Jacob is a small farmer in Kansas. A few years ago, Jacob and his wife Danielle bought a twenty-acre parcel that had been previously vacant. The property came with a nice house and a pleasing view, but the land was not productive.
Jacob and Danielle immediately set to work. They cut down trees; set up fencing and cross-fencing; and built pens, sheds, mobile enclosures, and processing areas. They raised pigs, chickens, and goats, and spent endless hours developing markets for meat, eggs, and firewood. This was backbreaking labor, but it was worth it. They had a farm. A real farm, called Eagle Ridge Ranch.
Unfortunately, the county assessor disagreed. One of the few benefits that the government confers on farmers is the “agricultural exemption” or “ag assessment.” In most states, county assessors designate farmland to be taxed at a lower rate. This way, farmers can afford to keep their land instead of being forced to sell it to developers.
When the assessor visited Jacob’s farm, he did not see row crops or a tractor, so he would not grant Jacob an agricultural exemption. The assessor said it “didn’t look like a farm” even though Jacob spent hours walking him around the property trying to educate him.
FTCLDF to the Rescue
Jacob contacted Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund (FTCLDF), and we got to work. We researched the applicable law and appeals procedure and contacted the county assessor’s office. Once they realized that a lawyer was involved, they immediately agreed to give Jacob his agricultural exemption for 2018.
That wasn’t good enough for us. Jacob was entitled to have his agricultural exemption dated to 2017 and to get a refund for his overpayment.
Then we really got down to business, ghost-writing an appeal to the Kansas Board of Tax Appeals and reaching out to the Board to ensure that the proper procedures were followed. A hearing was set, and we prepped Jacob for the hearing. Although we did not send an attorney to the hearing, we knew that Jacob was organized, prepared, and motivated. He knew the law and would do a fine job representing himself.
An FTCLDF attorney spoke to the county assessor before the hearing. The assessor tried to dissuade us from pursuing the matter, and implied that the 2018 agricultural exemption may be stripped if Jacob lost the hearing.
Jacob and FTCLDF would not be bullied.
Jacob showed up at the hearing with his supporting documentation, a comprehensive presentation, and a tape recorder. He was respectful, polite, and persuasive.
While this story has a happy ending, it highlights a couple of lessons. First, our farmers have to spend a lot of their time educating public officials about what a “real farm” can look like. It has only been in the past twenty years that industrial farming—endless row crops, CAFOs, and gargantuan farming equipment—has dominated the public consciousness. Our farmers have to demonstrate that a real farm doesn’t necessarily have a tractor, or a silo, or a manure lagoon. Farmers are sometimes bullied mercilessly by public officials. Jacob busted his butt to turn a non-producing piece of property into a vibrant farm, but because it didn’t “look like a farm,” the assessor completely dismissed him.
Second, Jacob understood the law perfectly and knew he had a case, but could not afford an attorney. And really, who would hire an attorney to fight over an assessment rebate of less than a thousand dollars? Government officials know the math. They think they are not going to be called out on their tactics because it is cheaper for the farmer to just give in.
And that is why FTCLDF can be a small farmer’s best weapon. As case after case has shown, just a phone call from a real lawyer can change the demeanor of a public official. Once he/she realizes that FTCLDF will happily litigate a small case for a member, like for an agricultural exemption, the math suddenly shifts in the farmer’s favor. Why would a government agency spend thousands of dollars in attorney fees or tie up the time of their attorney employees on a little case?
And not only do we win those little cases for our members, it gives pause to the next government official when they want to bully another farmer on a bigger case.
YOUR FUND AT WORK
Services provided by FTCLDF go beyond legal representation for members in court cases.
Educational and policy work also provide an avenue for FTCLDF to build grassroots activism to create the most favorable regulatory climate possible. In addition to advising on bill language, FTCLDF supports favorable legislation via action alerts and social media outreach.