Farmland Tax Breaks Help Keep New Hampshire GreenSeptember, 2019
Story and photo By Carole Soule
Fiddlehead Contributing Writer
Farming is about hard work and long hours, but it’s also about the land. Whether raising cattle or crops, a farm needs acreage where cows can eat grass and fields can grow crops. No land, no farm.
Some farmers inherited their land. Others, like us, bought property more than 40 years ago. Over the years we sold parts of our 150 acres but kept the best 37 hilltop acres of pasture, which today provide grass for our herd of Scottish Highlander cattle.
Whether the farmer has hundreds of acres or one acre, the challenge is the same: Every farmer needs more land.
We, like other farmers, have addressed the problem by leasing property. One contract is with the owner of an old apple orchard in Barnstead. Another is a 20-acre pasture on a hilltop in Alton. We also have land leases in Gilmanton, Concord, Canterbury and Gilford.
The motivation to lend land varies. Farmers pay a lower tax on fields and a different rate on forest land. Only two acres and our house are taxed at the full rate. The current-use taxing strategy, aimed at making it easier for landowners to keep their open space undeveloped, is good policy; it helps keep New Hampshire green.
And much as you might enjoy the company of the new neighbors in new housing developments, your taxes would rise to educate and police them. The average cost to educate one child in our state is approximately $15,310, so the current use tax break is a bargain for taxpayers. The tax break can apply to leased farmland, which keeps it available for grazing and raising crops like corn or hay.
Most landowners love watching long-horned Highlanders, some with babies at their sides, munch on grass, saving them the trouble of mowing it. We consider the landowners partners and treat these pastures as if they were our own.
If allowed, the cattle would eat the grass until only stubble is left, exposing bare ground and killing the roots. An over-grazed pasture may take a year or more to recover.
Before the grass is destroyed, we set up guiding panels, load the cattle into a stock trailer — nicknamed the “cow taxi” — and drive them to a new pasture. The cow taxi can transport eight to 10 bovines at once.
Moving cows the 10 to 15 miles between pastures can take a half day — if they are cooperative and jump in the trailer without too much coaxing. One or two uncooperative cows can make it a full day.
Working in close quarters with them, I’m often covered in manure as a cow swishes her tail at just the right time. We do it because healthy grass makes fat and happy cows.
After the cattle are moved (and I’ve showered), the work continues. Each cow drinks 10 to 20 gallons of water every day. Sometimes landowners will keep a water tank filled, but in other pastures, either my husband, Bruce, or I have to check the water every two days.
Well water is not available in some of our leased pastures, so in those fields, we fill a 1,300-gallon tank that drains to a trough. A float (just like one in your toilet tank) controls the valve and shuts off the water when the trough is full.
Like kids messing with a water fountain, sometimes our cattle mess with the floating ball, breaking it off. Maybe it’s a game; who can pop the floating ball out onto the ground.
I don’t know their motivation, but with no way to stop the flow, a 1,300-gallon tank can empty in hours. The cows had their fun liberating the ball, but it’s not fun for us to arrive at a pasture with 28 thirsty cows all crowding the tank as we try to refill it.
We keep about 20 head of cattle on the home farm in the summer, rotating them between seven pastures in “current use.” That’s the official designation that qualifies for property-tax relief. Without that break, we would not have a farm; we’d have a dozen house lots.
So, the next time you are stuck behind a pokey hay wagon or lumbering manure spreader on the highway, you’ll know that your patience is helping to support New Hampshire’s network of farms and fields. Your support of farmland tax breaks and purchase of locally grown food helps, too. Thanks!