Land is agriculture’s foundational infrastructure, and most farmers’ primary asset. Accordingly, property taxes and land use regulations and programs play a large role in farm profitability and business viability. The State’s Chapter 61A program is an important tool, offering reduced property taxes on land in active agricultural use in recognition of the benefits it provides and the fewer municipal services it requires. And, as stated previously, the State’s Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR) program is also a vitally important tool and accounts for approximately 71,000 acres of the 74,122 total acres of permanently protected farmland statewide, keeping the land in production and more affordable for current and future farmers.1 Three other State programs – the Farm Viability Enhancement Program (FVEP), the APR Improvement Program (AIP), and the Matching Enterprise for Agriculture (MEGA) Program – provide business planning, technical assistance, and grants to help improve the productivity and profitability of Massachusetts farms. The FVEP offers assistance and grants in exchange for a short-term covenant to keep the land in farming. The AIP invests in infrastructure improvements to support new and expanding farm enterprises on land that has been permanently protected. And the MEGA program provides assistance and matching grants to new and expanding farmers who aspire to develop their farms into commercially viable operations.
These programs are valuable and necessary to keep land in farming and farmers on the land, but policy challenges and gaps remain. In the case of Chapter 61A, municipalities are allowed to set their own land valuations rather than those set by the State. Some municipalities that have chosen to do so have used rates based on farmland sales rather than farmland use, resulting in significant property tax increases for some farmers.2 Farms which have retail operations or process their farm products on-farm rely on buildings as much as land for their operations to be financially viable. Yet unlike land, tax laws do not recognize this and farmers often face debilitating tax bills on buildings. Relatedly, where State law allows towns to vote to exempt farm equipment and animals on non-incorporated farms from excise tax, this provision does not extend to incorporated farms. Yet many family farms incorporate to protect their homes and personal assets from liability. Additionally, some communities charge farmers stormwater and flood water utility fees, which can range from relatively small for farmland to significant for farm buildings, and can include land eligible for Chapter 61A.