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Beekeepers call for revision of Kentucky Proud requirements

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By Kacie Goode

Kentucky beekeepers are becoming some of the loudest critics of a program aimed at promoting Kentucky products. The Kentucky Proud label that has been promoted for the past several years is misleading to consumers, they say, but it could take changing the law to ease their concerns.

“What’s happening is most people aren’t aware — and we want to make them aware — that just because it says Kentucky Proud does not mean that the product is from Kentucky,” said Susan Zhunga, a beekeeper from Cox’s Creek.

Zhunga serves as treasurer of the Nelson County Beekeepers, and said the membership requirements are something honey producers in the county and across the state have really taken issue with.

The application for Kentucky Proud states, “membership is limited to those who produce or directly serve in a marketing capacity of Kentucky-grown agriculture products.” But the law defines a Kentucky-grown agriculture product as any agriculture product grown, raised, produced, processed or manufactured in Kentucky.

It is the “processed or manufactured” phrasing that has some locals on edge, believing an individual or company could potentially bring in a product, such as honey, from another state or country, process it in Kentucky and have a Kentucky Proud eligible product.

Rick Sutton, president of the Kentucky State Beekeepers Association, said part of the issue is that allowing out-of-state honey to be labeled as Kentucky Proud introduces more competition in an already competitive market for local beekeepers.

“We make as good of honey as anywhere in the country, but production is lower and it costs more to produce it here,” Sutton said. “It really puts the Kentucky beekeeper at a disadvantage.”

Another issue Sutton sees with allowing out-of-state honey is that many consumers look to purchase local honey to potentially ease their seasonal allergies.

“They think if they eat Kentucky Proud honey, they are eating Kentucky honey,” when that’s not always the case, he said.

It’s that misconception that has sparked a call for change from locals.

“We work so hard to get honey here in Kentucky, and then to have somebody come along, bring in a barrel from Canada, Taiwan or Vietnam and bottle it and then compare it to Kentucky Proud, it’s upsetting,” Zhunga said.

But getting the changes they want is going to mean working closely with the state’s Department of Agriculture and legislators.

“I met with the State Beekeepers Association back on the first Saturday in June, and from that, they decided to create a small group to work on this issue and other small legislative issues,” beekeepers want to address, said Keith Rogers, chief of staff for Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles.

Sutton and a few other beekeepers from around the state are taking part in that group, which met Monday, to discuss Kentucky Proud definitions and look at “laying some groundwork” to make changes to the program.

“There are some things going on and some conversations taking place,” Rogers said. “Exactly what type of changes and policy come of this, it’s too early to know.”

While the requirements are upsetting beekeepers, Rogers said the definitions are not just for honey, but for all products, and other agriculture groups have raised the issue previously.

Last year, the University of Kentucky’s student newspaper, The Kentucky Kernel, wrote about concerns with the program when Aramark included Coca-Cola in its “local purchases” to meet a $1.2 million quota for Kentucky Proud products.

At the time, John-Mark Hack, executive director of the Local Food Association, was critical of Kentucky Proud and cited membership of companies like Coca-Cola as part of the problem, according to The Kentucky Kernel’s article from 2016.

But agriculture leaders noticed the issue long before that article published. A 2007-2014 evaluation of Agricultural Development Board investments cited concerns when it came to a lack of Kentucky-grown ingredients and the discrepancy between Kentucky-grown and Kentucky-processed.

That same summary recommended creating a rating system that would identify products born, raised, processed and marketed by a Kentucky company with four stars, while a product made in Kentucky, but not with in-state ingredients, would receive one star.

Seeing such as system created — particularly for honey — is something Sutton says could be included in what his group brings before the state.

“It would be under Kentucky Proud, but it may say ‘Kentucky certified honey,’” and producers would have to show proof of hives, location and possibly do a pollen analysis to receive that certification. “We are looking at a couple of other states that have that certified honey.”

Sutton said his group plans to meet again in August.

If legislative changes need to be introduced to the General Assembly, Rogers said, there is a possibility that could be done in January.

Until those changes can be made, however, locals want consumers in Kentucky to take a closer look at the products they buy.

“If they are picking up something stamped Kentucky Proud, they need to know where it’s coming from,” Zhunga said. “You need to ask the question, ‘Is this product truly from Kentucky?’ ”