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Court ruling pleases beekeepers, raises questions

By Marilyn Bay Wentz

September 8 was a good day for Rocky Mountain Farmers Union (RMFU) member Paul Hendricks and his fellow—albeit few—Colorado beekeepers. It is the day the Colorado legal system decided that honeybees are agricultural animals.

The status of Colorado’s honeybees as agricultural became final when the Colorado Supreme Court said it would not hear an appeal from the state of an earlier Court of Appeals decision that honeybees are agricultural.

The decision was important to beekeepers for several reasons. First, it legitimized them as part of the agricultural sector. Perhaps more importantly, the land on which the beehives reside can be classified “agricultural.” This has the potential of saving landowners who choose to have bees on their land a lot of money on property taxes.

Hendricks believes landowners will seek out beehives for the tax savings.

The suit that classified bees as agricultural was brought by a landowner in Castle Rock, where Hendricks has some of his beehives. The plaintiff’s tax bill, which was assessed at over $8,000 in 2002 as a commercial property, should drop to just $419 per year now that the land in question will be considered agricultural.

Both Colorado beekeepers and tax appraisers agree that the new ruling is unlikely to result in a rush of people buying beehives. But, Hendricks says, it could make his hives a little more valuable.

So, what is a farmer?

The recent decision by Colorado’s Supreme Court, which designates honeybees as agricultural, again raises the question of what constitutes a farm, and who is defined as a farmer or rancher.

Let’s consider the farm investor who owns thousands of acres of farmland but lives in downtown Santa Fe or Denver. The closest he gets to his farm is driving the field roads in his flawlessly painted, four-wheel drive pick-up. Although he may write “farmer” as one of his occupations on his 1040 tax form, he is generally not the primary focus of most RMFU advocacy programs.

Most would agree that the family whose primary occupation is farming is a major focus of RMFU. But how many of these farms or ranches, particularly those operated by younger families, exist today? The more likely scenario is a husband who works at the co-op and a wife who is a secretary at the school. Somewhere in between, the couple manages to farm 350 acres and tend to their 100-cow operation.

It is also difficult to define a farmer by the size of the operation or the dollar value of the production sold.

A large greenhouse with year-round vegetable production that is directly marketed to consumers may take only one acre of land but is likely to require a great deal of labor from the owner-operator. Yet, if you try to define a career farmer by a minimum gross sales amount or a minimum number of acres, the greenhouse probably would not qualify.

On the other hand, gross sales and the amount of acreage required for a producer with ten head of cattle would exceed that of the vegetable grower. While Rocky Mountain Farmers Union does not seek to ignore the concerns of any category within the agricultural sector, I do not believe we can effectively serve all agricultural producers. As an organization that advocates for “family farmers and ranchers,” we need to debate this issue and decide who it is that we represent.

Once this has been established, it will be much easier to decide RMFU’s position on issues such as whether or not we endorse landowners being able to put out beehives to have their land zoned agricultural. As RMFU’s media relations point person, I’m surprised that in light of the Sept. 8 court decision classifying bees as agricultural, we have not yet received a call asking for our position on this. But, it will come, and we need to be prepared to respond.