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Changes in the air for honey industry

Patrick Guzzle, the Idaho Food Protection program manager for the state Department of Health and Welfare, inadvertently set off a minor storm of concern when he gave his first-ever talk last month about his department’s rules for hobbyist beekeepers.

Guzzle was asked to speak to honey producers at the annual meeting of the Idaho Honey Industry Association in December. He says all he did was reiterate rules that have been on the books for as long as he can remember about who can sell honey and where.

But his talk, and its retelling among beekeepers, set off rumors that the state is cracking down on hobbyists who sell their honey in an unauthorized manner.

That’s just one of many minor tempests shaking the world of Idaho beekeeping these days.

This month the House and Senate Agriculture Committees passed new rules imposing the state’s first standards on the content and quality of all honey sold in Idaho stores. The rules, developed by the industry and the state Department of Agriculture, go into effect on the last day of the legislative session.

Meanwhile, hobbyist beekeeping is on the rise in Idaho and elsewhere. It’s the latest iteration of a back-to-the land movement that has also landed many chicken coops in urban backyards.

There’s also a new interest in raw honey as a healthier alternative to sugar. Many people believe local raw honey can serve as an antidote to allergies.

Reflecting all this hobbyist interest, the Treasure Valley Beekeepers Club is applying for non-profit status, and this month elected a new president, or “chief drone,” Chad Dickinson, who by day is a manager at Lochsa Engineering. The Idaho Department of Agriculture estimates there are hundreds of hobbyist beekeepers, those who have 49 colonies or fewer.

Idaho already has a serious commercial beekeeping economy. The Idaho Department of Agriculture registers only commercial honey producers, and there are 100 of those, with more than 150,000 bee colonies among them. Not only do the bees produce honey, but they pollinate Idaho’s many crops, a vital job in a state in which agriculture makes up more than 5 percent of the GDP.

Depending on the year, Idaho is the 10th or 11th largest honey producer in the country.

Neither commercial nor hobbyist beekeepers are complaining about the new standards under review by lawmakers. They were prompted by a lawsuit in Vermont over fake maple syrup, and are aimed at stopping honey producers from adding substances like high-fructose corn syrup to the honey and selling it as the real thing.

But the state Health Department’s perceived crackdown on home-based honey producers has some beekeepers worried.

Health Department policy is that home beekeepers must bottle their honey in a commercial-grade kitchen that can be inspected. A commercial kitchen is out of the reach of the very small-scale honey producers, those with just a colony or two of bees in the backyard.

The rule isn’t new. It has been on the books so long that Guzzle can’t even say when it was codified. And it applies to other goods such as jam, jelly, baked goods, and syrup that are often made on a small scale.

Beekeepers say Health and Welfare is getting more serious about enforcement, even though Guzzle says the number of inspections hasn’t changed. Guzzle thinks rumors of a crackdown erupted after his talk, though he can’t think of anything he said to prompt the alarm.

Details of the reported crackdown are unclear; many beekeepers say they’ve heard they can’t even sell honey to a neighbor anymore.

The beekeepers are a cautious crew, and those who spoke to me of the new Health and Welfare “militancy” wouldn’t reveal their names. One said he used to sell jars of his home-raised honey regularly at a store down the street. When he learned that the Health Department was starting to get serious about enforcing its rules, he had to quit.

And he said he beekeepers have been informed by farmers markets that they won’t be welcomed back without a certificate from Health and Welfare.

Guzzle says that’s not true, and now he’s trying to set the record straight. Health and Welfare doesn’t inspect honey producers who sell directly to the consumer, whether they’re handing the jar to a co-worker or leaning across the table at a farmers market to make change. But if the honey ends up at the grocery store, the regulations kick in. That’s because grocery stores are required to get their wares from approved sources.

Dickinson’s not concerned about the burst of honey-related regulation. He likes to see the state setting up rules governing flavored or adulterated honey. He himself only sells jars of honey to friends and family, and he says most of his club members fall into the same category.

Rick Waitley, who has lobbied for the Idaho honey industry since 2009,  likes seeing the rise in backyard beekeeping. He says it has no effect on his industry, which among other things ships millions of bees to California to pollinate that state’s huge almond groves every year. But he has a deep respect for the worker bees, whether they toil for the professional or for the hobbyist.

“One third of our food supply in the world comes from pollination,” he said. “We really do rely on bees.”

Anne Wallace Allen is managing editor of the Idaho Business Review.


About Anne Wallace Allen

Anne Wallace Allen is the editor of the Idaho Business Review.