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Hawkins FFA beekeeping team among top three in nation for Garden Club of America funding

Hawkins FFA’s beekeeping rose to fame in 2019 when Ozarka Spring Water factory in Hawkins noticed swarms of bees at the factory’s dock doors.

HAWKINS, Texas — Editor's Note: This video is from April 2021.

An East Texas high school beekeeping team that got its start helping a water bottling factory with a bee infestation is one of three finalists in the nation for grant funding from the Garden Club of America.

On Friday morning, the Gertrude Windsor Garden Club in Tyler told the Hawkins FFA 4G Honey Team members the team is a finalist for the Garden Club of America’s Founders Fund grant. 

Civic Improvement Chairman Mary Lauren Faulkner said the Founders Fund grant honors three different groups each year, and 4G Honey is the “most fabulous thing ever.”

As a finalist, Faulkner said 4G Honey will at least receive a cash award of $10,000. The amount could be more but they’ll find out in April.

“The main thing we want to say to y’all is we were so enthralled and impressed with your work ethic,” she said. “That you go to school, that a lot of you have jobs after school and then do this. You have totally set an example for your entire generation and ours.”

Hawkins FFA’s beekeeping rose to fame in 2019 when Ozarka Spring Water factory in Hawkins noticed swarms of bees at the factory’s dock doors.

Cheryl Conaway, quality assurance manager at Ozarka, along with Daniel Lennon, of Flint Apiary and Farms, reached out to the Hawkins FFA team. 

The team started with FFA students Brook Goddard and Rachel Parish, Mackenzie Rutherford and Jessica Henneous, who were featured on the “Today” show in December 2019.

Ozarka funded the beekeeping project by offering land, bee suits, wood and other needed equipment, which led to the now large honey-making operation known as 4G Honey.

Credit: Zak Wellerman/ KYTX CBS 19
Hawkins FFA adviser Matt Byrd receives a gift from the Gertrude Windsor Garden Club in Tyler after the Hawkins FFA 4G Honey Team was announced as finalist for Garden Club of America grant.

Faulkner noted that the program is truly youth-driven and it’s hard to put into words how proud the garden club members are. 

The voting, which comes from garden clubs across America, will be based on beekeeping photos and what 4G Honey has done so far, Faulkner said. 

Matt Byrd, Hawkins FFA adviser, said it’s unbelievable to see how much the Hawkins 4G Honey Team has grown from four female students to 22 team members within about two years.

The group has been featured on national television, appeared in several publications and has competed in the Houston Livestock Show.

 “We had no clue it would ever turn into what it is today,” Byrd said, adding the FFA students were just seeking to help their community as they’ve done before. “Trying to help out a local business and it blew up from there. It goes to show that when you build relationships anything can happen."

He said any dollar is going to help sustain the program, and as more students join, more support and funding always helps. Byrd said the most important part of receiving funding is that students can get college scholarships.

Credit: Zak Wellerman/ KYTX CBS 19
Hawkins FFA 4G Honey Team members and Gertrude Windsor Garden Club members stand together for a photo Friday, Jan. 14, 2022.

Hawkins ISD Assistant Superintendent Stephanie McConnell recently wrote a proposal to the Texas Education Agency that if approved, schools across the state could add a beekeeping class to their curriculum.

“We’ll probably see school districts across Texas start adding the program (once the course gets TEA approval),” Byrd said. 

Hawkins FFA beekeeping will also get to expand as construction begins in April for the district’s career and technology education building.

The upcoming facility will include a storefront for 4G Honey along with space for honey extraction and bottling. Byrd expects the production numbers will triple with the upcoming additions.

Byrd said school officials expect the $6 million project, which will include an agricultural mechanic shop, classrooms, a laboratory and livestock center, will be ready around this time next year. 

Current Hawkins 4G Honey team member and senior Emma Williams said she’s grateful to be a part of a team where she can gain communication skills, cooperation and work ethic. 

“It’s overwhelming (to see all the support),” Williams said. “I feel like we owe a lot to the original 4G Honey girls. I want the legacy to grow. I feel like with more grant money our team will continue to grow.”

Since joining the group in her sophomore year, Williams said beekeeping calms her and it’s definitely something she wants to keep doing after high school.

“These people are my family now. We’re definitely friends for life,” Williams said. 

Lennon said beekeeping has expanded to Tyler Legacy High School and Brownsboro FFA programs.  

The program at Brownsboro FFA has exploded with student participation, Lennon said, adding that the school is having to break the students up into three classes. 

Since the beekeeping programs have grown in East Texas schools, Lennon said he’s excited to see more people and students become aware of bees’ impact on the environment. 

“For kids to pay attention is critical,” he said. “We want to sponsor every school that wants to have a beekeeping program.”

At Legacy High, students work as interns at Flint Apiary and Farms to build the wooden bee hive boxes, while gaining carpentry skills at the same time. 

Byrd said FFA chapters at Bullard, Chapel Hill and Winona have all expressed interest in adding beekeeping.

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