We emerged from House Finance on Tuesday armed with a legislative direction for a study on small farm viability and the one acre issue. Then, on Thursday February 13th on the floor of the House, the study was amended onto HB 2306. HB 2306 is another important bill about current use. It wrestles with contemporary on-the-ground issues about the farming operation. Both bills identify problems that need solving, fairly soon. Merging the proposals makes perfect sense.
But why a study? This was a practical result dictated by an undercurrent haunting our legislative effort.
In short, we are still faced with that age old question “what is farming.” And a relatively new twist, which is “are small farmers real farmers.” The legislature is making the final decisions here. If they are worried, we need to listen.
Refresher: The reason we came to the legislature was to address unfairness in the property tax code for agricultural lands and farmers. The narrow issue addressed by HB 1437 is the assessment practice for the land around the residence of a small farm. Today a one acre administrative parcel (which is a fiction) is taken out of the farm and assessed at fair market value. Compare this to the rest of the farm, which is taxed at current use. (All structures are assessed at fair market value.) Then, contrast this to the assessment treatment for large farms, which are eligible for current use on the entire farm.
The current use value is meant to capture the highest and best use of this land – in other words, farming is the highest and best use of farm land. Taking a one acre piece out of the farm is plain goofy. It doesn’t make sense and it drives up costs for small farmers and, honestly, drives them off their land.
The opposition and concerns relate to assuring that only “real” farmers are eligible for the current use tax treatment. This is all very tricky to discuss because it is grounded in our own perspectives and viewpoints. That is why the study will be a welcome signpost along the road to enactment of current use reform. Nothing wrong with bringing information to the table.
So, who is a farmer and how does that look on small acreage. And how does that in turn meet the intent of the current use program. These are the questions the study will explore, which will shed light on the one acre issue and the question of how to qualify a farming operation that is spread across a number of noncontiguous parcels.
The real question of course is how to make sure we are thinking smart about agriculture so we have food for today and tomorrow.