Mark Wagoner, Pollinator Advocate in Touchet Valley, Washington

Alfalfa seed is a staple for the dairy industry.
Alfalfa seed is a staple for the U.S. dairy industry.

Mark Wagoner is a 60-year-old alfalfa seed farmer in Walla Walla, Washington, and the recipient of the 2012 Farmer-Rancher Pollinator Award awarded by the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign.

Wagoner’s idea of sustainable is staying in business, and that takes sound decision-making. The two generations that preceded him, and his son Tim who follows, believe that best practices can always get better. The work on the Wag- oner farm on behalf of pollinators takes diligent communication with other growers, thoughtful action with regard to pesticide use and a priceless alliance with the Entomology Department at Washington State University. The track record that gained Wagoner’s nomination as a tried- and-true pollinator advocate was not an environmental sprint but a marathon of education and application.

Vicki Wojcik, research program manager at Pollinator Partnership, says that NAPPC is actually the outreach part of their pollinator advocacy efforts, and they work in conjunction with the National Association of Conservation Districts to find members of the general public and members of the agriculture community who have separated themselves from the pack with unique methodology.

“What we really liked about Mark’s application was that he was a large-scale producer that had a very strong pollinator focus, and that’s an area where we do want to make sure we recognize individuals,” says Wojcik. “It’s not just small farms that are organic and sustainable in that model that are important to pollinators.”

Alfalfa is native to the Mediterranean, and the seed is mostly grown in the northwestern United States. Wagoner’s success is a combination of the right pollinators, geology, climate and his own drive to expand the number of crop — protection tools that alfalfa growers have at their disposal.

Alkali bees and alfalfa leafcutting bees are the two beneficial bugs of consequence in this story, and their individual pros and cons are great topics of consideration. Canadian weather has made the price of leafcutting bees skyrocket over the last few years, and alkali bees have wandering traits that make them easy to accidentally spray out.

This is a positive tale though, and, like many, it begins with a fresh start. Mark’s grandfather was a World War I veteran who was prompted to come to Touchet, Washington, 17 miles west of Walla Wal la, after the installation of the Gardena Irrigation District. This privately funded project began in 1892 and consisted of 25 miles of open canals that draw water from the Walla Walla River. That water is not removed without considering the health of the river’s salmon population, but enough was dished out to make us- able 7,000 acres of farmland.

Part of the water rights mandated that crops in the district could only be watered during the winter. That must have gone over really well with farmers who were al- ready doing a mighty jig to get the average 6 to 8 inches of rain the Touchet Valley re- ceives a year. Growers needed a plant that could play hardball, a botanical version of Jack Palance. Orchard crops weren’t going to cut it, but alfalfa can punch its roots 50 feet into the ground. Getting thirsty only makes it bloom more — a trait on which the region’s alfalfa seed farmers past, present and future bank.

When Wagoner’s grandfather was at the helm, pollinators weren’t the me- dia darlings they are today. Farmers still counted on the right bugs to show up, however. There are 4,000 native bee spe- cies in the United States, and it might surprise some to learn that honey bees aren’t one of them. In fact, alfalfa seed farmers find this poster child for pollina- tors a little too big for its breeches. Why? They’re thieves.

Doug Walsh is a professor and ento- mologist at Washington State University who is a superhero when it comes to inte- grated pest management. He won awards in 2006 and 2007 from the Entomological Foundation for eliminating 100,000 pounds of insecticide from Washington State. The honeybee, Doug says, is an un- desirable in an alfalfa field because they cheat the flowers.

“There’s a trigger mechanism that hap- pens if a bee goes into that blossom,” Walsh says. This is called tripping a flower. “The anthers of the blossom literally bop the bee.” Well, honeybees doing the foraging are the old women of the hive. They get bopped once, maybe twice, and it no longer interests them. To avoid it, they crawl under a part of the alfalfa blossom called the banner and into another part called the keel. That’s where the nec- tar is located. She gets in, gets out and not so much as a buzz of guilt.

“They first started messing with alkali bees when I was five or six years old,” Mark says. They don’t mind getting bopped. Riding on the combine with his father and watching alkali bees build their ground nests are some of his earli- est memories. Natural aggregations of alkali bees were found in the Touchet Valley prior to that time, but initially farmers didn’t realize the boost they’d give their seed yield.

According to Jim Cane, research entomologist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service, alfalfa seed farmers in other areas of the country were noticing this little bee during the 1950s. Alkalis were good pollinators, and Cane says that growers in the delta region of Utah reportedly moved their crops close to the areas where the bees had nests. He can think of no other occasion where on a commercial scale that was the case.

Making the most of the alkali bee back then was a project of Bill Stephen at Or- egon State University and Ned Bohart, the late founder and director of the USDA- ARS Logan Bee Lab located at Utah State University. As it turned out, the alkali bee wanted alkali soil, but that was due to the moisture that sort of soil retains. Alkali bees like earth that is suitable for digging nests, and they prefer food within a mile to a mile and a half from home.

The Touchet Valley began working on those prime soil conditions near the end of the last ice age. The Missoula Floods surpassed those portrayed in summer disaster movies and took place again and again over a 2,000-year period. The force of the water carried and deposited 60 to 100 feet of silt to Wagoner’s neighborhood. It was the geological matchmaker for a solitary bee and the alfalfa crop that sustained it.

“This bee nests in ground that’s moist enough and shallow enough that you can make a cubic foot hole with a punch on the back of a backhoe,” Cane says. That punch can be placed in a cubic foot box wherever a farmer chooses. He says that thousands of nests are installed this way in special areas called bee beds. Wag- oner and other Touchet Valley alfalfa seed farmers have learned how to create and maintain these bee beds to the bees’ satisfaction.

Bee beds are just for bees. Nothing grows in them. Patches of ground dedicated to alkali bees are watered with sub-surface irrigation, and salt is applied on top to keep moisture from evaporating. Bee beds require well-draining soil, and ditches are dug around the perimeter to help avoid floods that can harm and even kill bees in fragile stages of development.

In the late ’60s, alfalfa seed farmers began looking at the alfalfa leafcutting bee, Megachile rotundata. If you’re a tire kicker, this bee has its perks. They’re transportable, live above ground and can be shipped. The prairie provinces of Canada are known for having low instances of chalk brood, the major downfall of this type of bee, and so that is where most U.S. farmers get them.

Alfalfa Leaf-cutting Bee, Logan Bee Lab,  Utah
Alfalfa Leaf-cutting Bee, Logan Bee Lab, Utah

Wagoner wasn’t as quick as some other farmers to use leafcutting bees. “We totally relied on those alkali bees until 1995,” he says. He recalls that on July 5, 1995 the valley had a huge rain, three quarter’s of an inch. It was enough to hurt the bees.

On top of that an armyworm infestation caused a lot of the alkali bees to be killed with pesticide. Rather than use that pesticide, Wagoner typically used a biological insecticide called Dipel. “But you couldn’t get it,” Mark says. “I mean there was a real shortage of that stuff. So this other product was the only stuff that we could put out to kill these armyworms. I mean we had armyworms so bad they were crawling across the roads and we were squishing them.”

While the chemical was and is rated for use on alfalfa seed, and the growers took care to spray at night, there was the problem of the morning dew. It kept the pesticide active longer and killed the bees that came in contact with it. In 1995 the alfalfa seed growers only had 10 percent of the alkali bees they had in 1994.

Wagoner had been working with the Environmental Protection Agency since 1988 in an attempt to make sure that the right products become available to keep his pollinators safe. It’s difficult because alfalfa seed is a small crop where EPA registration is concerned. A company called Imperial Chemical Corporation had, in the 1970s, developed a product called Pirimor that would just kill aphids. The farmers loved it, but in 1983 IPC didn’t want to re-register it for use on their crop.

Wagoner, along with another alfalfa seed farmer and an entomologist from WSU, created a slideshow for the EPA. It was important that they recognize alfalfa seed is different than hay. There are different pests. Then, of course, there were the bees. “Our male alkali bees will roost out in the field, and you can spray this stuff on them; it won’t kill them,” Wagoner explains.

Alfalfa leafcutting bees have been used since the alkali bee’s population crash as an insurance policy. Meanwhile, WSU entomologists like Doug Walsh continued to work for better pollinator and crop protection.

“Every time we get some kind of new insecticide they do all of these bio assay tests on bee safety, and they’ve used the same protocol since the 1970s.” Scientific test plots have been on the Wagoner farm for 30 years. Walsh is the third WSU entomologist from which the Wagoner family farm has benefited. In 2007 the fruit of three years of research was the registration of a chemical to kill lygus bugs and aphids. Their stilets go limp and can’t penetrate seed pods.

Today, just by not messing up, the population of alkali bees has risen dramatically. According to Walsh, there are 300 acres of bee beds in the Walla Walla Valley. That amounts to 18 to 25 million alkali bees every summer. There are key events that have helped bring the numbers back. For example, there is a cut off of May 31 after which, until bloom is over, the growers agree not to use certain classes of insecticide. Also, according to Walsh, Wagoner’s leadership has been instrumental in keeping that agreement solid. Most farmers have switched over to Beleaf. Since its introduction, the research at WSU shows the alkali bee population rising every year.

A crop’s perceived importance has huge impacts on the number of research dollars that go toward alleviating its pests. Beth Nelson is the president of the Na- tional Alfalfa and Forage Alliance where Wagoner is a board member. She says not as many people are growing it now, and there is an interesting reason.

“We are seeing alfalfa acreage decline in the United States,” Nelson says. “It’s declined by 24.5 percent since 2002. In 2012 there was a 101⁄2 percent decline.” And yet Nelson and others agree that it’s one of the most sustainable agriculture systems. It puts nitrogen back in the soil, helps soil conservation, and provides wildlife habi- tat. “We believe it’s because of both policy and lack of research,” she says.

Additionally, Title 1 of the current Farm Bill addresses commodity program crops like wheat, corn, grain, sorghum, etc., but alfalfa is not one of them. Production coverage for crops affects which crops farmers prefer to grow. Nelson ex- plains, direct payments were “decoupled” with what was actually planted. In both the Senate-passed and House Agriculture Committee-reported versions of the 2012 Farm Bill, direct payments were elimi- nated and the new proposals attempted to address the issue of “shallow losses” — crop losses not covered by crop insurance. These proposals were going to “couple” the payment with the program crop actu- ally planted. Since alfalfa is not a program crop, bankers are telling folks not to plant alfalfa because it does not have the same safety net as the Title 1 program crops.

Some years ago, when the alfalfa seed market became saturated, Cane traveled from the Logan Bee Lab to the Wagoner farm. He did surveys to tell farmers how to grow the minimum amount of alfalfa to keep the bees fed. This also means not buying too many leafcutting bees.

The entire balancing act could have tumbled, but the farmers used the scien- tific findings even during tough business times. Canadian weather has impacted the prices of leafcutting bees to the point that using more alkali bees and less leaf-cutting means a huge profit difference. Five years ago, a gallon of leafcutting bees was $37. In 2012 some growers paid $125 a gallon. This has made it so Wagoner spends more on bees than on the human labor on the farm.

You might not have the alkali bee in your area, but there are other native bees that pull their weight and then some. Cane has done a nationwide survey, and the squash bee is, in his estimate, pol- linating two-thirds of all the squash and pumpkins in North America. They move around faster than a honeybee but are about the same size. If you have two or three per squash bloom, that means you have enough to avoid purchasing hon- eybees. This research passed muster on a 400-acre Kabocha squash farm in western Colorado.

“So that farmer said, ‘Well, I’m spending $20,000 a year renting honeybees; I think I’ll back off,’” Cane remembers. The way to do it, Cane says, is to back off your honeybees by about a third. Check out your fruit set. You can either keep your combination of pollinators as it is, or you can back the honeybees off further and gradually. A squash bee for every five flowers should do the trick.

Back on the Wagoner farm they’re working on that old Gardena ditch. The $3.2 million project includes piping and rebuilding 10 pumping stations.

“We’re going to save so much water that we can put this water back in the river to help the fish. The Walla Walla water has been over-appropriated. It’s short of water. We probably lose 30 percent of our water to ditch evaporation. That would be a significant amount of water that could go back in the Walla Walla River.” There is always something that can be updated. Even with hardly any time off, Wagoner seems to be enjoy

ing the process. “It’s been a lot of work, but it’s actually quite invigorating and quite a challenge to get all of this stuff right.”

For more information on the Pollinator Partnership visit http://www.pollinator.org.

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