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.
Beekeepers from the Lone Star state have enjoyed some extra cash flow from a statewide program launched a few years ago.
As of January 1st, 2012, beekeeping in Texas qualifies for an Ag Valuation on property taxes. This means landowners could save hundreds, and maybe even thousands of dollars on property taxes each year. Beekeepers can benefit immensely by selling or renting their hives to program participants. This has been a golden opportunity in Texas for nearly half a decade.
For a landowner to qualify, he must own between 5-20 acres of land in Texas. Said land must have beehives placed on the property to qualify. However, the landowner does not need to purchase or own bees, colonies can be rented. Participants are advised to keep detailed and accurate records for reporting purposes.
This can be a great business opportunity for any beekeeper who manages hives in Texas. You’re probably aware of the saying “follow the money,” and you can surely live by that saying if you head to Texas. We’ve heard of some beekeepers renting their hives to participants for $25 per month. That’s a pretty nice payday if you ask me.
If you want to learn more or get involved, the Texas Beekeepers Association has put together helpful resources pertaining to the Ag Exemption on their website.
As Bob Dylan quipped over half a century ago, the times they are a-changin'. Mr. Dylan's famous remark is as true today as it was in the turbulent 1960's, when his landmark album first came out.
In case you haven’t noticed, the agricultural food production landscape has been undergoing a major cultural shift. Investors worldwide are beginning to funnel mountains of cash into companies working to develop "alternative" foods.
These forward-thinking investors hope to capitalize on the harsh reality we face in the near future: producing enough nutritious food to feed a booming world population. The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that by 2050, a 70% hike in global food production is required in order to feed a projected 9.1 billion people.
A challenge that's hard to swallow
In basic terms, our challenge by 2050 is to produce:
We have a good idea of what's required for the latter two points, but how do we define "highly nutritious foods"? It all ties back to protein. Volumes of research point out a well-established link between growing countries and protein consumption. As countries get richer, their citizens consume more meat and dairy. The visual tells a compelling story:
Where are things headed?
What's on the menu?
So what exactly are "alternative foods"? Well, look no further than your nearest Bait & Tackle shop. No, seriously. Insect meat is one of many hot topics being researched in the alternative food landscape.
Some of the less attention-grabbing items on the year-2050 menu include things like algae-based foods, dairy-free "dairy" products and lab-grown meat. Perhaps the most promising development is Impossible Foods, a plant-based burger company that's raised nearly $400 million so far.
That said, all hope is not lost for traditional agriculture producers. As long as crops meet the three criteria listed above (highly nutritious, scalable production, low inputs), they're in a strong position for the future.
The good news for beekeepers
All this talk about insect meat probably has you wondering where I'm going with this. Just to set the record straight: No, I don't think consumers will be eating bees in the near future.
Here's what beekeepers should take away from this: almonds aren't going away anytime soon. The latest USDA Almond Report suggests that the high-protein nut is poised for sustained growth moving forward. Some key takeaways:
People will continue to make a fuss about how almond growers are ruining the environment, but the truth is almond growers are rapidly advancing innovation and sustainability. What matters is that as long as almond production continues to depend on bee pollination, the outlook is encouraging for beekeepers.
It'll be interesting to see how these trends in food production and consumption will pan out over the next few years. I'm willing to bet that 20 years from now, human nutrition will look drastically different than today. As Bob Dylan would remind us, the times they are a-changin'.
Abnormally cold weather this month in California’s Central Valley, where 80% of worldwide almond production takes place, is causing fear among almond growers. Though the freeze is responsible for some hauntingly beautiful images, experts warn of a grave outlook for this year’s crop. Blue Diamond Growers President Mark Jansen is “deeply concerned,” claiming “current weather conditions could have an impact on all segments of the almond industry.”
Bees in a freeze
The question we all have is, how does this affect beekeepers? Crop insurance will cover some of the growers’ losses, but does your pollination contract guarantee payment even if almond trees never bloom? Among beekeepers who offer pollination, only 58% have a written contract with the grower—the other 42% work on a “handshake” agreement (Bee Culture, 2015). If you fall under the latter category, you might want to ring up your grower to make sure they’ll pay even if the almonds never bloom. Then make sure to get your agreement in writing.
Our next question is about bee nutrition. Sure, you probably feed supplements while your bees are in the almond groves anyway, but this year might be different. With little forage available from frozen almond trees, pollen supplements might be the only food source for your bees this spring. Without enough pollen to kickstart bee production, there’s a good chance that your spring splits may fall short of projections. You should plan accordingly if you have a lot of package/nuc orders lined up.
The bigger picture
Now let’s touch on the greater issue at hand: the economics. With global demand for almonds steadily increasing over the past decade, California growers have been ramping up production. And with more almond acreage cropping up each year, there’s a need for more and more bees.
Last year, beekeepers trucked out 1.7 million colonies for almond pollination. An estimated 1.9 million were needed this year to pollinate a record 1 million acres of almonds. The latest report from USDA estimates there were a total of 2.89 million hives in the country last April—about 80,000 more hives than in April 2016. Accounting for typical winter losses, that means almost 75% of the nation’s hives are needed for almond pollination this year.
On top of all this, 2017 was a bad year for beekeepers. Natural disasters took a toll on hives in some of the biggest states for beekeeping. Florida and Texas beekeepers faced flooding from two chaotic hurricanes, while those in California dealt with historic wildfires. Summer drought also affected beekeepers in western states, where bees are typically brought to do splits and stock up on nutritious forage after pollination season.
The growth in California almond production has brought a lot of money into the beekeeping industry, but almond pollination is one of the greatest threats we face. The demand for almond pollination is causing beekeepers to make as many splits as possible rather than focus on building healthy colonies. The numbers just don’t add up. With almond production currently in a state of crisis, there’s a lot of uncertainty going forward.
In case you missed them, two national beekeeping conferences took place last week: American Beekeeping Federation (ABF) in Reno and American Honey Producers Association (AHPA) in San Diego. Here are some key takeaways and trends we found.
The biggest takeaway from both conferences was the surprisingly low turnout. We heard all kinds of theories, from poor weather across the country to a nasty virus going around. But even with the slow foot traffic this year, there was still plenty of business being conducted. I’ll be the first to admit that vendors love to complain even when things are just fine.
There’s a lot of uncertainty about the new Electronic Logging Device (ELD) rule, which went into effect on December 18th. The new rule requires commercial truckers to install an ELD to track hours on the road. This change is causing uncertainty for two reasons: costs are expected to rise, and non-stop trips might be at risk.
Agriculture truckers were given a 90-day waiver to comply, which covers those of us trucking bees out for almond season. But come March, you’ll need an ELD to transport hives. For beekeepers, automated trucking can’t come soon enough.
Another hot topic causing buzz this year was the extreme weather that devastated many apiaries in 2017. Beekeepers from Texas and Florida faced severe flooding from hurricanes Harvey and Irma, while California beekeepers battled historic wildfires and drought.
Obviously we can’t control the weather, but it’s frustrating that some of the best climates to keep hives are starting to become more and more volatile.
Technology and innovation
While we were all in Reno and San Diego, the top tech companies in the world came together in Las Vegas for CES 2018. But that didn’t stop beekeeping tech companies from going all out for ABF and AHPA. It seems like each year there are more and more innovative companies popping up at beekeeping conferences to showcase their products.
Competition is growing, which means faster innovation and lower prices are soon to come. It’s an exciting time for technology in beekeeping.
Theft and vandalism
We’re all aware that hive theft is becoming a bigger issue these days. With almond prices at an all-time high, it makes sense that some shady beekeepers would steal hives to earn a quick and easy payday. But lately there’s been a growing threat of vandalism, and the motives are puzzling.
What kind of sadistic person stumbles upon a bee yard and thinks, “hey, these would be fun to destroy!” It looks like a pair of teenagers are to blame for vandalizing 50 hives in Iowa late last year. Juvenile shenanigans might explain this instance of vandalism, but I find it hard to believe that kids are the only ones doing it.
Where to overwinter your hives has always been an important question for beekeepers. No matter which climate and region of the country you prefer, at the end of the day you’re still banking on a mild winter to hopefully avoid wild temperatures.
But more and more beekeepers are shifting towards a new solution: overwintering inside giant climate-controlled warehouses normally used to store crops. Companies like Agri-Stor are making a major push, causing beekeepers to re-think how they overwinter their hives. Expect to see more of these cold-storage warehouses cropping up across the country.
There’s so much in store for the beekeeping industry in 2018. I expect to see many exciting new developments and opportunities as our industry continues to grow and adapt.