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The Almond Centre of Excellence (ACE)

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Imagine walking amongst almond trees that are just about to burst into bloom, with bees foraging amongst nearby native vegetation, and in cover-crops, waiting for the swollen buds to unfold. This is the picture of sustainable bee-friendly practices envisioned by the Almond Board of Australia (ABA).

This vision is coming to fruition at the ABA Almond Centre of Excellence (ACE), a 60-hectare (40 hectares currently planted) experimental orchard that hosts a number of the industry’s current R&D activities.

The ACE orchard is a unique collaboration between industry, researchers, and commercial suppliers, established with the generous funding support from the South Australian and Commonwealth governments and the assistance of almond grower levies through Hort Innovation Australia. It has been purposely designed as a demonstration site so that almond growers, as well as local and overseas students, visiting researchers, chefs and nutritionists can see first-hand how almonds are grown in Australia.

“The ACE orchard provides the opportunity to showcase best production practices and technologies and to push the boundaries in search of significant developments in production systems,” said Anthony Wachtel, ABA’s Orchard Manager.

Anthony Wachtel, ABA’s Orchard Manager.

The ABA was successful in achieving Bee Friendly Farming (BFF) certification at their ACE Orchard and the team behind the operations at the ACE orchard are genuinely enthusiastic and passionate about growing almonds with bee health as a priority embracing the BFF certification program as a way to expand upon current best-practice.

Mr Wachtel said: “Integrated Pest Management is something that’s already standard practice in the almond industry to protect bees.” Many almond growers are also growing cover crops between their tree rows and around orchards using a ‘pollinator blend’ and the ACE orchard is no different.”

“Cover crops play a vital role in supporting commercial bees until full bloom kicks in,” Mr Wachtel explained. “We always try to keep the number of hives in balance with the level of flowering (cover crop, almonds, flowering weeds) and gradually introduce hives at the start of the pollination season (phase in) and then gradually take them out at the end of flowering (phased out) so they don’t go hungry.
“We can also see the benefits for native bees and other beneficial insects in the cover crop which all helps to reduce pests and diseases.

“One surprise to us was the value of undisturbed areas, and how they can be incredibly valuable to ground nesting pollinators. There are a lot of almond properties with unplanted areas where their soils weren’t suitable for growing almond trees. These areas contribute towards meeting the BFF permanent habitat criteria,” Mr Wachtel said.

The ABA was also a successful recipient of a BFF Tree Grant, made available with generous support from BFF partners, One Tree Planted and Flow Hive, to support tree plantings on BFF certified farms. Mr Wachtel said “planting trees is the next step to provide additional floral resources to back up the cover crops.”

The opportunity to gain support from BFF Tree Grant program encouraged the ABA to undertake biodiversity and habitat enhancements on the ACE orchard. Mr Wachtel said: “The Tree Grant has been a great incentive providing financial help to plant bee-friendly native trees and shrubs and improve the variety of nectar and pollen sources that will attract even more native bees and other pollinators as they grow.”

“One thing we discovered through this program is a shared passion among ABA staff for native vegetation. We’ve all been looking at the guidelines in the Powerful Pollinators: Vic & SA Mallee Guide (https://www.wheenbeefoundation.org.au/our-work/projects/powerful-pollinators/) and selecting plants that we want to include in our planting designs. It’s important to have species with different flowering times to cover the whole year, with different coloured foliage and flowers, and suited to the soil type at the farm.” Anthony and his team have worked with local nurseries to fine-tune a list of suitable indigenous plants, and source locally-grown tube-stock.

“Enhancing biodiversity and pollinator habitat not only helps the bees and beekeepers, but it also makes the orchard a nicer place to be for staff and visitors. We plan on including these feature plantings and gardens in our ACE orchard tour, so we can explain what type of pollinator is attracted by each plant to all of our visitors.”

The BFF program is seen by the ABA as a good fit for almond growers, and a logical step to take the industry towards sustainability. ABA Industry Development Manager Deidre Jaensch said the BFF criteria align well with the Almond industry’s honey bee best management practices and what is being put in place on almond orchards to protect bees. BFF certification extends this awareness and recognition beyond the almond industry.

Ms Jaensch said: “By becoming BFF accredited it means that almond growers are talking the same language as other gardeners and primary producers in Australia who are BFF accredited. Our efforts and commitment to protecting bees is measured using equivalent BFF criteria, so that certification can be recognised by everyone who knows about the BFF program. There might even be potential for the message about BFF to flow through to consumers who wants to know where their food comes from, and to raise awareness and understanding about the work that goes into producing sustainable foods.

BFF provides guidelines for farmers and gardeners to promote pollinator health on their land. BFF sets standards for sustainable land management on important concepts like planting pollinator food resources, providing nesting habitat, and incorporating integrated pest management (IPM).

Through BFF, farmers, gardeners, and private or corporate sponsors can be directly involved in providing resources necessary to support pollinators. By providing a low-cost membership program, farmers and gardeners can spend valuable time and money getting plants and seeds in the ground to support pollinators.

The standards that have to be achieved, as well as the benefits of attaining them, encourages growers look at their practices and their IPM protocols in their orchards.

The ABA is keen to lead the way in this area and understand the process and information requirements to encourage and help other almond growers be involved in the program.

For more information on the Wheen Bee Foundation’s Bee Friendly Farming program click here: https://www.wheenbeefoundation.org.au/our-work/projects/bee-friendly-farming/

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