When a Farm isn’t a Farm

farmers that aren't farmers

Things are confusing enough. First, we got a president that tells us “alternative facts,” now farmers in Iowa are being told they aren’t farmers. To be more specific, they are being told that their farm is not a farm.

Wright County, Iowa assessor notified about 70 other property owners that their small farms will be assessed like homes,  rather than as agricultural properties.

The residential classification increases these property values 70%. Tax bills next year will rise substantially as well.

How property owners are treated across the state, however, may vary, Iowa assessors say, because the state gives little guidance outlining what constitutes a farm, despite repeated requests to lawmakers.

Most assessors look to the state’s administrative code that asks whether the land is “in good faith, used primarily for agricultural purposes,” said John Lawson, Clayton County’s assessor and president of the Iowa State Assessors Association.

That leaves a lot of gray area on deciding what’s a farm, especially when Iowa agriculture can range from four acres of vegetables to 4,000 acres of corn and soybeans.

“There’s not real good laws written on it,” said Steve Helm, Dallas County assessor, who spent a half hour Tuesday talking with a landowner whose small farm had been reclassified. Those discussions happen about three times a week, he said.

“It’s always going to be an issue until there’s a better-written law to define what a farm is,” Helm said.

Tim Johnson, senior research and policy analyst at Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, said the question comes up every reassessment year. The statewide ag group worries that assessors are trying to define farms too narrowly.

“We want assessors to follow the administrative rule that says if there’s an ag process occurring on a parcel, it should be considered ag land,” Johnson said.

Assessors shouldn’t try to define how much or how little farm income or activity comes from acreages, Johnson said, noting the U.S. Census of Agriculture considers an operation with $1,000 in ag sales a “farm.”

“If you’re a hobby farm in a rural area, even if that’s not your full-time job, that shouldn’t matter,” he said. “Many people who are ‘real farmers’ don’t necessarily get more than half their income off that agricultural land.”

That’s especially true during this farm downturn, with farmers working more than one job to make ends meet, said Smith, the property owner whose farm was reclassified as residential.

“People are experiencing some bad times in rural areas,” with many towns hurting with less ag spending, said one farmer, who plans to protest his valuation.

“It just seems like a way for the county to get more money,” he said.