Imagine this: it’s a beautiful Thursday afternoon. You’re sitting on the porch, enjoying a cool breeze, rocking back and forth in a hand-crafted red cherry rocking chair. Suddenly, your serenity dissipates as your phone *dings* with a notification: “You’re running low on eggs in your fridge, would you like me to order another dozen?” This is the world we live in today.
The basics of IoT
The concept of the Internet of Things has been floating around since as early as 1982. Carnegie Mellon University pioneered a modified Coke machine, capable of reporting its inventory and the temperature of its drinks. At the time, this was thought of as groundbreaking technology, but now it’s everywhere. Your smart refrigerator tells you when to pick up groceries, your Fitbit alerts you when your heartrate reaches dangerous levels, and your driver assist warns you when there’s a car in your blind spot. All these items are part of a concept known as the Internet of Things (IoT for short).
At a basic level, IoT is a network that delivers information to decision-makers as soon as an event occurs. This information may be used to inform us when an issue exists (like when a traffic light is broken), collect data to help us understand processes (like how much of a certain input you’ve used), connect humans, monitor areas, you name it. Currently, there are over 8 billion connected devices on the planet, and this number is continuing to rise.
IoT or IoBee?
IoT is a major buzz word these days, and the limitless applications can be exciting, but likewise, such fast-paced advancement in technology can be overwhelming. You may have heard about how Amazon is working on IoT wristbands to track employees. Is this a scary “Big Brother” tactic designed to punish slackers, or a wise business strategy aimed at maximizing efficiency?
Despite the apparent privacy risks, IoT creates possibilities that can help to make our lives easier and make businesses more efficient. Industries that deal with gigantic stocks of inventory use IoT to find where things are stored, how much is there and how long it’s been in storage. Agriculture producers use IoT to monitor things like irrigation pumps and soil nutrients. This raises the question: how can beekeepers benefit from adopting IoT?
Think about what information helps you manage your bees. Wouldn’t it be useful to know when a nectar flow or a dearth has just started? How about if you got a notification when a honey-bound colony is about to swarm? What if you could track what kind of honey was being produced based on the nectar sources the bees were visiting? There are countless IoT applications that could help beekeepers better manage their hives.
Beekeepers today face many problems whose solutions may be just around the corner, in the form of IoT. In years past, issues like short battery life and shoddy communication networks (like 4G LTE and Bluetooth) made IoT applications too costly and unreliable for certain industries, but those issues are rapidly being solved.
We’re at a point where some of our crazy ideas—like, “what if my queens could tell me how many eggs they’re laying each day”—might actually be possible. This is an exciting time to start thinking about how we could use IoT to solve some of the problems beekeepers face on a daily basis.
After traversing what seemed like nearly every mile of the Central Valley this month, I’m finally back in Bloomington. Wyatt got back last week, but I stuck around to attend the Forbes AgTech Summit in Salinas as part of the AgriNovus Indiana delegation, there to represent Indiana’s Agbiosciences sector. We came back with insights on how to make the first-ever Indianapolis Forbes AgTech Summit shine, but I also took the opportunity to meet with more almond growers and the Almond Board of California to continue our effort to learn about how our research and data can help the industry.
Western Growers Association Welcome Dinner
The conference kicked off in the beautiful courtyard of the Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology. The people on hand represented some of the biggest names in agriculture and AgTech. The highlight of the evening for me was watching Edwin Camp, President of D.M. Camp and Sons, win the Champion of Innovation Award. Edwin is a Kern Country grower of many crops, including almonds.
Thrive Demo Day
The first morning of the conference, I attended the Thrive Demo Day for good coffee, great pitches, and even better company. I love watching other startups pitch, and always take away ideas on how to make The Bee Corp pitch stronger. My favorite world-changing idea was Re-Nuble, which turns food waste into organic fertilizer for crops. With an impressive business model that earns revenue both from the food waste collection and their end-product, Re-Nuble will be a fun company to watch.
Forbes AgTech Summit
The event was packed with talks and panels on a wide range of topics—vertical farming, blockchain, sustainability, robotics, soil health, and more. My favorite aspect was how many growers were featured in the panels. The AgTech industry exists to support growers, and I was happy to see that the Forbes organizers didn’t forget that. One interesting takeaway was how Megan Nunes of Vinsight stressed that AgTech companies need to work together through data sharing to best benefit growers.
Now it is Indiana’s turn. Kip Tom of Tom Farms was there to tee up our major announcement: the next Forbes AgTech summit, featuring innovations found across the Midwest, will be held in Indianapolis. As a board member of AgriNovus, I am excited to see the hard work of my fellow Hoosiers pay off! Agbiosciences innovation in Indiana has come such a long way, and we’re excited to get the word out: it’s happening here!
Travaille and Phippen
Another highlight of my week was experiencing the innovation along the almond value chain with a visit to Travaille and Phippen. I was impressed to see the extent of sustainability throughout the growing cycle—even the dirt and rocks that come off the field are recycled for other uses. Dave’s team had left one final last stack of hulls sitting out, and as a birder I enjoyed watching the birds forage for almond pieces that might be hidden in the mound.
In the plant we climbed up brand new machinery aimed at making the factory even more efficient. The entire process is automated; the hulling plant only requires three people to operate the machines! We spoke about how the company has needed to adapt to tariffs by shipping in-shell almonds (think pistachios)—a product with growing market demand in countries like India. We toured through the almond libraries of various USDA grades, and visited the sorting facility where humans and robots work together to quickly sort almonds from a conveyor belt. It was an immersive learning experience, and I was thankful to see the entire process from field soil prep to final product.
Almond Board of California
For the last leg of my trip, I met with folks that work in bee research for the Almond Board of California. We chatted and brainstormed about how the data we are collecting could be a key element to better understand the almond industry supply chain. I also learned about all the research and support programs driven by the Almond Board, and I enjoyed getting to know some of the folks helping beekeepers and growers work together in harmony.
I’m eager for our next trip out west, but for now I’m happy to be back with our bees in the Hoosier state.
Last week we made our first trip out to California’s Central Valley to get a firsthand look into the almond industry. We met with growers, toured a few orchards and a processing facility, and we attended an educational workshop. We came back with many great connections, some powerful insights, and a couple 2-pound bags of nonpareil almonds (thanks to JSS Almonds). Here are a few highlights:
Central Valley grows real food
Driving through the orchards and groves of the Central Valley, you get a different impression than you do driving through the corn and soybean fields in Indiana, In the Central Valley, you pass by citrus and olive trees, grapevines, onion and carrot fields, and of course endless rows of tree nuts. Crops that look familiar on a dinner plate!
Coming from the Midwest, where most of our crops end up in feed silos or they’re used as inputs for an unrecognizable end product, it was amazing to see such a variety of foods grown in one place. You could have a fully balanced diet eating foods grown only in the Central Valley.
Almond growers are adaptive
Almond growers didn’t always grow almonds. Most almond orchards are repurposed cotton fields that were replanted over the past 40 or so years. What’s interesting about this shift is the lack of government intervention. Many crops in the US, like cotton, wheat and barley, are supported by government subsidies designed to protect growers from market volatility. Almonds are not a commodity crop, so when market prices dip below the cost of production, it’s growers, not the government, that take on the loss.
The decision to plant almond trees is a risky one. There’s no guarantee that global demand will remain high by the time you harvest your first crop, and there’s no safety net if your costs out-measure your returns. It must have taken a lot of tough conversations to convince growers to switch from cotton—where profitability is almost certain—to almonds, but the results speak for themselves.
Dennis Soares of RPac Almonds is one such grower. Dennis grew cotton back in the day, but now he grows almonds. As he toured us between his orchards, Dennis pointed out an old cotton processing facility where he worked his first job, on the corner of Cotton Gin Road. The road is now lined with acres of almond trees.
Water rights and Wyatt's political soapbox
Media pundits like to poke at almond growers for soaking up all of California’s water, but the issue isn’t exactly cut-and-dry. Yes, almonds need water, and a lot of it. Is it fair that 10% of California’s water is allocated to almond growers?
This is a discussion of public policy priorities. Take the manufacturing sector for example. Much like agriculture, manufacturing is generally unprofitable in the US due to labor and safety regulations that don’t exist in other countries. Without such regulations, other countries can manufacture goods at a lower cost. Our public policy priority is to protect workers from unsafe working conditions. If our priority was to keep the manufacturing industry from going overseas, perhaps we would provide subsidies for manufacturers.
So why does the government prop up agriculture while allowing manufacturing jobs to move overseas? Because at a public policy level, we decided that the ability to grow food domestically is a matter of national security. The ability to manufacture products domestically is not.
The Central Valley, not the Midwest, is America’s true breadbasket. Except for the frequent droughts, growing conditions in the Valley are excellent. Water is the only missing piece of the puzzle, and the means to deliver water throughout the Valley are already in place (see Central Valley Project and California State Water Project).
The tricky thing about California is the state’s enormous and diverse economy. California is the leading state in agricultural output by a wide margin—producing nearly twice as much as the second-biggest state, Iowa—but California’s Ag sector accounts for less than 2% of the state’s total GDP. Add in the fact that much of the state’s residents are concentrated in big cities tucked away from agriculture, you can begin to see why the odds are stacked against growers in their battle for water rights.
In my opinion, it would be a colossal waste of space to not use the Central Valley to grow food. We already agree that agriculture is a public policy priority, so it seems foolish to pick on California growers for using so much water, especially since actual food is grown there. On top of that, these growers take on far more financial risk than commodity crop producers—without dipping into taxpayers' pockets—to deliver real food to your plate.
*Stepping down from my soapbox*
As you can tell, I’m fascinated (and pretty fired up) by this topic. There are many more layers to the complex issues like water rights and agriculture subsidies, but we’ll save that discussion for future posts. I’ll sign off by reminding you to thank a farmer. They work hard to keep us fed.
Almond pollination is big business for beekeepers these days, especially with the high global demand for almonds and lower supply of bees making the market value for each pollinating colony quite high. But besides almonds, there are a lot of other crops in the USA that require our honeybee friends to spread their pollen around.
Bees love a fruit medley
One of the crops for which bee pollination is essential is the melon….watermelon, cantaloupe, as well as other varieties. California, Arizona, Texas, Georgia, and Indiana are the leading US producers of cantaloupe. In fact, California produces about 75% of all cantaloupes in the nation.
Watermelons are grown in approximately 44 states in the US, with Georgia, Florida, Texas, California, and Arizona being the largest producers. Seedless varieties have sterile pollen, requiring growers to plant rows of different varieties of the melon with viable pollen. With reduced viable pollen, it’s recommended to have 3 times the amount of bees than that required for the seeded varieties: 3 hives vs. 1 hive per acre.
According to the 2017 USDA Cost of Pollination Report, the top crops needing hives for pollination (besides those required for the “big guy”, the almond) are apples, blueberries, & cherries. Watermelon, cranberries, & cantaloupe follow close behind:
The price per colony to pollinate the almonds is hovering around $170 per hive, which is over 2 times the average price you’ll get sending your bees out to other crops. But, it may be worth your time to get your bees out to the cranberry, blueberry, & pumpkin blooms, as well as others. Cranberries offer the biggest pay day, at close to $77 per colony.
Most of these crops offer an average of $50-$70 a hive:
Your operation may benefit from branching out in its cross-country pollination effort, taking your healthy bees to other crops...especially all that fruit! Fruit salad, please, honeybees!
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: today’s beekeeping industry might as well be called the pollination service industry. With very few exceptions, beekeeping operations need pollination revenue to survive these days. Fortunately, there’s plenty of money to be made in pollination.
Yet it seems like nobody’s happy with the current model. Beekeepers are worried about introducing new stressors like fungicides and travel fatigue to their bees. Growers think they’re not always getting what they pay for. Who’s in the right?
What does it take to deliver pollination?
In short, delivering pollination is like orchestrating a symphony: it takes a lot of skill and experience to synchronize different moving pieces and create a harmony. Here are just a few of the many stresses beekeepers must endure to deliver pollination to growers:
What do growers want?
From our conversations with almond growers, their interests tend to be fairly consistent. Growers want reliability, consistency. Growers stick a seed in the ground, give it food, water and sunlight, then a crop is produced (I know this is a major oversimplification, but bear with me). Pretty straight-forward, right? There are clearly identified jobs to be done and growers know how to direct their workers to complete those jobs.
Bees are a different story. Bees are not a simple input. Growers can watch the bees fly, but they can’t supervise them or direct them. If a worker fails to do a job like apply fertilizer, it’s not hard to find out what went wrong, who to blame and how to fix the issue. If weak bees do a poor job pollinating a section of the orchard, the grower won’t find out in time, the person to blame has already been paid, and there is no fixing the issue until next season. As far as farm inputs go, pollination is something growers feel they have almost no control over.
Candor increases contract value
Bottom line is growers want to know they’re getting what they pay for. Growers can see through the tired claim beekeepers recycle year after year: “bees are dying, I need $5 more per hive”. Growers are not all that different from beekeepers: they want control of their livelihood, they don’t like surprises, they like to see proof.
Beekeepers should take notes from operations like Apis Hive from Colorado, who take an open-book approach by posting their pollination costs and prices online. Full transparency, no gimmicks, no surprises. These guys get it.
What’s a fair price for a pollination deal? It’s whatever value beekeepers can prove they’ve delivered. Beekeepers take on a lot of costs and risks to provide pollination, but at the end of the day, pollination is a service and the clients don’t always feel well-served. It’s the service provider's responsibility to show they’re delivering excellent service.