Eastern professor shares experience co-developing Five Feline Farm

Zoë Donovan, Staff Reporter

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For the last four years, Donna Coonce and Julia Miller have been steadily growing Five Feline Farm as a business.

The pair began selling produce and honey at the Farmers Market in Charleston in 2015 after they had an abundance in their produce and honey that season.

Coonce and Miller were already acquainted with farmers markets as customers.

“So we thought, let’s check out the farmers market and see if we can make a little profit off this extra,” Miller said.

From then on, the demand for products from Five Feline Farm has grown.

When Five Feline Farm was first starting out, Coonce was working at Eastern as a professor in the department of Human Services and Community Leadership and Miller was working at the Department of Children and Family Services.

Miller retired earlier this summer, and Coonce will be retiring from Eastern at the beginning of August.

Coonce currently manages the gardening while Miller runs the bakery side of the business.

The beekeeping is a shared effort, although it did not start overnight.

“Donna (Coonce) was interested in it mostly for pollination, and, you know, the fear factor,” Miller said.

“It was a little dangerous, a little on the edge,” Coonce said.

Miller was apprehensive of the idea at first.

“I was a little hesitant, you know, I didn’t want to get stung,” Miller said.

They attended a few classes on beekeeping, and when they finished “bee school,” the opportunity to help harvest honey at a family member’s apiary arose, and they took it from there.

“I didn’t get stung, and then it was like, ‘I am all in,’” Miller said.

They started with two colonies in 2012 and have grown that number to keep up with customer demand for honey and beeswax and increased pollination.

During the market season, they were attending a farmers market every Saturday, maintaining the garden, baking, ordering supplies, making products such as cat toys, shipping out products and doing much more, mostly on their own while working full-time.

Before official retirement, Coonce and Miller said they found time management to be one of the biggest challenges they faced with the farm.

“The demand for our products just got to the point that was one of the factors that led us to decide it was time to retire,” Miller said.

Looking to the future with a more flexible schedule, Miller and Coonce said they are hoping to expand their product line and and focus heavily on natural and non-GMO products.

Miller, a published author, is also hoping to focus more on her writing in retirement.

“One of our cats has a little contract and is going to start writing children’s books,” Coonce joked. “Miss Honeybee is going to be very popular.”

The farm keeps an active presence online, including a facebook page, instagram and twitter account, as well as a website that hosts their store and weekly blog posts.

For a little more than a year now, Coonce and Miller have also released a weekly podcast, “Farm Chatter,” that keeps listeners up to date on happenings at Five Feline Farm.

Zoë Donovan can be reached at 581–2812 or at [email protected].