Bureau pushes bills targeting farmers

The Recorder, June 8, 2018, by Richie Davis

It was like old times on the Boston Common Friday, with young farmers and ranchers bringing their livestock for the Massachusetts Farm Bureau’s “Livestock on the Common” event, to show that agriculture is alive in the state.

The event was also an opportunity for the Farm Bureau, with nearly 6,000 member families, to show the public and legislators, that it’s bullish on legislative action that would help struggling farmers.

Among legislative priorities is a bill to establish an estate tax valuation for farmland that is not already under the Agricultural Preservation Restriction protection.

The state’s estate tax is levied when the value of an inherited estate exceeds $1 million, based on the “highest and best use” of the land — which for farmland is typically its housing or commercial development value. That puts farm families under pressure to develop the land rather than to continue to farm it, said Farm Bureau spokesman Brad Mitchell.

While there is already a federal exception for farmland, and APR land has already had its highest and best use defined as farmland, House Bill 3915 would calculate the value of farmland for estate tax purposes as its agricultural value. If the land is developed within 10 years, the owner would be responsible for back taxes.

The bill is now before the House Ways and Means Committee.

Massachusetts already allows dairy farmers to receive a refundable tax credit for periods when the cost of production exceeds what they’re paid for milk. While a House budget amendment for the coming year would raise that to $6 million, and House Bill 3908 would double the decade-old limit to $8 million, a Senate amendment to raise the credit was not passed, leaving it to a budget conference committee to come up with reconciliation.

“This is the only thing that’s keeping most dairy farmers going,” said Mitchell. “Milk prices have been down so long.”

Farm Bureau is also calling for limits to be placed on restrictions of the state’s APR Program, including reforms under Senate Bill 2285 to require that the state’s APR Board review changes in Department of Food and Agriculture policy to assure that APR owners are treated fairly, Miller said.

The organization also opposes two restrictions on how livestock are handled — Senate Bill 2285, which adds “livestock” to an existing law governing treatment of dogs, and would require that all livestock be provided a three-sided shelter. The second measure, House Bill 4050, limits to an advisory role a board of farmers, humane organizations and veterinarians that was established to address concerns such as livestock shelters.

The board, according to the Farm Bureau, was created to provide consensus in approving regulations — an intention that it says has been undermined in the proposal.

Finally, the Farm Bureau is calling for several zoning reform proposals designed to promote housing development to maintain a two-thirds voting requirement by local municipalities, rather than reducing it to a simple majority vote, since in many cases, the bureau says, the “natural resource protection zoning” proposals would effectively lower land values.

“For most farms, the value of the land is their primary asset,” maintains the farming organization. “They equity they have in their land is what they borrow upon to operate their business.”