Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation Priorities For The 2017-2018 Legislative Session

FARM BUREAU SUPPORTS THE FOLLOWING BILLS:

HB 3915 – An Act to establish estate tax valuation for farms

  • Massachusetts has an estate tax that is levied when the value of an inherited estate exceeds $1 million. The estate tax is based on the “highest and best use” of the land. For farmland this is typically its development value, rather than its agricultural value.
  • This is a challenge for many inheriting farmland who want to continue to farm the land rather than develop it. Often, they do not have cash on hand to pay the estate tax and are forced to sell some or all the land to do so. This is contrary to the intent of several state laws and programs intended to preserve farmland.
  • This bill would calculate the value of the farmland for estate tax purposes at its agricultural value. If the land is developed within 10 years, the owner would be responsible for back-taxes.
  • Currently in the House Committee on Ways and Means.

HB 3908 – An Act relative to the dairy farm tax credit

  • Dairy farming in New England is challenging financially, with the cost of producing milk sometimes exceeding the price paid to dairy farmers. The price paid to these farmers is dictated by federal programs.
  • Under Massachusetts law, dairy farmers are allowed a refundable tax credit for periods of time when the cost of production exceeds the price of milk.
  • The law currently limits the total amount allocated annually toward the credit to $4 million. Unfortunately, this has been insufficient. This bill would increase the limit to $8 million.
  • Currently in the House Committee on Ways and Means.

Cranberries – This is a difficult time for cranberry production in the Commonwealth as the industry is in a prolonged period of very low prices. Prices will eventually rebound, but this “down time” offers some opportunities to strengthen this sector of the Massachusetts farm economy. Two bills in particular would be helpful:

HB 4067 – Act relative to a cranberry bog renovation tax credit.

  • Many bogs in Massachusetts are older. They are less productive and efficient than newer plantings and have less desirable varieties of cranberries than the global marketplace is requiring. Renovating a bog takes a lot of money and several years to get an initial crop. Periods of low prices are good times to renovate bogs. However, this is also when growers are low on funds and have trouble securing loans. This bill would help address this dilemma by providing a tax credit to growers who invest in bog renovations. Renovated bogs also use less water, so it is better for the environment. This bill is currently in the House Committee on Ways and Means.

HB 2152 – An act relative to a cranberry wetland mitigation bank.

  • Some cranberry growers will stop farming or reduce acreage because of the current price issues. This bill would allow them to offer their bogs as wetland mitigation areas to developers who impact on wetlands elsewhere. This would provide some income to the landowner, while still ensuring that the land remains open and undeveloped.

APR Reform – Farm Bureau supports Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR) but has serious concerns about the administration of the program by Massachusetts Department of Agriculture (MDAR). A recent survey of APR owners shows that a third of respondents are concerned with how the program is run. Of particular concern are increasing restrictions put on APR properties – few of which are detailed in the enabling legislation. Many APR owners feel that the restrictions conflict with the ability of a farm to be viable in the current marketplace. Farm Bureau is looking for reforms, which:

  • Change vague and subjective language in the APR law concerning restrictions;
  • Provide adequate checks and balances on regulations and policies adopted by DAR to ensure that APR owners are treated fairly; and
  • Ensure that policies and regulations are debated in an open and transparent setting.

FOR THESE REASONS, FARM BUREAU SUPPORTS AMENDING SB 2175 TO INCORPORATE THESE NEEDED CHANGES

SB 2175 – An act to reforming agricultural preservation restrictions.

  • This bill is currently in Senate Ways and Means and is an excellent vehicle by which the above goals can be achieved.

FARM BUREAU OPPOSES THE FOLLOWING BILL

SB 2285 – An Act enhancing the issuance of citations for cruel conditions for animals

  • MFBF supports humane treatment of livestock but strongly opposes this bill. The bill simply adds the term “livestock” to a section of existing law which governs the keeping of dogs. While some of the provisions of the law are appropriate to farm animals, others are not. Further, it includes several terms such as “noxious odors” or “emotional heath” that are open to subjective interpretation.
  • The bill also mandates that all livestock be provided 3-sided shelter. There is no one-size-fits-all for shelter. Needs vary with the species, age and condition of an animal. In some cases, a 3-sided shelter is inadequate. In some situations, it’s overkill.

FARM BUREAU OPPOSES THE FOLLOWING BILL IN ITS AMENDED FORM

HB 4050- An Act to promote the care and well-being of livestock.

  • This bill was intended to address concerns such as livestock shelter requirements through a board consisting of farmers, humane organizations and veterinarians. However, changes to the original bill make this board advisory only rather than giving it power to approve regulations.
  • MFBF cannot support the bill in the amended form as it does not provide the checks and balances need on regulations, which are likely to be very emotional and political. Additionally, the intent of the Board was to create consensus among a range of different stakeholders. The changes to the bill undermines this.
  • Currently in the House Committee on Ways and Means.

Zoning and Housing – There are several bills before the legislature, which are intended to reform zoning laws and to promote housing development. Farm Bureau supports both goals. However, MFBF is concerned about one common element of these bills which would allow Natural Resource Protection Zoning (NRPZ) to be approved by a simple majority at town meeting. Currently, a 2/3 vote is required. In many cases, NRPZ will lower land values.

  • For most farms, the value of the land is their primary asset. The equity they have in their land is what they borrow upon to operate their business. If the value of the land is reduced, so it the famer’s ability to operate a business. Running a farm is expensive and requires equity. A new tractor can cost more than $100,000.
  • This is simply unfair. Massachusetts lost a tremendous amount of farmland between the 1950s and 2000. Those who sold their land during this period did so unencumbered by concepts like NRPZ. Farms in operation today exist because the landowners resisted development during this period. They should not be penalized for doing so.
  • FARM BUREAU OPPOSES CHANGES TO STATE LAW ALLOWING NRPZ TO BE ADOPTED BY A SIMPLE MAJORITY AT TOWN MEETINGS, RATHER THAN THE LONG-STANDING REQUIREMENT OF A 2/3 VOTE