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Almond Odyssey
Almond Odyssey
By: Kim Flottum

Inspection innovation at Paramount Farming.

April 01, 2012


There’s a million stories in California’s almond orchards, hulling factories, processing plants and industry board rooms. This is one.

Paramount Farming is a part of Paramount Farms, one branch of Roll International, the holding company of Stewart and Lynda Resnick. This includes FIJI Water, Telefloral, Pom Wonderful, Cutie mandarins, Paramount Citrus, and industrial sized pomegranate, pistachio and almond growing operations. They are unquestionably the almond giant in California’s southern San Joaquin valley, producing about six percent of the state’s almonds on over 45,000 acres of orchards with more on the way.

To pollinate all those trees (figure 125 trees/acre, each producing something like 7500 nuts/tree for a total of about 3000 pounds/acre, with a farmgate value of about $2.00/pound) requires two healthy right-sized colonies per acre for a total of about 92,000 colonies.

Organizing 92,000 colonies, owned by 32 beekeepers is a logistical challenge that increases in complexity every year. And although Paramount/beekeeper relations were seldom negative, in its wisdom Paramount saw the need to focus on this absolutely critical aspect of production by bringing on board a full time bee specialist. Gordy Wardell, who created the pollen supplement Mega Bee while working at the Tucson Bee Lab facility as an independent researcher, now manages Paramount’s pollination needs. He organizes holding yards before bees arrive, provides water, access and protection after they arrive, has smoothed and standardized the inspection process, and looks to the future for even better ways to make bees, almonds and Paramount work better together.

Paramount has adopted the attitude that they want to be a resource to their beekeepers. They’ve issued protocols for beekeepers to use before leaving home to reduce or eliminate fire ant problems, and have set up specialized holding yards to deal with ants for out-of-state beekeepers that are safe and have easy access with available water, somewhat of a luxury in southern California.

Paramount Farming is the production arm of Paramount Farms, and Joe MacIlvaine, President of the group stresses the bigger picture when discussing almonds and bees.

'Of course we need strong, healthy colonies to get a maximum return on our pollination investment,' he said, 'but remember our additional inputs, too, starting with getting Gordy on staff. And last year we matched somewhere between $20,000 and $30,000 for honey bee research with our beekeepers (Paramount matches dollar for dollar every dollar their beekeepers donate to this), plus all the preparation work and post season work Gordy does and Paramount pays on time, a distinct advantage for the beekeepers, and not practiced by all almond growers.

'And because of where we are – the driest part of the state – we don’t have to apply fungicides during bloom, a practice that’s becoming a real issue with honey bee health,' he added.

Water is always in any discussion about the almond industry. It is a major factor in any expansion plans because of its uncertain year to year availability. Too, the cost of establishing an orchard has grown, now to about $10,000 to $12,000 an acre to prepare and plant, figuring leveling, irrigation, installation of roads, trees and the labor to do it all.

'So we’ve quite an investment in the orchard, and an investment in getting good bees,' he said. 'We do a lot to help beekeepers, but we expect something in return.'

That’s where Gordy’s inspection process enters the picture. It works like this.

Paramount’s policy is that bees from holding yards, or bees just entering the state that are going directly to the orchards have a week after placement to get examined by the beekeeper so they can remove and replace colonies not up to standard, and thus get a higher frame average when examined. What’s standard? Well, that question has an expensive, and generally uncertain answer.

Overall, the almond industry considers a colony with eight frames of bees and some brood an ‘adequate’ pollination unit. Adjustments for external temperature and time of day are taken into consideration, but that’s the ‘normal’ equation.

Here’s where it can get confusing. Who measures? How do they measure? Are all colonies supposed to be adequate? Is an eight frame ‘average’ a consideration? What about really strong colonies – does the beekeeper get paid more for those? Are they worth it? Does every colony get measured? If not, what percent? Who decides? Well, it all depends.

Some growers take the word of the beekeeper that some predetermined level of colony strength exists and the contract – number of colonies and average strength – has been met. This is usually the result of a long standing relationship between the grower and beekeeper.

Others hire independent inspectors to look (we visit with one of those businesses later to see how that works) and evaluate the colonies, and pay the beekeeper based on the results of that evaluation. Usually this includes some level of penalty for under-strength colonies, and a bonus for super-sized colonies, or payment is based on an average overall colony strength. The downside to all of this of course is grower assumptions, inspector bias, or a beekeeper’s imagination. The bias issue, though not common, can arise when the inspector considers who he or she is being paid by...whose interests are best served by looking for the best, or the worst of the colonies to inspect. It happens. And sometimes, if a grower or beekeeper suspects a problem, an additional inspector will be brought in and paid for by the party suspecting a problem, to see if two inspections can agree. Here the issue is time – a group of colonies that were weak a week ago can rebound given good weather and a good queen, or can collapse in a heartbeat if there are serious health problems.

For colonies that are brokered, that is, a Pollination Brokering business, and there are several that handle many thousands of colonies, deals with many beekeepers who do not have enough colonies to deal directly with a grower, or who do not come to California and arrange to have their bees shipped there, or are picked up by the broker and delivered. The broker ‘assembles’ these in holding yards until needed, may help feed and care for them during their stay there if the beekeeper doesn’t, then gets them moved into orchards he contracts with.

A broker usually deals with many orchard owners, too, so not all of the eggs are in one basket. Generally, brokers and growers agree on a price per colony delivered at a minimum strength, and sometimes a penalty or bonus is arranged.

Often the broker is the inspector, but almost as often an independent inspector is brought in to evaluate the colonies. Good brokers know their beekeepers, know the colonies they keep, and have good working relationships with both beekeepers and growers. That’s what they are paid for.

Incidentally, most orchard growers deal with several beekeepers or brokers to make sure they have several sources of bees if one beekeeper crashes and burns. It happens. And, most larger beekeepers often deal with more than one orchard because sometimes payment is late, short or non-existent. That happens too.

But, because the inspection process has been less than transparent sometimes, Paramount has taken most of the guess work and bias out of the equation and the resulting consistency and accuracy seem pretty good. They have their own inspectors, and will inspect 15% of the 92,000 colonies they rent. When they contract with a beekeeper he is given a unique number, replicated on sheets of bar codes. Every four-colony pallet gets a bar code sticker. Every drop, that is every location in an orchard where colonies are placed – usually on the edge of the regular roads running throughout the orchard – contains six pallets of four colonies each. Each location has a permanent sign on an almond tree trunk that indicates these locations – white sign, black letters are easy to see at night.

An inspection team consists of four individuals. One operates a hand-held code reader that records the bar code and thus the owner of the hives, but there’s more. When activated it records the exact gps location of the drop. At the same time it assigns a number to each colony in the drop (1 – 24) then picks two or four of them to be inspected – picked randomly by the code reader. The total is 15% when all is said and done.

The operator tells two inspectors which colonies to inspect. One inspector removes the cover and tips the top super so it sits on end on the colony behind it, while the second inspector looks at that upturned super from the bottom and visually measures the daylight he can see on the two sides (outside frames), and top and bottom. He shouts out a number. By this time bees in the bottom super have risen to the top bars and outline the size of the cluster below. Another number. These two numbers are totaled in the device – next colony.

The fourth inspector? He’s behind the wheel and doesn’t really stop at a drop – he just edges forward, all the time moving. Slow, yes. Stop, no. When done the two inspectors hop on the back of the truck, the device operator hops inside and they’re off to the next drop. At the end of the day a beekeeper’s hives can be rated by average number of frames, or by the number with 12, 11 or 10 or fewer frames. Gordy likes a 10 frame colony because it has room to expand a bit before pollination is over. Paramount pays for basic eight frames – some beekeepers say they pay a bit low for an eight framer especially when compared to other growers, but they pay a bonus for eight to 10 frames, and an additional for 10 - 12 frames, encouraging a strong colony – but remember, giving a week to get to that strength after they arrive. Interest in a bonus varies from beekeeper to beekeeper because it costs more to get colonies from eight to 10 frames, and from 10 – 12 frames, and the bonus should more than cover that additional cost.

Joe Traynor, a well known pollination broker – we’ll visit with several of these businesses before we’re done – is a strong advocate of early season communication between grower and beekeeper on rental prices and bonuses so beekeepers can budget for extra feed if warranted, or not if cost prohibitive. Fees? They are all over the map, but as a working figure, $150/eight frame colony is a good start. But weak colonies rented late in the game might make far less, and strong colonies working with a good broker might make a good deal more. Penalties and bonuses change the figure of course. But for budget purposes almond growers use the $150 fee, at least this year.

Agreements

Most grower/beekeeper agreements are pretty straight forward single page documents common to most pollination contracts. Delivery time, minimum number of colonies delivered, strength, bonuses if any, inspection by who, re-inspection if a problem, theft compensation (many are that the grower pays the contract price, but the beekeeper has the insurance to cover equipment and bees lost), pesticide issues, removal and other regular items.

Because of the holding yard provisions, inspection bar code requirements and other somewhat uncommon practices, Paramount’s contract is longer, but it does offer additional protection for both beekeepers and grower.

Though inspection isn’t the first encounter between growers and beekeepers in the almonds, it can be either one of the most contentious or one of the most rewarding. Beekeepers have a lot on the line – it costs this year roughly $25/colony to get a Midwest colony to, and from California. If using a broker there are additional costs there, and if storing colonies in California for any amount of time before the bloom there are medication, food and labor costs that come right off the top. Moving into the orchards is labor intensive, and, though most growers are seeing the light, some still require drop locations set up by puzzle masters, rather than beekeepers with trucks and forklifts. If the weather cooperates colonies can build quite fast on almond honey and pollen and swarming can be a serious problem, but if there’s nothing but rain for two weeks – it happens – colonies that went in healthy can come out essentially starving. Fungicide sprays during bloom are coming under increasing pressure from beekeepers because of breaks in the brood cycle several weeks later, and tank mixes of fungicides and insecticides . . . a free ride for the grower who can save a trip through the orchard – are occasionally made which are even worse for the bees. And then there are the just-finding-out problems of the synergistic effects of chemicals already in the hives – basically miticides – and these other grower applied chemicals that aren’t even figured out yet.

There may be a token pollination contract after almonds out west somewhere – apples in Washington for instance, taking up time and finding a space until the bees can get back home, but those contracts are a pittance and mostly don’t even break even, though there might be some buildup going on. Joe Traynor has said for years that the almond growers are subsidizing the pollination costs of many other west coast growers because of this timing issue. He’s right.

But growers, too, have a lot on the line…their entire crop depends on getting as many blossoms pollinated as possible in what can be horrendous weather, or perfect flight time. This year the cool weather caused the different varieties to bloom at different times in some orchards . . . almonds need cross pollination to set fruit and growers plant different rows with different varieties to make sure there’s a mix of pollen going on. But if the bloom doesn’t coincide – there’s a problem, no matter how many bees there are. So their pollination rental costs are increased because they must rent pollen inserts on the hives so the bees can take a different pollen to the trees they are visiting.

But still, it all comes down to colony strength, and the inspection process – transparent and benign or flawed and biased, is the connection between beekeeper and almond grower. The bees and the flowers? They know what’s going on. The growers – they kind of know the market. Beekeepers – they have the bees almost figured out. There’s lots more here – stay tuned.

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