Grassroots Advocacy in Washington State: A Success Story

Posted by Stacy on April 12, 2010

by Jackie Aitchison, Washington State Farmers Market Association

Last summer, the Millwood Farmers Market, hosted by the Millwood Presbyterian Church in Spokane, Washington, received quite a surprise when visited by an auditor from the

The University District Farmers Market

State Department of Revenue. The pastor of the church, Craig Goodwin, was informed that the property used for the farmers market could no longer receive tax exemption status since it was being used for the farmers market.

Pastor Goodwin contacted the WA State Farmers Market Association requesting our assistance in resolving this matter.  In working with 114 farmers markets in the State, the WSFMA became concerned for the six markets in the State being hosted by nonprofit property owners.  One of these markets is the University District, which has the highest gross sales for farmers in WA State.  This market is hosted by the University District Community Center, a 501c3. Taxing this property at a commercial rate would result in an increase of $60,000 for this nonprofit group.

At the same time as we became aware of this situation, the WSFMA was participating in the planning for a Legislative Tour of the University District Farmers Market. This market, along with six others, is directed by Chris Curtis, Executive Director for the Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance in Seattle. The objective of the legislative tour, which Chris did the heavy lifting to orchestrate, was to educate our legislators about the economic benefit of farmers markets for their communities, and to educate about the many challenges and barriers we all face. Since the nonprofit property issue had such serious financial ramifications for these markets, the timing of the tour was perfect.

Fortunately for the farmers market industry, Rep. Scott White attended the tour.  At the end of the tour he spoke with Chris Curtis and Joel Wachs, Board President for the WA State Farmers Market Association, and offered his help and assistance.  In October, a Farmers Market Task Force was formed and met with Rep. White, as well as staff for Sen. Kohl-Welles, and Rep. Kenney.

The task force included Wade Bennett of Rockridge Farm, Jackie Aitchison, Executive Director of WSFMA (me), Joel Wachs, WSFMA Board President, Chris Curtis, Executive Director ofNFMA, Mary Barrett, Operations Director for NFMA, Ellen Gray, Executive Director of WA Sustainable Food and Farming Network, and Mary Embleton, Executive Director of Cascade Harvest Coalition.

After a lively discussion of our need to include farmers markets for the property tax exemption, Rep. White offered to draft the legislation and sponsor it.  The timeline for getting this valuable work completed was beginning to move at a fast pace. The legislation would need to be ready to go by early December to be presented when the legislature met for their session planning.  An additional complication was that the 2010 legislative session was a short session, lasting only 60 days.

In early January, House Bill 2402, concerning a property tax exemption for property owned by a nonprofit organization and used for the purpose of a farmers market, was “dropped” into the process. The bill protected the nonprofit exemption (otherwise at jeopardy if operating an enterprise on their property ‘for pecuniary gain’) “if the property is used for activities related to a qualifying farmers market, as defined in RCW 66.24.170, for not more than fifty-three days each assessment year, and all income received from rental or use of the exempt property is used for capital improvements to the exempt property, maintenance and operation of the exempt property, or exempt purposes.”

The Legislative Task Force began the fast-paced scramble to get other legislators to sponsor the bill.  All of our networks and hot lines were activated to help get the job done. This effort was largely coordinated by Mary Barrett, Manager of Operations at the NFMA. Throughout the process there were hearings before various House committees, and then the process was repeated for the various senate committees. Wade Bennett of Rockridge Orchards testified at all the hearings about the importance of this bill for his farm and his employees.

If this bill did not pass, there was a good possibility that these farmers markets would have to close. Craig Goodwin of the Millwood Farmers Market, made the six hour drive to speak about how markets also increase access to healthful locally produced food for seniors, WIC clients, and SNAP users in their communities. In addition, the Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance coordinated with farmers Brent Olsen (Olsen Farms – Colville) Steve Hallstrom (LetusFarm – Oakville), Wade Bennett (Rockridge Orchards – Enumclaw)  and Jeff Herman (Cliffside Orchards – Kettle Falls) to travel to Olympia for testimony and to meet personally with their legislators.  (We also brought the ED of University Heights to that hearing).  Farmers traveled long distances and the NFMA reimbursed them for mileage and airfare to make this happen. Other testimony emphasized the various economic contributions farmers markets bring to their communities, which was only possible because several of our member markets fastidiously track their sales information. A lot was at stake.

The bill sailed through the House, where it was approved by a unanimous vote. But the bill looked to be in jeopardy once it got to the Senate, because it was not slated to be heard by the Senate Finance Committee, the last step to passage, in time to meet the bill cutoff deadline. Once again the team called in reinforcements for lobbying the committee to bring it to a vote. Finally, on the last day in the afternoon before the cutoff, the bill passed in the Senate by a vote of 46 to 1. And on March 25, Governor Christine Gregoire signed the bill into law.

The text of the official bill is available on-line http://apps.leg.wa.gov/documents/billdocs/2009-10/Pdf/Bills/House%20Passed%20Legislature/2402-S.PL.pdf.