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The Inner Cover
The Inner Cover
By: Kim Flottum

Jacks or better. Poker int he almond orchards.

April 01, 2012

The Almond Odyssey, as all adventures must, has come to an end in terms of time on the road, people to meet, sights to see, and places to go. I had planned on this taking about 17 or 18 days, with some slack thrown in for down time due to inclement weather, but the weather Gods smiled – as far as not providing rain, so we wrapped it up after 16 days – leaving me with a couple of days to spend outside of an almond orchard.

I have been to California before for parts of this, especially the staging area time and moving into the orchards, so had a feel for what to expect, or thought I did anyway. And that’s when you get in trouble – if you think you know what you’re going to see, often that’s exactly what you see, missing the rest of the picture. Fortunately I was traveling with a photographer who was in her second year of bees and brought to the mix a totally innocent perspective – asking questions that at first glance seemed too obvious to ask – and of course were exactly those that needed asking. This provided a needed wake-up call – a better look at what it is I should be doing here in the first place.

It would have been easy to just look at bees and beekeepers here, and we did a lot of that. But barely buried beneath the dust on the cover is the whole rest of the almond story, probably the widest and deepest picture we’ve looked at for some time. Without a lot of help I wouldn’t have seen this picture, and couldn’t have been able to share what we found. There’s a lot of people who helped and I’ll give you some of their background in later stories.

I’d like to think we could do this in a couple of months – bees, almonds, water, beekeepers, marketing, labor, inspections and inspectors, border crossings and fire ants and small hive beetle larvae, management and nutritional and chemical research, weather uncertainties, sub-contracting bees to fill contracts, orchard growth opportunities and limitations, fungicides, brokers, hullers, prices, bartering, CCD or whatever it is still causing colony crashes, pollen substitutes, two hours in a plane looking down on all this using google maps on an IPad, HFCS and sucrose and blends, forklifts and booms, the new self pollinating almond variety Independence, blue orchard bees, bonuses and rental prices, honey prices and colony management, Nosema, stolen hives, pollination contracts, supplemental plantings for bee food, sound pre-pollination financial planning and management and post-pollination escape routes, holding yards, Euro Fins contract research, herbicide sprays, and of course the financial multiplier of what the almond industry does for the state of California. So how much detail do you want?

Some of this of course is the almond story, offering a close look at a business model that may, or may not be sustainable in both the short and long run. And certainly some of this is a beekeeper’s story, pure and simple. Some sing the praises of far sighted individuals and altruistic leaders who have the best interests of the land, the people and the future of agriculture in not only California but much of the country in mind when they make decisions. And some, of course, is about greed, crime, selfish and short sighted small people making a quick buck and damaging all who share their world. This story has a vast cast of characters and a plot that’s at the same time transparent and obvious, and opaque and dense.

Let’s start with the three comments heard most often, no matter who I was talking to – they had to do with water availability, labor availability, and a steady supply of healthy bees. That may sound like just almond growers talking but it’s really everybody – without any one of these three the stool tips over. It’s that simple. But step back and look at the thousands of things that impact the availability of water, labor and bees.

Water is nature’s gift, some years. When there’s lots of rain and snow and more rain everybody is happy and life is good. Some years that’s the case but most years it isn’t. When it isn’t who gets what there is, is the result of a legal system that must decide whether California’s endangered wildlife in one place have more rights than millions of people downstream and ecosystems in other places. Or they must choose whether city folks with lawns and showers have more rights than the raising-food folks with irrigation and processing demands that put food on a table somewhere – your table most days by the way. It’s a complicated and top-of-the-list issue that will, in both the long and short run decide the future of California’s dominance of all things agriculture and their command of all places rich and famous and comfortable.

Factors to consider are which water shed the water comes from or doesn’t come from, grandfathered water rights and how much was paid for the water and by who and when. And more of course. This Solomon’s decision is being made by, I’m told by what seem to be reasonable yet vested ag leaders, probably the best mind there is to decide where the water flows and where it doesn’t, and which fragile ecosystem remains and which one loses.

At the same time there are other voices just as vested in the decision of business-as-usual or plow-it-under because the future is as dry as the cracked soil that remains – voices that fail to see, or choose not to see the value in preserving water-dependant ecosystems or the endangered animals that live there, who would deny people lawn-watering rights or restaurant patrons a glass of water before lunch. For them it’s preserving the status quo – or improving it in their favor – the favor and flavor of the thousands of crop acres and millions of cattle that grow and thrive with the water they have. For many the priority should be food on the table, food on trucks heading out of state to feed you and me, food, food, food. And of course the money that food generates, the income to the state that food creates, the jobs (we’ll get to those later) that food continues to feed, and the billions of dollars generated by California’s agriculture. In the extreme – it’s ag first, people somewhere down the line.

Where is the best choice? And how do you plan for the best choice? Do almond growers plan on expansion knowing without water all those new trees planted this year and last will be so much smoker fuel when the fields go dry? What is the return on an orchard that lives only five years? Seven years? Two years? Do you purchase land now and wait? Some say the best almond land is mostly gone so expansion is an investment in still expensive marginal land at best. Of course some say the future is bright, that water decisions will be favorable, that it will rain again and that the ever rising price of almonds will surely solve the equation – perhaps.

I certainly do not know the answer. It is decided by what price food? And the simple answer when that question arises. Water is, or isn’t. Will Los Angeles use less water so growers can satisfy this growing global demand for almonds? Or does California, the Almond Board and Blue Diamond voluntarily give up the global almond market share they have so handily won in favor of Hollywood’s toilets? And then there’s the endangered species and habitats that need to be protected, or maybe not, anymore.

I have simplified this for brevity, but be glad you are not Solomon.

I have to add an aside here. If you are at all familiar with California – the life style, the agriculture, the geography, the industry, the population, the land, the mountains – you know that California is big – Texas and Alaska talk about being big – and they are compared to Ohio and Connecticut – but California does BIG THINGS. There are no small parts of this state. Cities and transportation. Mountains and forests. Vegetable farms and orchards dwarf their midwest and east coast cousins. Dairy farms defy description. I grew up in Wisconsin. Wisconsin is no longer the dairy capitol for a good reason – they aren’t in the same league anymore. Imagine that scale when visualizing anything California.

Labor has, to some degree anyway, been discussed here before. It seems no better and no worse than many other places this season. There’s plenty say some because the economy has been down and unemployment is up and there’s work to be had and people to do it. Perhaps. I think this will continue to be on the ag plate, some years good, some years not. It wasn’t high on anybody’s agenda this Spring, so it goes.

The rest of the story though is right at the top of everybody’s list – enough good bees to pollinate an expanding almond orchard market. For beekeepers the market is the orchard – more orchards mean the need for more bees. And here’s the crunch. Growers know they need healthy, strong colonies to do the job of pollination and without them their yield will suffer.

And they know that the weather can muck it all up anyway, just like any other farming venture. But if there’s just a few good hours of flying time during the whole four weeks or so of bloom and there’s enough bees in the boxes they rent, then they’ll get a good crop. But if the weather is great all during bloom even weak colonies will do an adequate job while adequate colonies will set a great crop, but boomer colonies will break records. And records are what it’s all about.

This then is the poker game of almond pollination. What are the odds? Good weather and cheap weak colonies, or bad weather but strong colonies?

Across the table beekeepers, too, are playing the game.

Do they play it safe? Should they contact a broker early, get a contract for a conservative number of adequate colonies at a known price (plus the broker’s cut) and do due duty to prepare them so their colonies are as ready as they said they would be? Not great, but adequate, and not too expensive to get ready. Keep three of a kind, and hope for a fourth?

Or, do they bargain hard, get a good paying contract directly with a grower, for a lot of good, strong bees, and then spend a fortune getting them up to that magic 12 frame average – that’s average mind you – for not only top price, but top bonus? Stand pat on the straight flush – hoping something unforeseen doesn’t come along.

Or, do they do as little as possible, knowing they’ll be at the bottom of the strength pile when almonds bloom, but send them out anyway, knowing that some grower somewhere didn’t find bees, or the bees he found were DOA, or had gambled on finding bees at the last minute from a desperate beekeeper and could get them for half of regular price, then couldn’t and suddenly was willing to pay top shelf price for on-the-floor bees? Keep the three and hope for something from the other four.

Knowing that even weak colonies will set an adequate crop if the weather is good for an extended time, some growers look twice at those cheaper, weaker boxes, wondering if they should take the chance – should they try and fill that three to a straight, or hold with a pair?

It’s not exactly dealing with the hand you are dealt, but how smart you play the hand you make in this poker game – no matter which side of the table you sit on. You can make or break your year, the weather can, the grower can or the beekeeper can – it’s all in the cards, the weather and dumb luck.

But everybody wants enough good bees and it is a complicated issue at best. It starts in Midwest corn fields, Florida orange groves, on the Texas plains, Montana valleys, Washington hay fields, and California foot hills. The quality of almond pollination colonies begins at home back in April and May, June and July. It has to do with mite control all season long, productive healthy queens, and providing enough good food all season long, making sure every colony has everything it needs . . . yes, all season long.

There’s lots to explore here, more hands to play, and lots of shuffling. See more in this and many issues to come. And watch Bee Culture’s blog, and even a BUZZ or two. It’s a grand, grand story. It’s your bet.



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