containers. He looked at me, “Do you want a frozen yogurt cone?” With a huge smile, I said yes. He quickly and professionally filled me a waffle cone with the prettiest cream and purple colored yogurt I’d ever seen. He filled one for himself and his son. We walked outside into the

This houses the entire operation and at the top of the white staircase is the only spot you’ll receive cell service on the whole property.

early morning sunlight and ate our frozen yogurt. It was perfect. I trailed behind Finney back up to the store front with a belly full of happiness. He gave me a tour of the store which not only sells all their raw milk products but locally made bread and tortillas. I thought this would be the perfect stop before heading up the canyon for a hike. I bought some sharp cheddar and tortillas and said my goodbyes as I stopped one last time to take in the spectacular view. I left feeling good about being able to bring such an amazing product from such a beautiful place to St. George.

 

Finney Farm will be one of the cornerstone vendors featured every weekend at the Farmer’s Market at Ancestor Square. If you find yourself with a free afternoon and some cheese needs, head out to Hildale for some hiking and visit the Finney Farm store front. You can keep up with Finney’s on Facebook here or visit their homepage here. I would like to point out also that my tour of the farm is a special occurrence, they must protect the biosecurity of the farm so the number of visitors to the animals is limited.

 

Scott Sproul and Mary Matera-Sproul owners, founders, and the farmers of Baker Creek Lavender Farm

  • 4o minutes north bound from St. George on hwy 18 is Baker Reservoir. It’s beautiful and charming. The temperatures are a bit cooler and deciduous trees become more frequently scattered amongst the prickly pear and sage brush.  The reservoir is a gem that boasts no sandy beaches or cliff jumping but is perfect for a quiet getaway. This visit however, I felt a little crazy as we drove around on the winding back roads. Maybe we’re lost, I thought. My GPS had definitely lied to me before. There’s no way we were headed the right way; a sentiment echoed by my husband, who kept saying out loud, “We’re lost.” Finally, we turned up a driveway at Google’s insistence. I picked up the phone to call Scott Sproul, my husband mouthed the word “Lost” again at me. Scott answered upbeat and ready. I described where we were. He coached us down the driveway to the gate. There was Scott, waiting patiently. We had found it. Scott is one half of the incredible couple that has started Baker Creek Lavender Farm.

 

He invited us to ride with him back to the new fields. Excitedly, we piled in and took off. Scott immediately launched in to telling us about the property and what they were doing, stopping every now and then to point out his favorite hiking spots or where the wildlife liked to congregate. The 250+ acre ranch was originally purchased by his grandfather and had been in the family for over 50 years. He described the love and the memories that the whole family had for the land. This is how the agreement was made that each child got 5-6 acres for personal use. While some have built cabins, Mary and Scott went a delightfully different direction. When I asked him why they chose lavender, he credited Mary with the idea. About 5 years ago they stumbled upon a working lavender farm in California while on vacation and the seed was planted. Slowly the research started and a plan was put into place. It was decided that on weekends, when they have a break from their full-time jobs in Vegas, they would head up to the property and build it up piece by piece.

 

The beautiful walkway lined by trees leading to the new rows of lavender. This is one of the 5 varieties the farm is cultivating currently.

We drove along a seemingly endless wall of trees until finally it opened up on a sweet meadow that had been cleared to make way for the budding Lavender farm. We parked and hopped out. The farm is in the very beginning stages right now, but the magic is there already. The goosebumps began to run down my arms.  Scott explained the meticulous and painstaking process of clearing the fields, building the rock walls, measuring the rows, making the drip systems, and dealing with all the many natural occurring nuisances. He talked about how once, after 5 days and some unfortunate drip line clogs they had lost several plants. This can be a hard pill to swallow when Lavender takes 3 years to mature. We started to walk down the beautiful rows containing around 700 plants. They have 5 varietals planted right now. All of them sourced from an organic lavender farm in Palisades, Colorado. They plan on adding 3 more fields and topping out at 15 varieties of Lavender within the next year. Each has their own purpose: one for cooking, one for bouquets, one for oils, and much more.

When I asked about processing all of the different types of Lavender, Scott explained how they plan to do everything right there on the farm giving them complete control of the quality of the product. He also mentioned that they had plans to harvest the other plants on the land too. Offering such oils as Juniper, Snake Weed, and Sage. They are so committed to doing it right, they will be taking

One of the 5 varieties currently out at the farm. Happy and healthy in it’s lovely new home.

several classes in Boulder, Utah on how to sustainably harvest the plants on the property. He kept repeating gently that, “If you do it right, if you take care of the land, it’ll last forever.” It was inspiring to catch this sentiment in the early morning light of late spring.  It was all I could do to stifle giggling with excitement as we followed Scott to a shady spot at the edge of the field. “We call this the tree of life. It’s in our logo. We plan on building a huge deck around it so you can look out on the stream and the fields. Eventually there will be a labyrinth above it.”  We craned our heads upward trying to see the top of the tree. We kept stepping back, I quickly gave up on trying to get it in a single picture frame. My mind wandered to all the dreamy earthy weddings that were bound to take place here.

 

Our time was quickly approaching an end. I had promised when I first contacted them, to take up no more than an hour of Scott and Mary’s precious time in their paradise. I wanted to keep that promise, especially after seeing all the work they had to do. As we started to load back into the side-by-side I was trying to think of a way to stay. It felt refreshing to be in a place that was so well loved. As we rode back, I made a promise I would have to come back when Mary was able to get away from work. As we said goodbye and loaded up the car, I realized how lucky I am to be able to work with these kind of people and bring their stories to the Farmer’s Market. We are so excited to be just a small part in this farm’s story and to be able to watch it from the very beginning. This will be Baker Creek Lavender Farm’s first season at the market, so make sure you stop by and meet them. Also, be sure to follow them on Facebook at Baker Creek Lavender Farm to keep up to date on all the happenings and to schedule your own visit.

Scott with the fields and the lovely ride out.