San Francisco

The Buzz On Bayview's SF Honey & Pollen Company

It’s no secret that Bayview is one of the more "rural" parts of San Francisco, and is perhaps the city's most active area for food production. The San Francisco Honey & Pollen Company is one agricultural institution that's proud to call Bayview home.

Tucked away near the end of Shafter Avenue, the company is owned and operated by the McDonald family, and serves mainly as an environmental and  educational institution. Hoodline caught up with founder John McDonald to talk more about his passion behind his work in the Bayview community and his hopes to maintain his business in the changing community.

John McDonald showing off his homegrown blackberries.
Photo by Meaghan M. Mitchell

John: I live in the Sunset, but work is what originally brought me to Bayview. I’ve been working in the Bayview community since 2000. I was a fabricator when I originally bought this business during the recession. Our day job was lifting up houses, retrofitting them, and doing complete renovations and construction. In the Winter 2005, I started building bee boxes on the weekends, and that spring my friend gave me bees. So, that’s when we started making honey, growing food, and I was able to form a business from beekeeping.

The place doesn’t appear to be built from the ground up. What’s the backstory?

John:  In theory, the San Francisco Railroad owns 22 of these lots, but they abandoned them. And now that the community is changing and people are making investments, they are trying to kick everybody out to occupy it. I’m staying. I’ve been here 15 years taking care of this space. When I moved in here in 2000, there was a lot of prostitution and drug use happening. I came into this space having to deal with that and I turned it around by cleaning up all the dumped trash and building fences. 

What do you teach people?

John: We teach basic beekeeping 101 where we do an hour lecture, suit everybody up and then we put them in a hive for an hour and half. It’s a very “hands on” process and we make sure that everyone has a really fun experience. Like today, I went out in shorts and t-shirt, I had hundreds of thousands of bees on my arms, hands all over my face and people are like “wow, what if you get stung?! You’re crazy!” Interestingly enough, these bees trust me. Yes, I’ve been stung before, but for the most part I know what I’m doing.

Class in session at SF Honey & Pollen Co.
Photo courtesy of John McDonald

Would you consider yourself an environmentalist?

John:  Well, I'm more of an educator. I feel it's my duty to teach people on the suffering of bees and that we need them for our food. It’s so important that people understand how vital they are to nature. We also want to encourage people to produce their own natural food. When you know exactly what is in the food you are about to consume, it changes your perspective. These days  we are having such a problem with pesticides and chemicals from the commercial industry our bees are dying off. Without bees the planet would be wiped out.

How does that work?

John: Well, animals wouldn’t have the chance to eat. If bees don’t pollinate things like corn, soybeans and alfalfa and clover, cows, pigs and goats would starve to death. So that’s pretty much what goes on. We need these all these guys to make it happen. So it’s my passion to teach people about local food. I have bees in other microclimates like Napa, Pacifica, and West Portal and all the flavors of food are different. Bayview is an ideal climate for growing food because the weather is perfect and there is so much rich soil.

Garden and beekeeping equipment | Photo courtesy of John McDonald.

How many bees would you say you have?

John: I run about 50 hives. A hive will start anywhere from 5-10 thousand in the winter and go all the way up to 100 thousand in the summer.

I noticed figs and some apples in the garden. What other types of natural foods and products do you have here?

John: Tomatoes, blackberries, raspberries, oranges, kale. We consume all of our produce and also sell it to our class. We get 25-30 people on a Saturday, and they are usually here for about 4 hours, so at the end of the class we let our students pick ripe items and we sell it to them with the prices ranging from $3-5 per bunch. We also have plants for sale, and the prices range, but the most expensive would probably be the large cactus which is $25. I grow it all. We also support some of the local artists by hanging their work and offering it for sale, as well as our house-made products like candles, honey and sometimes  honey/lavender ice cream.

Homemade products of SF Honey & Pollen Co.
Photo by Meaghan M. Mitchell

With all the changes happening in Bayview, what are your challenges as an operating business?

John:  Well, business is good right now. We have classes booked until September, but one major challenge is the railroad trying to take the building back. They claim they want to do something with the space, but really they aren’t doing anything. They’ve already kicked a few people out on Carol Street, and it looks like they have apartments going up. But, I figure their goal is to take these 22 lots and sell them to a developer. I feel like they should leave a few of these places for open space and community use. I would like to own the whole space all the way back to Revere Street and dedicate it to the Bayview, but It’s all politics. We are starting to get these notices saying that we are trespassing on federal land and that we are at risk for being incarcerated. But, you know what’s funny? In 2005, when they decommissioned the railroad, the company actually encouraged us to use this land and maintain it. Now they want it back. They say that they want to do a soil remediation and clean it because it’s contaminated. I don’t buy that. I’ve done a lot of work on this land over the years. We love the space and so do our neighbors. We serve a community-building and environmental purpose. More importantly, we educate. 

The San Francisco Honey & Pollen Company is located at 1172 Shafter Ave. To learn more, visit its website

Bayview, Hunters Point

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