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Farmers and Their Stories - Al Courchesne




Welcome to Frog Hollow Farms!

Meet Farmer Alfred Courchesne, affectionately known as Farmer Al, owner and operator of Frog Hollow Farms.

Prior to becoming a farmer, Al was a high school history teacher in Hawaii. Al forayed into the agricultural world when a friend inspired him to become a papaya farmer on the Big Island. Thirty odd years later, Al is in his trusty golf cart roaming his 145 acres of orchards, nestled among a diverse community of small farmers in Brentwood, Contra Costa County, California. Al owns and operates an organic fruit farm that produces plums, pluots, olives, nectarines, pomegranates, oranges, cherries, apples, and pears. His true claim to fame is the 30+ varieties of peaches that make up the majority of his acreage.

In addition to fresh fruit, Frog Hollow Farms has an onsite industrial kitchen that produces granola, pastries, and preserves. The kitchen is run by Al’s wife Rebecca Courchesne who has worked for Alice Water's Cafe Fanny and as head pastry chef at Oliveto in Oakland.

Al is not only a farmer, but also a nature lover and a land steward. Al invests in pollinator promotion to increase the quantity and quality of his fruit production. Some of his crops are dependent on bee pollination for reproduction, while others benefit from increased yields from supplemental bee services.  On a personal level, Al loves the idea of creating biodiversity by providing habitat for native flora and fauna. In his words, “It’s exciting to connect with nature!”

Pictured Left: Salvia mellifera planted at the end of pear tree rows.

Pollinator Awareness

Since the beginning of his agricultural career, Al has been concerned with pollination services on his farm. His apple, plum, and cherry trees depend on bee pollination for fruit production. Other fruit trees like peaches, nectarines, and pluots can increase yields when bees supplement pollination. Without bees to pollinate, Al could lose half his fruit! Like most farmers, Al depends predominately on the European honey bee for these services. To enhance the production of his fruit trees and to promote bee populations, Al established resident hives on his farm with help from a local beekeeper. Frog Hollow now houses over 70 honey beehives year round attended by a contract beekeeper.

In 2009, Al was introduced to Dr. Gordon Frankie, head of the University of California, Berkeley Urban Bee Lab, by Alyson Aquino from the Contra Costa County USDA-Natural Resource and Conservation Service (NRCS). Dr. Frankie has over 25 years of experience working with and studying California native bees. Twelve years of survey research in urban gardens in ten cities throughout of California has given the Urban Bee Lab extensive insight into bee-plant relationships. Using this knowledge, Dr. Frankie is able to recommend the best bee plants for Al's pollination needs.

While Al had been aware of native bees prior to meeting Dr. Frankie, he had not yet taken extra steps to promote their populations on his farm. Forming a strong partnership, Al, NRCS, and Dr. Frankie’s team began a project to promote native bees and their habitats in agricultural areas. This project is now known as Farming for Native Bees and involves partnerships with 7 small farmers in Brentwood, all of who are interested in promoting native pollinators (see http://www.helpabee.org/farming-for-native-bees.html)


Dr. Frankie and two of Al's farm workers installing bee plants at the end of orchard rows.


Farming for Native Bees aims to:

  1. Provide farmers with a stable, cost-effective and sustainable supplement of native bees to honey bees.
  2. Establish new habitats that will work to conserve and protect California’s native bees.
  3. Form partnerships with farmers to implement native bee habitats and perform outreach to members of the agricultural community.  

Al has been one of the biggest proponents of Farming for Native Bees and has been invaluable in providing many opportunities to promote native pollinators on his farm and in the community (see Native Bee Floral Resources and Reactions for more information). As Dr. Frankie has said, “Al is great because he is a risk-taker. He isn’t afraid to learn from failures. Groundbreaking projects like Farming for Native Bees need people like Al to make them a reality.”

Native Bee Floral Resources

Beginning in 2010, under the guidance of Dr. Frankie’s team, Al and his workers have progressively installed perennial plants that attract native bees (bee plants) in two hedgerows along the southern border of his peach orchards and at the end of several orchard rows. Additionally,California native annuals, such as Californiapoppies (Eschscholzia californica) and Phacelia species have been seeded extensively between orchard rows Excited by early results and the beauty of the bee plants, Al has progressively volunteered more and more space on his farm for native bee habitat. As of December 2012, Al has installed over 150 individual plants from approximately 45 plant types (includes species, varieties, and cultivars) within and along Frog Hollow’s borders. These plants have proven to be such an attractive and abundant supply of floral resources that nearly all of Al’s resident honey bee hives have been moved adjacent to the bee plant hedgerows.

In addition to installing bee plants, Al allows weedy plants to grow in between tree rows and unused areas of his orchards, only removing them when they interfere with irrigation. Weeds attractive to bees, such as bristly ox-tongue (Picris echioides) and wild mustards (Brassica species), provide supplemental floral resources when other more attractive sources are unavailable. Occasionally Al will plant a cover crop, such as clover (Trifolium species), to fix nitrogen for his fruit trees as well as provide a coveted source of pollen and nectar for honey bees.

For the research aspect of Farming for Native Bees, Dr. Frankie and his team perform three yearly monitoring studies during peak bee seasons. These studies are designed to evaluate the success of established native bee habitat by quantifying changes in diversity and abundance of native bee species visiting and passing through the study farms. In the three years Frog Hollow has been adding native bee habitat, bee species diversity has increased from eleven species in 2010 to nearly 40 in 2011 and 2012.

Native Bee Nesting Habitat

Planting bee plants on his farm may be attracting native bees, but Al knew if he wanted to encourage the bees to stick around and pollinate his crops, he needed to provide them with a place to call home. To do this, Al has left bare dirt areas available for ground nesting bees like sweat bees (family Halictidae) and mining bees (family Andrenidae) to burrow in to. For cavity nesters such as leafcutter and mason bees (family Megachilidae), Al has placed bee blocks, wooden blocks with small holes drilled into them, throughout his pear orchards (honey bees do not visit pear trees) for them to make their brood cells in.

One of the best-known native bee pollinators is the blue orchard bee (Osmia lignaria). They are effective pollinators of crops such as cherries, almonds, and apples.  For this reason, Al has an interest in attracting them to his farm. Although they are cavity nesters, blue orchard bees require mud to line and seal their brood cells. With the help of Dr. Frankie’s team, Al will be installing ephemeral mud puddles near his bee blocks to encourage these remarkable pollinators to nest on his farm.

Challenges

The three years Al has been involved with Farming for Native Bees have been filled with trial and error and throughout he has learned a lot. Many of the early project plants have been lost to frost, extreme heat, and most of all, gophers. Gophers have by far been the greatest challenge to establishing native bee habitat, with the voracious rodents taking out nearly 30% of the installed plants since 2010. They have not discriminated between plants just put into the ground and ones that have been established for two years. In 2012, Frog Hollow’s gopher population destroyed three chaste berry trees (Vitex agnus-castus) that had grown to over 6 feet tall. Gophers have also attacked Al’s fruit trees, destroying 23 of his 230 newly planted peach trees.

To circumvent gopher attacks, Al and Dr. Frankie’s team have selected a number of gopher resistant plant species, such as sages (Salvia species) and lavenders (Lavandula species), to install in the hedgerows. To protect bee plants that attract gophers, gopher screens (wire bags with small openings for root growth) are placed around the main root ball to protect the root crown from hungry gophers. Gopher screens are a recent development and are not yet widely distributed. Al supplements the gopher screens in protecting his orchards and bee plants with a farm worker patrolling with a shotgun.

 

 

Reactions: Al’s and the Community’s

As noted before, Al is not afraid to take risks. Without hesitation, Al has adopted pollinator friendly practices and has readily adapted his farm practices to accommodate them. To nearly every suggestion from Dr. Frankie’s team, whether seeding more rows with annuals or altering his watering regime to accommodate ornamental plants, Al simply responds, “Let’s do it.” In his opinion, the economic and aesthetic benefits are reason enough to undertake such measures, but he also is proud to contribute to research dedicated to learning more about native pollinators and their importance in California agriculture.

Public response to his pollinator friendly practices has been overwhelmingly positive. Each year Al hosts a farm tour of his normally private orchards called the Blossom Walk. During this popular event, members of the Brentwood community can stroll among the blooming peach trees while listening to Al’s contracted beekeeper and members of Dr. Frankie’s Bee team talk about Frog Hollow’s pollinator work. Each year more people sign up to tour Al’s beautiful orchards and learn about bees; in 2010 and 2011 over 60 people attended and in 2013 they received full registration of 100 people! This tremendously positive response is only more motivation for Al to continue helping pollinators.

When asked if he would do it all again, Al immediately responds, “Absolutely.”


Farmer Al examining some of the native bee specimens collected at Frog Hollow by Dr. Frankie's team.

Al’s Top Recommendations

  • Protect pollinator attractive plants from gophers. It will save a lot of time and money that would be dedicated to replacing plants.
  • "Just do it!" With the economic, environmental, and aesthetic benefits to farms, Al cannot think of a reason why other farmers should not adopt pollinator friendly practices.

 

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