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Major Valley Almond Grower Gets Into The Bee And Honey Business

Mar 3, 2015

Beehives are a common sight in almond orchards throughout the Central Valley this time of year. (file photo)
Credit Almond Board of California

California’s almond orchards are turning from white to green this week as millions of blossoms fall, marking the end of this year’s bloom. But for one valley almond grower, work with the bees that make it all possible has just begun. FM89’s Joe Moore reports.

You probably know Paramount Farms from their brands like Wonderful Pistachios and POM Wonderful. Now the world’s largest grower of almonds and pistachios is adding a new product to that portfolio – something they call Wonderful Bees.

Earlier this year Paramount announced that it had purchased a large east coast beekeeping company called Headwaters Farm and its 20,000 hives. The move comes as some valley farmers have struggled in recent years to ensure they have enough bees to pollinate their crops.

Joe MacIlvaine is the President of Paramount Farming. He says they’re getting into the beekeeping business for two reasons.

MacIlvaine: “A) we’re concerned about the supply of bees for the long term, and B), I think we have something we can contribute to the beekeeping industry.”

And those contributions could take the form of new research.

MacIlvaine: “We think there are real opportunities in beekeeping to look at things like bee nutrition, bee health, bee parasites, the genetic contribution to the breeding stock and things like that. You know, we can bring something a little different than is available from individual family beekeeping operations.”

MacIlvaine says this year’s bee supply was good, with strong colonies and no reported shortages. But that could change in the future. And Mechel Paggi who leads Fresno State’s Center for Agricultural Business says getting into the bee business could be a smart bet for the company.

Paggi: “Paramount like a number of companies in the agribusiness community are vertically integrated, in trying to control as much of the value chain as they can. This is a company that has 46,000 acres of almonds and needs 92,000 beehives. So to the extent that they can have it as part of their operation instead of an input cost for renting beehives, I think it’s a wise management decision.”

And prices are going up. He says a hive that cost $140 in 2011 now could cost a grower as much as $225.

Paggi: “It’s not as bad, but it’s analogous to the situation we have with water, we’re facing these increasing input costs and I think folks that have the wherewithal to do it are trying to do everything they can to get as good as control on the situation as they can.”

But it's not just rising prices. MacIlvaine says the beekeeping industry faces a lot of challenges, from increasing demand to an aging community of beekeepers. That's on top of the mysterious condition that has led many colonies to vanish in recent years, known as colony collapse disorder.

MacIlvaine: “For the long term we’re not out of the woods as far as bees are concerned. We’ve still got all these problems. We have external parasites that are attacking the bees. We have nutritional issues. The forage that’s available for bees these days is not as good as it used to be. In the Midwest for example, they now have genetically modified crops that are able to withstand herbicides, so they spray right over the top of those crops, you just don’t have the weeds and natural forage that we used to have.”

He says there’s also fewer farmers today using government incentive programs to take their land out of production, which used to let natural vegetation grow, providing more food for colonies.

As for the bees – Paramount won’t just be using them to pollinate their almond orchards. MacIlvaine says the company also has plans to enter the honey business.