(please see an August 11 2008 update below)
I'm in Lodi, Calif., at the moment, a guest of the Almond Board of California, which has flown out 20 some odd journalists from the U.S. and Canada to learn all about almonds.
California is currently in the midst of its biggest almond harvest in history. It's a bumper crop due to a confluence of excellent weather conditions and the fact that more trees were planted four years ago in response to increased demand, and it takes four years for an almond tree to bear commercially useful levels of nuts.
But here's the thing. The California almond industry is the beekeeper industry's largest client. That's because almonds are completely dependent on bees for the cross-polination that they need, and so almond growers bring in between eight and 12 bee boxes per acre of trees when they're in bloom in early spring.
So naturally I asked how they were coping with the global bee die-off, and the almond industry folks said it wasn't an issue -- that though the lack of bees has been widely reported, and some beekeepers have had trouble keeping their charges alive, in fact there is no shortage of bees.
And this also isn't the first time lots of honeybees have died. Old-timers report that something similar happened a few decades ago, and records show that it also happened in the 19th century.
Some 500,000 acres of Callifornia is planted with almond trees, and they all had enough bees.
But the almond board does pay close attention to the bees. In fact, it claims to do the most bee research in the country.
One representative from the almond board told me last night at dinner that that was due in part to the fact that the Honey Board is dysfunctional, but I have no way of knowing whether that's true or not. I had been wondering why no one from that board had bothered to comment on the bee die-off. You'd think they would have said something.
Here's something else: Almond hulls, which are used for cattle feed, were being sold at record-prices last year. I asked if that was because of the earmarking of some corn (also used in cattle feed, obviously) for ethanol, but they didn't have an answer for me.
Seems logical, though.
Last night we had dinner at a Sicilian restaurant in Elk Grove called Palermo.
Here's what we ate:
Slad with goat cheese and almond slivers
Thinly sliced salmon with arugula, lemon juice, capers and almonds
Duck tortelloni with mushrooms and almonds, cooked in tomato sauce
Farfalle gratinate with cream, porcini mushrooms, ham and chicken in almond crust
salmon with dried porcini mushrooms and ground almonds, served with risotto (with almonds in it) and cranberry-almond sauce.
Spumoni with almonds
I skipped breakfast, but I did eat a couple handfuls of almonds
Lunch was a salad with shrimp, avocado and almonds, followed by creme brulee topped with fruit but not almonds.
Then we had a tasting of almond products, and now I'm off to drink wine, to be followed by dinner that likely also will include some almonds, but I'll let you know.
August 11, 2008 update
There might not be a shortage of bees for big customers like the almond board, but the National Honey Board did point me to some data about domestic honey production over the past 50 years, and the picture’s actually pretty grim — so grim that I made a chart.