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New coalition urges almond growers to take a close look at the value of bee forage

Instead of planting food crops on a 30-acre block of prime ag land near Rosedale Highway and Enos Lane, the Gardiner family decided to fill it with flowers: phacelia, baby's breath, bluebells, bachelor buttons and sweet alyssum.

Pretty, right? Probably not worth much, though, unless you consider bee forage to be valuable — and the Gardiners certainly do as almond growers who keep bees commercially for pollinating purposes.

"It kind of just made sense for us, not only commercially but as a family we came together and it's something that we'd like to do," said Joe Gardiner, partner at Gardiner Farms and sales manager of the family's nut-processing arm, Treehouse California Almonds.

Bee forage is taking on greater importance in California agriculture lately as industry organizations, government agencies and environmental advocates come together to protect honeybees and promote pollinator health.

This week a group called the California Pollinator Coalition made its public debut, heralding what its members hope will be a new era of partnership benefiting native and managed bees, biodiversity and soil health.

Honeybees in particular have had a hard time in the last decade. Bee colonies have died off in large numbers because of factors including mites, certain types of pesticides and lack of forage during recent droughts.

Local almond growers have paid the price in terms of sharply higher rental fees for the billions of bees brought in from around the county for the annual bloom that usually takes place in early February.

The new coalition, formed by pollinator advocates together with the almond industry and conservationists, hopes to address the situation by working to persuade farmers to plant forage in or near their orchards and fields.

This might take the form of hedgerows, native ground cover or fields of wildflowers, as in the Gardiners' case.

"In a few cases you might actually forgo a little productive area," said Josette Lewis, chief scientific officer of the Almond Board of California, a coalition member.

There can be logistical challenges because farmers often need to bring in heavy equipment that can damage the plants and even harm the bees.

And it's not cheap: A study by the University of California, Davis estimated the cost of forage at $1,700 per acre, an expense it found most farmers won't easily recover.

But the benefits are many, said Laurie Davies Adams, president and CEO of Pollinator Partnership, another member of the new coalition. Forage can boost water retention and improve soil health while also increasing pollination activity by attracting native bees.

"It's not just an investment that you have to make and say, 'Well, I'm being a good guy,'" she said. "There are benefits." She pointed to a Canadian study suggesting some growers saw a return on their investment within four years because of higher crop yields from more efficient pollination.

Forage is also a good marketing tool, Lewis said, as well as "an investment in honeybee health."

The coalition expects to provide technical guidance to growers hoping to provide pollinator forage, fund research on best practices and track the state's progress. The group emphasized participation is voluntary and incentives-based.

Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, which is offering pollinator forage grants to the state's farmers, said she sees the coalition as a sign of shared progress toward the state's stated goal of increasing biodiversity in the face of climate change.

She called the collaboration "a new model of showing what we can do together."

As the Gardiners' experience shows, forage doesn't have to be planted in an orchard or even on its perimeter. Joe noted bees can fly several miles in search of food.

His family planted flowers — drought-tolerant plants, for the most part — in an area apart from its almonds. That way bees won't be hurt by tractors going in and out of orchards, occasionally applying pesticides and fungicides.

Between rows of trees the family also lets native plants grow, if only to aid soil health. Those include mustard, clover and fiddleneck.

He said one reason for the intentional forage is to provide an example of what can be done to promote bee health.

"Farmers generally have best intentions to raise sustainable crops," he said. "It's just trying to work together and do it in a way that's actually manageable on a farm."