The Inner Cover

The 2018 ABF Meeting

By: Kim Flottum

Kim Flottum

The ABF celebrated their 75th Anniversary this year at their meeting in January in Reno, Nevada. So a bit of history, and comment, is due . . .

ABF stands for American Beekeeping Federation, a national organization that originally, and still has as members all and anybody in any business that works with, for, or supports the beekeeping industry. That includes commercial, sideline and backyard beekeepers, beekeeping equipment manufacturers, queen and package bee producers, honey producers, honey packers, honey producer/packers, honey co-ops, honey exporters, honey handlers, and honey importers. Everybody and anybody that has something to do with honey bees and honey bee products, no matter how distant they are from a beeyard. All come together under one umbrella.

The ABF, after a few initial starts, was formed in 1942, working to protect beekeepers from sugar and wood shortages during the war, and to organize beeswax production for the armed services, among other reasons. There was also some work done to help beekeepers do better with packers price-wise because making a living was tough at the prices they were being paid.

At those early meetings policies were discussed and decided and eventually proposed to whatever government agency oversaw the course of the policy. Things like import duties or quotas, what got taxed and what didn’t and the like were worked on. Beekeepers in the organization, not unlike a lot of commodity groups, were a lot of small, separate, often divided individual voices while the far fewer, much larger, richer and more connected processors were louder, better organized and better able to come together.

Like almost all agricultural relationships, those that produce the – take your pick – beef, pork, chicken, milk, corn, beans, vegetables, fruit, nuts, berries, grains, fish and nearly everything else you eat or drink are hardly ever the same people as those that process and ultimately sell the finished product. So beekeepers make honey, sell it to packers who process, bottle, label and sell it to, or do that for the ultimate retailer, who sells it to your mom at the grocery store, or to a bakery or other food processor who uses it in their final products.

Beekeepers also make bees but these, whether as boxes of bees, packages or queens, or in boxes rented for pollination, are almost always direct sales. Sometimes a middleman gets in the system buying and reselling packages and queens. There’s essentially never more than one person between the original bee producer and the final bee user.

When it comes to honey however, every step between beekeeper and the final customer, whether packer, handler, processor, or even another beekeeper – every step between beehive and end user has a bit of cost added to that final price, and the original beekeeper is always at the bottom of that price ladder. And all of them are in the same dance as the honey importer, who gets his honey from beekeepers off shore almost always at a price cheaper than from a beekeeper next door.

Over the years many programs have been explored by ABF. In the late 60s a mandatory promotion program was suggested, that, after a very bumpy road became the National Honey Board in the mid-80s. This board, like many other commodity boards collected money from producers (beekeepers in this case) at the time of a honey sale (1 cent/pound to a packer who handed it over to the USDA), and used the money to promote the sale of that honey. The intent was that increased demand would drive up the price and both beekeepers and packers would be better off. It was the trickle down approach. The promotions worked very well and as expected demand, and price, for honey went up, but to fill much of that demand, packers and handlers used cheaper imports rather than buy more expensive domestic honey. Domestic beekeepers didn’t benefit nearly as much as domestic packers.

In the early 70s the pesticide indemnification program was put in place to compensate beekeepers for losses due to pesticide sprays. As you might imagine, there was a sudden huge increase in bee losses to sprays, and the program didn’t last long.

The mid 70s saw the honey loan program put in place, similar to other commodity loan programs. This allowed a beekeeper to put his honey under USDA loan for a price higher than the going price at harvest, when seasonal prices were at their lowest, giving the beekeeper working capital for next season expansion. When prices increased, the beekeeper would repay the loan, with interest, and sell the crop for more than they could have when there was a lot of honey to be sold.

So what you had was a large group of individual beekeepers trying to get as much for their honey as they could to stay in business, join together with a group of processors trying to pay as little as possible for the honey they were buying. You can guess what eventually happened. In 1969 they went their separate ways, of course. So now, at an ABF meeting there are sub-meetings of packers and dealers, vendors (think bee supply companies), scientists, commercial, sideline and hobby beekeepers, pollinators (the keepers, not the bees), honey handlers, honey importers, bee breeders, package producers and regulators.

That group of people who went the other way? They formed another national association and became The American Honey Producers Association, the AHPA for short. To become a member you had to make at least 51% of your income selling honey you actually made. You could produce packages or queens, and back then more of them did, or pollinate crops (a much smaller part of most operations back then), but mostly honey was the name of the game. And they worked to make regulations, taxes, rules and the like come to be that protected them from below cost, cheap imported honey, from payment fraud, from adulterated honey and more. They also worked on agricultural practices that were harmful – think pesticide losses – and beneficial for the farmer – think set aside land for forage.

At an AHPA meeting there aren’t nearly as many sub-meetings because it’s almost all, and only, commercial beekeepers attending. Over the years the focus on honey production has softened because of unabated cheap imports that now have fully 80% of the honey consumption market. The pressure to keep bees alive because of mite treatments has reduced production, and the continued decline in forage turned to corn, beans and development has put a crunch on honey too. Today, for both groups actually, the tide has turned to producing bees for pollination.

The ABF meeting is large usually. Perhaps 500 – 600 attendees most years. And because all that’s going on it’s complicated so they have hired a meeting planning company to organize the week-long event. They focus on location, schedules, promotion, registration and fund raising. From an outsider’s point of view it’s the constant fund raising that gets in the way. If I were to guess, they work on a commission basis – the more sponsors, vendors, advertisers and donors they get to give dollars, the more they get paid. But even if not, this focus, and by default the ABF’s, distracts from and interferes with the meeting production.

They work to raise money, and they work to keep expenses down, so they don’t cover speaker’s expenses, let alone any fees. It’s looked upon as a career enhancement I’m told. That out of pocket opportunity is going to move their speakers right up the corporate ladder I guess.

Because I was responsible for large meetings while at EAS, and fairly large while at Ohio State Beekeepers, I have a feel for how meetings work. ABF had a great meeting, but it wasn’t promoted well because you had no idea who was going to be speaking. They published the generalized schedule – you know what time of day lunch was – but I couldn’t find a speaker list anywhere until I got there. I looked on the web page, in their newsletter and even on the Casino’s web page. There wasn’t a list anywhere I could find. But I found it while at the meeting, on the web page. I don’t know how long it was there that I missed it.

Another part of my experience is being able to count heads. The American Bee Research Conference – our honey bee scientists – co-met with ABF this year (one of the sub-meetings), and their sessions were constantly standing room only in a room holding maybe 250. The rest of the class rooms were never full, and occasionally barely there. So my guess at 5 – 600 may be high. But it was a casino, so maybe everybody was somewhere else. I have to add one item to this however. The conference schedule was on their web page, but not screaming at me and I  missed it, so didn’t have a heads up on the schedule. If I were to offer some advice, I’d suggest they promote the program as directly and up front as they do their webinar series each month. That I always see.

Picky things aside, both AHPA and ABF move the industry forward in their own ways. We would be worse off without them, but the topic of the day at this meeting was 50% colony losses being normal and $0.39/ lb. honey by the tanker load lined up outside. Bee Culture’s estimate of a honey crop this year being under 100 million pounds is going to be right on I think. So forward seems to be one step ahead on one front and two back on another. And that’s too bad.

The vendor area for the ABF meeting was huge again this year, holding nearly 75 vendor booths. As usual, some booths were huge, with many tables and lots of big pieces of equipment. Most were a single table, but there were a lot of them. A meeting like this draws pretty much most people selling whatever it is bees and there were several businesses there I had yet to hear of. Interestingly, there were several outfits with electronic gear, both hardware and software. Distant monitoring is going to be the future, and for some it’s here already. ‘Beekeeping in the cloud’ was the theme in the vendor area, if not in the class rooms, and it is kind of exciting to be around and watch the progress.

Bee Culture took to the cloud again in the vendor area, like we did at the EAS meeting last Summer. We did a live FaceBook interview on Friday morning of 15 of these vendors that took about an hour to do. Bee Culture’s FaceBook page has over 19,000 followers and by the end of the day on Monday over 7,400 of them had watched the video of that event that FaceBook saves (you can see it yourself on our FB page by clicking on videos), and they had sent it along to friends to watch, and that added another 44,000 people seeing the interviews. That’s over 50,000 viewers, which is a tad scary if you think about it. It’s live when you do it, and you have to live with whatever happens. And stuff happens. One of the vendors had planned on having a certain spokesperson as the person to be interviewed and when we got to the booth she wasn’t there yet because we were early. The person at the booth was talking to a customer, and by gosh, commerce and customer service come first, and he didn’t stop. I applaud him for that. So we moved on to the next in line and came back a bit later. Like I said, it was live and stuff happens.

It’s been a tough Winter so far in a lot of places. As soon as you can check those bees. They’re gonna be hungry and you’re in charge. Get to work.