Bill Winkler, 77, stands outside his store and gestures toward Belton Lake, little more than a stone’s throw away.
“There’s where my dad started this,” he said. “The 3,000 pecan trees in his orchard were covered by lake water. The land was appraised at about $1,000 an acre, but the government paid him only $350.”
Now covering 9.5 acres, Winkler Pecan and Honey Farm is 12 miles west of Temple on the north side of Highway 36. Winkler is a one-man storekeeper, honey collector and pecan reseller. He’s also the third generation of Winklers that’s worked this land in the past 78 years.
“The main place was in the Bland community,” he said, “and it’s off the map, under water now. That bottom land produced the best pecans,” unlike the higher elevation where the store is located. “You have to irrigate up here.”
The last four years of drought have presented challenges to pecan growers, Winkler said. “It takes 35 leaves to make one pecan,” he said, “and this drought has caused a lot of trouble.” The lack of rain has also impacted the other half of his business: honey production and sales.
“Both of my grandfathers had bees,”
Winkler said. “Grandpa Winkler provided the original hives and Grandpa Richter gave the bees. We worked up to 1,500 hives.”
The store building has a large, separate honey room designed and equipped for separating honey from comb. It sits idle now; Winkler has only “four or five hives” and most of the honey he sells is from other Central Texas beekeepers.
“I started noticing things about 20 years ago,” Winkler said, referring to the nationwide phenomena called Colony Collapse Disorder. “All the bees would vanish from a hive without a trace. And the drought hurts because there’s not enough blooms for them.”
Though various causes have been blamed for the colony collapse, from systemic insecticides to unnaturally overcrowding in commercial hives, Winkler said he’s unsure. “There are just too many possible factors.”
A virtual walking encyclopedia on beekeeping, Winkler has sold supplies and bees to lots of customers.
“I’ll get 30 to 40 stings when I rob (gather) honey,” he said. “It doesn’t bother me. I have people that buy bees just to sting their hands — they claim it makes the arthritis go away.” He can discuss the finer points of Italian, Caucasian and Spanish bees, and remembers when the store could sell all the honeycombs they had in stock. “Now, we only sell a few combs each year.”
Even though he no longer produces most of the honey he sells, Winkler only stocks honey from local producers he’s known for many years to ensure it’s pure, and made from wildflowers and other regional blooming plants. Supermarket honey from China or South America may be supplemented with high fructose corn syrup and other non-honey sweeteners, or the commercial hives may be artificially fed with sugar water.
“We experimented with (sugar-water feeding) and I said, ‘Daddy, we’re making welfare bees out of them’ — they had stopped foraging and got real lazy,” Winkler remembers. “It’s like when you take wild bees from a tree and move them into a hive. They usually don’t appreciate it and will leave.”
The walls of Winkler’s well-kept store are covered with vintage, antique labels of Winkler products, neatly framed. An antique hand-cranked honey separator is marked “for sale,” alongside a double-doored cast iron wood stove that belonged to his grandmother.
And is there a fourth generation Winkler ready to take over the family business? Winkler pauses a moment, then answers: “The kids and grandkids all say it’s too much work.” So, for now, the 78-year-old business, land and buildings are for sale, and the Winkler Pecan and Honey Farm’s future is as murky as the water that covers the original pecan orchard.