It’s the third week of January and driving down Highway 99 at night you can see the trucks making their way through the Valley. I’ve been watching them come in for weeks, feeling that little tingle of excitement when I see the white boxes.
The arrival of the bees means the almond bloom is near. As an almond farmer, this is when everything starts over. It’s what I call the promise of spring.
As beautiful and inspiring as it sounds, it also comes with plenty of questions, uncertainties and risks. Will it rain on the blossoms? Will the bees be strong? Will we have a good nut set? Will there be frost or disease that threatens the crop? The questions go on and on, but for now the only question is “What will happen this bloom?”
Farming is inherently risky. How many other professions can claim they are completely at the mercy of the weather? It is the uncontrollable factor that can make or break you.
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That’s why we must rely on the tools we have to protect our investment, whether spraying crop-protection materials or turning on sprinklers during freezing temperatures to save the bloom.
In recent years we have focused on the protection of bees. Though they are not our “crop,” they are a huge part of what ensures we can produce anything. Without bees there would be no almonds or many other crops. The Almond Board of California has allocated more farmer and processor money funding honey bee health studies than any other organization.
Research has shown the benefits of planting forage within and around orchards, and many farmers, myself included, have adopted this as a best practice. Seed mixes provide diverse nutrition for bees before and after the bloom, not to mention improving overall soil health and adding beauty to our valley.
In 2014, the Almond Board set industry-wide guidance to ensure honey bee health is a top priority in the orchards. For example, when they’re needed to protect the crop, most farmers are now spraying protection materials at night, when the bees are safely in their boxes – even though it’s not particularly convenient or comfortable for the farmer.
I would rather be cozy in my bed than on a tractor at midnight driving 2 mph through the orchard.
Though these practices add more time and expense, we know strong, healthy colonies can translate to bumper crops of nuts. A farmer’s success is only as good as the beekeepers’ success.
I’ve always viewed almond farming and beekeeping as being in a symbiotic relationship rather than two industries crossing paths once a year. I would like to think we are as important to them as they are to us.
Putting bees to work pollinating almonds is a significant source of income for beekeepers. Having grown up with a beekeeping father and being a hobbyist beekeeper myself, I have gotten to know many local and out-of-state beekeepers through the Delta Bee Club. One thing I’ve learned is that beekeeping is labor intensive and these people do it because they love it, not because it’s a high-profit venture.
They battle Varroa mites, which continue to plague colonies and require extra time and expense to control. Beekeepers work long hours doing hard work only to have cheap adulterated honey from China flood the market and depress prices. I have had a deep respect and appreciation for the profession.
As a key component of their livelihoods (just as they are essential to ours) we almond farmers are moving ahead with changes and improved practices not only for our mutual benefits, but to ensure both of our futures.
Christine Gemperle is a second-generation almond farmer and beekeeper, an alternate on the Almond Board of California’s Board of Directors and a member of the Almond Board’s Biomass Working Group.