Farm conservation changes put bees at risk

See once again the connectedness of everything: Central California’s almond crop is threatened by the high price of corn in places like North Dakota. And the connection, of course, is bees.

Billions and billions of bees. We have previously commented on this blog about the overwhelming importance of a series of little-discussed programs under the Conservation Title XII of the Farm Bill that preserve the nation’s flora and fauna. One example is the Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP, which pays farmers a fee to keep portions of their acreage out of crop production for a number of years; this set-aside aids ground-nesting birds and other critters, helps restore the soil and gives farmers an option to make a few bucks from less-than-optimal cropland or when crop prices are low.

National Public Radio came out with a terrific story yesterday showing how that CRP program in North Dakota is vital to the almond crop in California’s Central Valley.

The Central Valley produces most of the world’s almonds, almost 2 billion pounds per year. To do this, bees are shipped in by the semi-truck-load to pollinate the trees. When the flowering is done, however, there are too few other blooms to support the bees, so they go back to the Midwest to take advantage of full-flowering summers in places like North Dakota.

This year, however, with corn prices at astronomical highs, farmers can’t afford to voluntarily place their dirt in the CRP, and instead are using every square inch to grow corn. According to the NPR story, the acreage committed to the program might be down to half of what it once was. Those fallow acres aren’t just grass. They are flowers – clover, alfalfa, wildflowers – that support the bees.

Less fallow cropland, fewer bees, fewer almonds.

Stay tuned to this year’s Farm Bill debate, which is due to be passed again by December, to find out if Congress proposes major cuts to the Conservation Title. Remember the bees.

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