Farm Focus

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Low winterkill numbers and warm weather mean that this could be a great year for Alberta’s honeybees, say local experts.

Provincial apiculturist (bee researcher) Medhat Nasr released the 2014 winterkill survey for Alberta bees last week. The annual survey is part of a national effort to track winter mortality amongst Canada’s commercial bee population, and involved about 282,000 bee colonies in Alberta.

“Across the country we had about 25 per cent or average winterkill,” Nasr says, meaning that about 25 per cent of the nation’s honeybee colonies were either dead or unproductive after last winter.

Alberta had the third lowest losses in Canada with just 18.5 per cent, Nasr said – good news for local beekeepers, since the province averaged 30 per cent losses from about 2007 to 2011.

“But over the last three years we have been within 20 per cent,” he says.

“It seems progress has been done over the last three to four years to tame down this winterkill.”

The Peace region had the highest rate of winterkill at 23.2 per cent, Nasr says. Southern Alberta south of Calgary had the lowest with just 15.1. The Northwest region (which contains Sturgeon County) reported 16.5 per cent losses.

Nasr credits the turnaround on winter losses to the introduction of a new pesticide to fight the varroa mite (the parasite responsible for most of Alberta’s recent losses) and greater emphasis on bee health and winter preparation.

“You have to be on the lookout for diseases in your hives,” he emphasizes, and treat problems as soon as you spot them. Proper feeding is also vital – the bees keep their hives at about 33 C all winter, and need lots of fuel to do so.

It’s otherwise been a great summer so far for Alberta bees, says Malcolm Connell, president of the Edmonton and District Beekeepers Association.

“Last year was the winter which just refused to end,” he recalls.

“Snow was here until about May. It was the worst honey harvest for about 20 years… Whereas this year is about the best honey harvest, I think, in 15 years.”

The key difference has been the weather, he explains. Plenty of heat and rain has meant lots of flowering clover and nectar for bees to drink. If these conditions hold, this should be a perfect season for honey producers.

The winterkill report can be found at agric.gov.ab.ca.

A Sturgeon County farm will open its doors next week to show farmers how they too can grow organic food.

Organic Alberta is hosting its second annual tour of local organic farms next week. The tour aims to introduce local farmers to organic farming – an agricultural technique that avoids the use of synthetic herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers.

It’s a technique that’s catching on in the market, says Becky Lipton, executive director of Organic Alberta.

“There’s a strong demand right now for organic ingredients,” she notes, and a shortage of producers. Organic wheat is now selling for about 263 per cent more than regular wheat, while organic peas are earning farmers about 287 per cent more than normal ones.

But there’s a time lag when it comes to meeting this surging demand since it takes three years for a farm to become certified as organic, Lipton says. This tour is a good chance for farmers to check out organic farming.

Ward Middleton’s Midmore Farm just north of Morinville is the first stop on next week’s tour. The 750-acre farm has been certified organic since 1999.

Midmore Farms uses a technique called intercropping to control weeds, Lipton says. By planting flax and wheat on the same field, organic farmers can increase ground cover and a field’s ability to crowd out invasive plants.

Anne Kirk of the University of Manitoba will also be on site to talk about her participatory breeding program, Lipton says.

“Right now, most of the (seed) varieties that are available to organic producers were bred in a conventional (non-organic) system,” she explains.

Kirk is now looking for volunteers such as Midmore Farm to test-drive seed lines that were developed in organic fields.

Guests will also visit the Feitsma organic dairy near Dapp (northwest of Westlock) and Jason Rottier’s organic oat and cattle farm.

The tour runs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. this Aug. 6. Registration costs about $20. Call 1-855-521-2400 before Aug. 4 to register.

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St. Albert Gazette

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