Amending law would help us all

Kenneth Crawford stopped milking cows in 2010 after he fell off of a silo on his Berne farm and broke his back. Three years later, as he nears the age of 80, he still works his farm; now, he raises milking cows to sell to dairy farms.

“I love it and I can’t stop,” he said. Good for him.

He’s lucky he doesn’t have to. He has a brother, a son, and a grandson who help him. Without his son’s paycheck and his grandson’s strength and commitment, “we probably wouldn’t last too long,” said Crawford. “You have to have outside income.”

The Crawford farm is about 65 acres but he and his grandson spend their summers bringing more money to the farm by baling about 400 acres of hay at 14 other farms.

This operation is sustained, in part, by agricultural exemptions.

The state enacted the worthwhile Agricultural Districts Law in 1971 and has amended it many, many times since to fit evolving needs. The law, which reduces the tax burden for farmers, helps farms like the Crawfords’ stay in business.

That benefits us all. Farmland preserves open space — the reason that many want to live in rural towns, as surveys for comprehensive land-use plans have frequently shown. But, beyond aesthetics, farmland is good for the environment and good for the economy.

Locally produced food reduces our carbon footprint since it doesn’t have to be transported far to sell. Working farms stimulate agriculture-related businesses.

We’ve frequently heard local residents — both in the Helderberg Hilltowns where the Crawfords’ farm is, and in the more suburban towns below the escarpment — say they’d like to increase their town’s tax base with commercial development.

The American Farmland Trust has conducted Cost of Community Services Studies across the nation over the last several years, comparing the cost in services used by residential development, commercial and industrial development, and working and open land.

“In every community studied, farmland has generated a fiscal surplus to help offset the shortfall created by residential demand for public services,” according to the report. The median cost per dollar of revenue raised by each class is 29 cents for commercial and industrial, 37 cents for working and open land, and $1.19 for residential development, according to the report.

The New York law that allows agricultural districts to be set up at the county level states its intent clearly: “It is hereby found and declared that many of the agricultural lands in New York state are in jeopardy of being lost for any agricultural purposes….The socio-economic vitality of agriculture in this state is essential to the economic stability and growth of many local communities and the state as a whole.”

We took note of a recent report from the state’s comptroller that showed more than a quarter of real property value in New York is exempt from county, city, and town property taxes — for a total value of $680 billion.

Government-owned property accounts for 41 percent, or $343 billion, of this total; followed by residential at 28 percent or $224 billion, the majority being for the School Tax Relief (STAR) program; 14 percent or $112 billion for churches, hospitals, and universities; 9 percent, or $76 billion, for industrial and commercial exemptions; and, finally, another 9 percent, or $73 billion, for agriculture, forest property, public subsidized housing, and other exemptions together.

Thus, the agricultural exemptions make up the smallest portion statewide and are well worth the investment.

In the Helderberg Hilltowns, Berne has 130 exemptions for a total value of $7.6 million; Knox has 138 exemptions for a value of $8.5 million, Westerlo has 83 for a value of $2 million, and Rensselaerville has 99 for a value of  $7.3 million.

These exemptions can make the difference between a farm staying in business or not.

One example is the Van Etten farm in Knox. The 300-acre farm was the fulfillment of a lifetime dream for Janice and George Van Etten. The couple met as students at Cornell’s ag school.

After they married in 1957, they saved their money, living on one salary, so they could buy a farm. In 1959, the Van Ettens traveled up the Hill to Knox in an old Model T to look at a farm for sale.

“We went putt, putt, putt up the Hill to God’s country, God being the only one that wanted it,” said Mrs. Van Etten with her characteristic wit.

The Van Ettens purchased the 200-acre property for $11,500.Twenty-one years later, they added another 100 acres of land that lay between their two parcels. “George said he put the farm back together,” said Mrs. Van Etten. There they raised cattle, chickens and pigs, and Christmas trees on the soil that was too poor to raise crops.

Mrs. Van Etten recalled of her husband, “He always said, ‘You never plant more trees than your wife can shear.’ He always called me his branch manager.”

Mr. Van Etten was hard-working and committed to his farm. As raccoon rabies worked its way up the East Coast in the early 1990s, Mr. Van Etten had perhaps the first rabid raccoon in the county at his farm. He killed it with a pitchfork.

“He was heading for my cow barn,” Mr. Van Etten said at the time. None of his 40 cattle were vaccinated for rabies. “I had to protect them,” he said.

Mr. Van Etten died in 2009. His widow continues to run the Christmas tree operation on the farm.

The law requires a farmer to gross $10,000 annually in order to receive the agricultural exemption. Mrs. Van Etten has priced her trees at $35 each this year and hopes to sell enough to meet that mark.

Otherwise, she said, she could lose the farm since she would have to pay much higher taxes, as if the land were building lots.

What’s to be done to keep an elderly farmer on her farm?

Of course we can all make the scenic trek to Knox to buy Christmas trees from Mrs. Van Etten, certainly appropriate in a season of good will. She has spent a good part of her life tending to other’s needs, from teaching school to hosting Fresh Air kids from the city.

But we believe a more permanent solution is needed. The law should be amended, as it has so many times in the past, this time to accommodate a situation like Mrs. Van Etten’s. We understand that a gross figure must be set to apply to most cases so that people with land who aren’t farmers can’t take advantage of the system.

But surely, there must be a way to craft an amendment that would let someone who has farmed her land for half a century or more to continue to do so with the exemption even if she can’t always meet the $10,000 mark.

Mrs.Van Etten planted those Christmas tree seedlings herself and was also proud of doing work on a tractor and other farm chores. She deserves to stay on her farm. A change in the law would not only benefit her but all of us — with beautiful open space; homegrown trees, not trucked in, not adding to our carbon footprint; less cost for taxpayers than homes built on those lots would incur; spin-off benefits to businesses since farm visitors might shop or dine at nearby Helderberg establishments.

The benefits would be similar if other elderly farmers across the state could stay on their land. We reap what is sown; we must plant the seed now of a more liberal law for a healthier future.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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