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Beekeepers Sought USDA Support, Got Stung

Members Rejected Tax Association They Sought

The politics of honey, it turns out, is sticky.

Last month the government formally abandoned a program designed to promote made-in-America honey after the nation’s honey producers, who had initially proposed it, voted against it. 

The plan, sponsored by the American Honey Producers Association, was proposed about five years ago as domestic beekeepers struggled to compete with cut-rate foreign honey and their bees were mysteriously dying off.

Richard Adee, who runs one of the nation’s largest bee yards with about 3.6 billion (with a “b”) bees, led the charge, which would have added American honey to the products that the Agriculture Department helps market. The department levies a fee on producers of eggs, cheese and other products, using the proceeds for research and advertising to promote sales.

The mission should have been a slam-dunk with the right lawyers, lobbyists and constituent support. The Agriculture Department generally does not refuse a producer group’s request for marketing assistance. But five years and hundreds of thousands of dollars later, the honey project found only a quiet death in the annals of the federal register. 

The people who put honey on tables in American homes — the packagers, importers and beekeepers — have long grappled with what role the government should play in promoting their industry. Each groups’ disparate interests ebb and flow with market changes that move faster than federal programs can be established or disbanded. And beekeepers, it turns out, are hard to corral.

“A lot of beekeepers, they are just busy running their bees and they don’t grasp the full details of what’s going on behind the scenes,” said Randy Verhoek, the vice president of the producers organization. “They are just as independent as can be.”

In May 2007, Adee, who oversees the public policy agenda for the producers association, filed a proposal to create a producer-focused marketing program under the Department of Agriculture’s promotional and research program.

But Adee’s project yielded nothing but bitter feelings among industry players and suspicion surrounding the workings of Washington.

It was three years before the department got around to polling the producers — as required by law — to see whether they were willing to contribute 2 cents per pound of honey toward the program’s activities.

In the meantime, honey packers and importers had beaten the beekeepers to the punch, proposing and passing another federal board designed to promote the consumption of honey — including foreign honey, which accounts for about 60 percent of U.S. consumption. That committee charged the industry just 1 cent per pound.

While the domestic producers waited, honey prices soared, reaching a record high in 2010, $1.60 per pound, up 9 percent from 2009, according to the USDA. At those prices, marketing assistance was not as urgent for the producers.

So last spring when the government formally asked the beekeepers for final approval of the fee, they turned it down.

“It’s basically voting a tax on myself, and I pay enough taxes,” said Steven Coy,  owner of Coy’s Honey Farm in Arkansas. 

Despite the defeat of the proposal, the USDA billed the producers association $75,000 for the cost of holding the referendum. That came on top of fees the association owed the lobbyists and lawyers who crafted the proposal. Since 2004, the association has spent an average of $300,000 annually on lobbyists.

The honey producers blame the department for dragging its feet. And for all the “buy American” talk among lawmakers and the agencies they oversee, honey producers and their advocates are still wondering why the packer and importer proposal made it through the bureaucratic hurdles so much faster than their plan. 

“I’m feeling tired again just thinking about it,” said John Waits, the lobbyist who shepherded the producers’ association through the process. “It highlights some of the problems that you can encounter, believe me.”

The department said the delay, caused in part by negotiations over the 2008 farm bill, is unusual and that industries rarely vote against a project their own interest group proposed.

Adee, 75, followed his parents into the business — they sold honey during the Depression in order to supplement scant teachers’ salaries — and has become the producers’ ambassador to Washington, meeting frequently with lobbyists and attorneys. 

But not all honey producers are so politically engaged, which is one of the biggest challenges when it comes to advancing their interests.

“Basically, the producers are just on for the ride now” said Adee, noting that he’s still represented by a honey board dominated by importers and packers. “To have the industry turn it down, that was heartbreaking to me.” 

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