Bad times for the good earth

By D.C. DENISON  |  August 11, 2009

* * *

Massachusetts farmers, like most farmers, are an independent lot. John Burns, with a suspicion of everything other than his ability to plant and harvest, is typical. Yet in hard times, it's really too facile to blame their troubles on the government. In fact, it's safe to say that in a free market, without any federal and state support (in the form of advice, loan programs, and tax relief), even the most resourceful farmers would be hard-pressed to make ends meet. Government farming officials may not have dirt under their fingernails, as Burns contends, but their importance to Massachusetts farmers is undeniable.

The federal government, for example, provides each county in Massachusetts with a host of free services: a county Extension Office gives technical advice to farmers on subjects as diverse as tree pruning and tomato management; a Farmer's Home Finance Administration Office offers financing for farm purchases or expansion, soil and water improvements, and emergency assistance; the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service designs conservation projects, provides crop insurance and, in certain cases, crop subsidies; and the Soil Conservation Service researches soil, water and woodlands and helps to design working farm plans.

At the state level, the Massachusetts Food and Agriculture Department wears many hats. For years it was known as a regulatory agency, chiefly concerned with hog cholera, dairy-farm inspections, bovine tuberculosis and the like. Lately, however, the department has taken an active advocacy role on behalf of the state's farmers. "It used to be that the department meant two things to a farmer: inspection and taxes," according to commissioner Frederic Winthrop Jr. "We still do all those things, of course, but now we're trying to encourage the farmer as well."

Recently the department has put its considerable weight behind two very important pieces of legislation. The first of these, the Farmland Assessment Act (Chapter 61A, Massachusetts General Laws), enacted in 1973, took a great deal of tax pressure off farmers by permitting farm land to be assessed and taxed at its farm value instead of at "houselot" or other development values. As a result, if a farmer owns a vegetable farm in Concord, his land is valued for tax purposes between $170 and $260 per acre instead of the higher Concord property rates.

More recently, the Agricultural Preservation Restriction Act (Chapter 780 of the Acts of 1977) addressed the problem of preserving productive farm land in the face of developer pressure to sell. Under the act, which was signed into law on December 1, 1977, farmers can voluntarily apply to give up the right to develop their land for non-agricultural uses. In return, the state pays the farmer the difference between the agricultural value of the land and its full market value. The farmer makes the same profit he would make if he sold out to a developer, but the land remains farm land.

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  Topics: Flashbacks , Michael Dukakis, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Robert Burns,  More more >
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