Supporting Local Farmers Adds to Overall Economy

February’s Nashua Telegraph Feast section highlights how agriculture adds to the local economy while helping preserve open space in an article written by Liz Barbour.

What exactly do you picture when you read the words “open space”? Do you see a group of horses grazing in rolling green pastures bordered by stacked stonewalls? Or fields of sweet strawberries and summer vegetables planted in perfect rows waiting for harvest? Maybe you envision acres of pine forests rising and falling among glacier-cut valleys and hills.

Of course, all of these can define “open space” in New Hampshire.

Maintaining these open spaces provides land, forests, lakes and seashore for visitors and residents, and, most important, provides a local source of food and income to local towns and businesses.

New Hampshire has long been known as an agricultural state, yet according to former Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Taylor, New Hampshire produces less than 4 percent of the food we consume. But this is changing for the better. While we’re told that the country has steadily been losing family farms, it may surprise you to learn that the number of small to midsize farms has actually increased in Greater Nashua.

According to the latest USDA census focusing on trends from 2002-07, the number of Hillsborough County farms increased by 28 percent, with agricultural acreage growing by 25 percent, while the market value of products produced and sold on local farms increased by 16 percent.

New and established farms embrace practices meant to create a balance between financial success and ecological integrity built on strong community relationships.

Imagine the financial impact we can make on a farm if we simply shifted 1 percent of our purchasing power to buying local. A study by The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardener’s Association did just that and showed that by making that small change in your shopping, farmers could see a 5 percent gain in their income. The study went on to show that buying directly from a farmer will put 90 percent of that income back into the farm.

As members of their community, local farmers have a vested interest in a responsible stewardship of open space. But farms will always be in jeopardy as long as farmers grapple with the high cost of farming, which includes supplies, maintenance, labor, property taxes and lack of open land.

Keeping land undeveloped and available for agricultural use is a challenge for any community. One method that communities use to help local agriculture is a property tax concept known as current use.

Normally, tracts of land are assessed at fair market value, and for owners of large properties, this can create a high tax burden and an incentive to sell off land to developers. As an alternative, landowners can consider putting their land into current use, a property tax alternative that assesses their property at a lower value based on the income that can be produced as a woodlot or farm rather than the higher fair-market value as a future housing development. This provides the landowner with some property tax relief as a way to keep his or her open space undeveloped and in agricultural use.

Moreover, recent studies of the property tax structures of five New Hampshire towns conducted by the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension and the Nashua Regional Planning Commission determined that agricultural land that’s assessed under current use is actually tax efficient: Agricultural lands pay more in property taxes than they require in town services, thereby increasing the tax base and reducing taxes on residential properties.

More than half the state’s private land has maintained its rural character thanks to landowners who have placed land in current use.

To cite a local example, about 18 percent of the land area in Hollis is under current use. But only about one-third of that current-use land is actually owned by farm businesses, while the remainder remains in private hands and is leased to agricultural businesses, often only for the cost of the reduced taxes.

The beauty of this situation is that the private landowners can afford to keep their land while building relationships with farmers, and together supporting the open space and rural character goals of the community.

All this while also providing a local source of food, income and jobs that circle back into the community’s economy.

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