Washington’s newest official farm livestock has wings, not hooves, and travels in swarms, not herds or flocks.
A change in state law this month officially designates beekeepers as farmers, something the industry has sought for years. It’s not an idle change in title. It makes beekeepers eligible for the same tax exemptions as those who farm the crops their bees pollinate. Before that, they were classified under state tax code as a service, like doctors or lawyers.
The change just makes sense, said Bob Arnold, a Deer Park beekeeper: “We have all the problems of agriculture.”
That includes being dependent on the weather and other conditions out of their control and dealing in products like honey that depend on market prices.
They are also key to many other farmers’ success, providing the pollination their crops need, said Spokane Valley beekeeper Jerry Tate, a past president of the state Beekeepers Association. “We’re the right-hand man to every orchardist.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture considers beekeepers farmers for certain federal programs, and most states’ laws follow suit. But Washington tax law listed them under the service category.
A section tucked into tax law changes that were part of the 2015-17 operating budget declares beekeepers to be farmers and extends to them certain sales tax and business and occupation tax exemptions that other farmers in Washington have available. For example, beekeepers no longer pay sales tax on syrup to feed their colonies, just as ranchers don’t pay sales tax on cattle feed. Pollinator services that have at least $10,000 in annual business get the same exemption from the B&O tax as a wheat farmer or apple orchardist.
Other changes in the law mean backyard beekeepers won’t pay taxes on the sales of their products, including honey, beeswax, queens, and packages of honeybees.
“My wife and I fought for 35 years to get this changed. It boiled my blood from day one,” said Eric Olson, of Olson’s Honey in Yakima. Despite the name of the business, he’s primarily a pollinator service, the largest in the Northwest with more than 18,000 hives.
His bees start the year in California for the almond crop, spend March in Central Washington with the fruit orchards, move on to Northwest berry crops, then seed crops like canola, onions and carrots around the Columbia Basin.
“All summer long, we’re moving them around,” Olson said. “I’ve got 16 trucks on the road every day.”
In the fall, they go into controlled atmospheric storage, similar to apples in a warehouse, where the level of carbon dioxide is raised slightly and the oxygen level dropped slightly. The queen bees stop laying and activity drops.
“We put ’em to bed,” he said.
When Olson started in 1980, there were more than 40 large commercial pollinators in Washington; now there are about 10, Olson said. The number of beekeepers who do pollinating as a sideline also has dropped.
That’s largely because the taxes Washington beekeepers had to pay made them less competitive than those from other states if they passed those costs on to customers, or cut profits if they tried to absorb them, said Mark Emrich, current president of the Washington State Beekeepers Association.
“It wasn’t bringing in all that much money to the state, but it was a big deal to us,” Emrich said. A fiscal note on the legislation estimated the state would give up about $85,000 a year in taxes from beekeepers.
The Legislature had approved temporary exemptions for beekeepers from some taxes over the last decade, but that meant returning to Olympia every few years to fight for the extension’s renewal. This year, Olson and other beekeepers found a supporter in Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, who introduced a bill to make them permanent.
“The fact is bees are an essential part of agricultural production in our state,” Honeyford told the Senate Ways and Means Committee. “I don’t know why it’s not considered part of agriculture.”
The change was made as the public grows more concerned about the loss of honeybees through colony collapse and what Olson describes as a huge surge in interest about beekeeping.
“Honeybee classes are full. Hundreds of folks are getting a hive or two,” he said.
They won’t be able to take advantage of most of those business tax breaks but they will be spared taxes on some supplies like the syrup they might need to feed their bees.
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