"When I go to conferences, there's never a queue for the women's bathroom!" So says female almond grower and hobbyist beekeeper Christine Gemperle, for whom farming is in her blood. As the daughter to a man who has been farming almonds since the early 1970s, Christine grew up around hard work and labour, and so when she got the opportunity to set up her own operations alongside her brother Erich in 1997, she jumped at the chance.
From an outsider's point of view, the world of farming is thought to be heavily dominated by men. Whilst Christine's comments about conferences may prove that to be true, there are incredible women just like her who are paving their own way in the industry, and inspiring others to do the same.
We joined Christine at her almond blooms in California, where she explained: "[About eight years ago] I started going to the conferences and getting involved in the industry and initially I was a little bit overwhelmed. I was like, ‘God, it’s all guys here!’; I felt like people maybe overlooked me and thought I didn’t know what I was talking about, and the truth is I didn’t know what I was talking about! But, I caught on really quick.
"Number one thing – never think you know everything, because then you can’t learn anything at all. So I took that perspective and went forward and I would just go in and ask people anything, I didn’t care, I just wanted the information. I think they respected that."
Despite her initial trepidation, Christine says that she is treated well by the majority of men in her field.
“It’s a really great industry to be in as a female,” she says. “I find that a lot of these guys in this business are pretty enlightened when it comes to it, and respectful, absolutely. I’m proud of our boys. There’s always gonna be the ‘good old boys’, but they’re like 70, and you deal with that!”
Of the “enlightened” men however, Christine adds: “They’re pretty progressive. I don’t know if that’s because it’s California – we’re a little bit different out here – but there’s a lot of women in our industry. The chairman of the Almond Board is a woman! Gosh, go through the offices at the Almond Board, there are tonnes of women, they’re working and they all come from farming families and they are very well-educated. “That’s another thing in this business. As a female, usually the women that are really the standouts in the business are incredibly well-educated women. It’s nice to be a part of that, I have to say.”
Christine also recognises that without bees, there would be no almonds. That's why, alongside her work as a full-time grower, she's a hobbyist beekeeper.
Having just finished potting up her last jars of honey for the season, Christine explained how she and other farmers like her work with the bees to make the most out of what both have to offer to one another. The first thing that bees consume in California at the start of the year is almonds, which provide all 10 of the essential amino acids that the friendly little helpers need! It's a brilliant cycle of giving and getting back, and so growers such as Christine do their all to ensure the good health of their miniature workers.
"I look at the relationship between beekeepers and almond farmers as symbiotic in many ways," Christine says. "Being a hobbyist beekeeper as well as an almond farmer enables me to see issues from both sides. Over the years, we have changed our farming practices and planted forage to promote bee health and nutrition because, at the end of the day, stronger hives can produce bigger crops."
The number of honey bee hives across the United States is currently at a 20-year high, though beekeepers are still experiencing some significant in-season losses. The Almond Board of California is continuing to fund research into delving deeper into these areas, helping to combat the threats that bees are facing.