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In support of farmers

Ag community speaks at Brattleboro Selectboard on farm tax stabilization program

BRATTLEBORO—The agricultural community will not take any chances during a budget season where all municipal programs, services, and jobs are on the table.

Farmers voiced favor for the town’s farm tax stabilization program to the Selectboard despite the program not being up for reconsideration at the board’s Dec. 3 meeting.

The tax stabilization program, according to farmers interviewed, waives a farm’s municipal property taxes, though farmers still must pay the education portion.

“It’s an example of people putting their money where their mouth is,” said Jay Bailey of Fair Winds Farm on Upper Dummerston Road, a member of the ad-hoc town Agricultural Advisory Committee.

“It’s nice to be in a parade,” said Ross Thurber of Lilac Ridge Farm in West Brattleboro, of the annual Strolling of the Heifers event aimed at honoring local agriculture. “But the tax [stabilization program] demonstrates a commitment” to protecting farms.

The farmers spoke with The Commons in separate interviews.

Interim Town Manager Patrick Moreland placed the tax program on the Dec. 3 meeting agenda to revise some program language.

“We have recently discovered that the guidelines are not in agreement with the practice outlined in the tax stabilization agreements,” wrote Moreland in the manager’s Dec. 3 administrative report. “I believe, if you examine the record from past Selectboard meetings, it will become clear that this is a simple oversight.”

Representative Town Meeting authorized the tax stabilization program in 1974. According to the administrative report, farms qualify for a 10-year stabilization agreement if two-thirds of the farmer’s gross income comes from farming. The farm must also consist of 10 acres or more.

Approximately 1,374 acres are under the farm tax stabilization program in Brattleboro.

Caitlin Burlett of Wild Carrot Farm, an Ag Committee member, said seven farms participate in the program.

“[Farming] is not just about getting your hands in the ground,” said Burlett.

Farmers are CEOs, marketing agents, CFOs, and maintenance crews, she said.

Burlett runs Wild Carrot Farm with husband Jesse Kayan and fellow farmers Ashlyn Bristle and Ben Crockett. Burlett and Kayan focus mostly on growing vegetables; Bristle and Crockett focus on milk cows and meat animals.

Property taxes would double for the four young farmers without the stabilization program, said Kayan. This increase would eat away Wild Carrot’s profit margin.

Wild Carrot Farm pays the taxes on land subleased from the Baileys. Jay and Janet Bailey in turn lease the 42-acre farm from the Earth Bridge Community Land Trust.

People laughed at Bailey and wife Janet when they started farming on Fair Winds Farm.

“Thirty-five years later, we’re still here and still happy,” he said.

Kayan said that the tax stabilization program is “not the sexy way” of supporting farmers, like a farmers’ market or parade, but it allows farmers to earn a living.

Southern Vermont prides itself on supporting farmers, he said, but the world of small farming is “a really difficult environment.”

Bailey, Burlett, and Kayan said the decision to protect farmland was an economic decision. Farm land costs a town less than residential land. Compared to a house, farmland requires fewer municipal services like paved roads, sewer, water, and schools.

According to a 2010 fact sheet from American Farmland Trust, although municipalities may not receive multiple tax dollars from agricultural land, towns shell out less money per acre in the form of municipal services or infrastructure.

The trust estimates for every tax dollar received per acre of farmland, a town spends 35 cents in municipal services. The amount rises to $1.16 a residential acre. Commercial or industrial land is the lowest per acre at 29 cents.

On its fact sheet, the trust writes that its Farmland Information Center is a clearinghouse for about farmland protection and stewardship. The FIC is a public/private partnership between the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and American Farmland Trust

“It just changes the way we view development,” said Bailey. “We think more carefully how we develop and keeping [building] clustered.”

Brattleboro considers itself an agricultural area, yet only 10 commercial farms operate within its boundaries, said Bailey.

The tax stabilization program also requires the farmland remain open for public recreation. The town retains the option of first refusal if the farmer decides to sell, said Kayan.

A lot of land that people take for granted as being public is actually farmland under the tax program, said Kayan.

Burlett said most Brattleboro farmers also provide educational opportunities by opening their farm for school field trips or taking interns from the Windham Regional Career Center.

“We belong to everybody who lives on the [Upper Dummerston] road,” said Bailey. “It’s quite nice.”

But, added Burlett, if the tax stabilization goes away, the increase in taxes could put some farmers out of business.

The price of local food is affected by the program, said Kayan.

A lot of public money subsidizes industrial farms, he said. Keeping property taxes down for local farmers helps ensure local food is accessible to as many residents as possible.

Lilac Ridge Farm in West Brattleboro has participated in the tax program for 40 years.

The Thurber family has farmed just under 600 acres since 1937, operating an organic dairy, vegetable retail sales from the on-site farm stand, sugar-making, and timber.

Property taxes would triple for Lilac Ridge without the tax stabilization program, said Ross Thurber, who runs Lilac Ridge with his business partner and wife, Amanda.

Should Lilac Ridge lose the tax stabilization contract, “it would be a devastating blow as far as economically for the farm,” said Thurber.

The town makes a small investment in farming through the tax stabilization program but reaps a huge return in the form of quality of life, recreational use, local products, and education opportunities, he said.

The Thurbers allow public access on the farm with hiking trails leading up Round Mountain. Ross Thurber has witnessed fencing practice on the land. Hunting is permitted. Amanda Thurber hosts school trips.

Ross Thurber argues that the town provides tax stabilization for new businesses like Commonwealth Dairy, what different about farms?

According to Stuart Thurber, Ross’ father, the tax stabilization program started before the state’s current use program. Brattleboro farmers in the 1970s fell under pressure when their land was valued more for expensive housing lots than for agricultural production.

Brattleboro was one of the first towns in Vermont to adopt a farm stabilization program, said Stuart Thurber, also a member of the ag committee.

Stuart Thurber has seen the farm tax program help farmers protect their already-tiny profit margins by creating stability for the farms’ ledger sheets.

Turning a profit is “doable, yes; but nobody’s making a large profit,” he said.

In his administrative report, Moreland also suggested the board consider recommending to Town Meeting Members repurposing the $95,169 in the Agricultural Land Protection Fund.

According to Moreland, Meeting Members approved the revolving loan fund in 1985 to serve as a lender of last resort to farmers seeking to protect local farmland from development. The fund has only been used twice, by two different farmers, and the fund is underutilized.

According to Bailey, the monies are useful because they serve as bridge loans for farmers acquiring land. But, he said, there’s little open land in Brattleboro for farms to expand.

“These types of support structures are very helpful to the community,” if it values food and farming, said Bailey.

Farming, however, always has political ramifications in Bailey’s eyes.

“If it’s related to food, it’s related to politics in many ways,” Bailey said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #232 (Wednesday, December 4, 2013). This story appeared on page A7.

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