Governor Charlie Baker signed in part the Environmental Bond Bill on Aug. 9, 2018. This bill contained many pieces of legislation that Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation (MFBF) had been advocating on your behalf for and the Governor’s signature on this bill has now placed them into law.
Included in the Environmental Bond Bill and were signed into laws, were the following pieces of legislation that impact MFBF members:
- Established an Agricultural Value for the Massachusetts Estate Tax – The legislature introduced reforms on how the estate tax is calculated on farmland. Previously, the Commonwealth assessed farmland for estate tax purposes on the highest and best use of that land – typically its commercial value for commercial or residential development. This posed a significant financial burden for people who inherited farmland who wanted to continue to farm it rather than develop the land. Couple this with the very low cap for estate taxes in Commonwealth ($1 million), and we saw many farmers having to sell inherited farmland just to pay the estate tax.
The legislation, introduced by Representative Kate Hogan at Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation’s (MFBF’s) request, dictates that farmland will be assessed at its agricultural value for estate tax purposes when there is an intent to continue to farm the land. It also allows for unused land to be taxed at this rate if it goes into production. Any change of use within a 10-year period would result in the requirement that back-taxes be paid.
- Funded Aquaculture Centers Across the Commonwealth – MFBF worked closely with the Massachusetts Aquaculture Association and the Massachusetts Aquaculture Centers to secure $300,000 in funding for Aquaculture Centers in the southeast, northeast and western parts of the Commonwealth. Research and education provided by these centers is crucial to the growth of the aquaculture industry.
- Authorized Funding for the Agricultural Innovation Fund – Senator Bruce Tarr was responsible for having language included in the Environmental Bond Bill which authorizes funding for the Agricultural Innovation Fund. While the language does not put money into the fund (that will have to happen each fiscal year in the budget), it opens the possibility to do so. The last time the Ag Innovation Fund had money was about a decade ago, for a single year. Some great demonstration projects came out of that from which many farmers benefited.
Additionally, MFBF advocated for the following pieces of legislation that were enacted into law through the state budget:
- Reformed the Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR) Program – Senator Michael Rodrigues, with considerable assistance from MFBF, was successful in getting some major reforms to how the APR program is administered. MFBF has heard complaints from members on the administration of the program and many of the changes closely align with the MFBF’s policy.
Provisions of the new law include:
- Allowing APR land owners to back out of deals set up by the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) when MDAR assigns the sale of a property under its Right-of-First-Refusal or Option at Ag Value.
- The law prevents MDAR from interceding.
- Gone should be the days where APR land is subject to unwritten policies developed without input in an office in Boston. The law requires that all regulations and policies be developed with input from the Board of Agriculture and approval of the Agricultural Land Preservation Committee (ALPC).
- The ALPC will be expanded to include a farm advocacy organization and a land trust organization. The membership language was also clarified to ensure that ALPC membership includes 4 farmers.
- Increased the Dairy Tax Credit to $6 million – The Budget included a $2 million increase in the amount available for the dairy tax credit, raising the allocation from $4 million to $6 million. This was a hard-fought effort by a lot of groups, including Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation and Massachusetts Association of Dairy Farmers.
- Authorized MDAR to Oversee FSMA in Massachusetts – MFBF helped to secure authorization for MDAR to be the lead agency for oversight of the federal Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) in the Commonwealth. This law focuses on food safety on the farm.
There are several potentially onerous requirements This is a potentially onerous federal law particularly for smaller operations. It’s in the best interest of farmers and consumers to and it is the best interest of farmers and consumers to have an agency which understands farmers administering farm programs.
- $4 Million to Fund the Healthy Incentives Program – The State Budget contains $4 million to go to the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive grant program for the project costs of the Massachusetts healthy incentives program, also known as HIP. This is good news for both farmers and low-income consumers. This was a hard-fought effort by a lot of groups, including Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation.
Finally, I want to say Thank You to everyone who called the Governor’s office opposing language in the Environmental Bond Bill that would not allow Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MDEP) to delegate any authority over composting to other agencies. This would have ended MDAR’s Agricultural Composting program. Because all of you took the time to call, Governor Baker vetoed this section of the bill. Many who did call were told by aides that they had received many calls on this issue.
While agriculture may be a small sector within the Commonwealth, we are mighty when we stand together on an issue. MFBF’s Deputy Director Brad Mitchell does a great job lobbying on our behalf but occasionally he needs us to step up and make a call to show how critical an issue is to us. So once again, thank you for all the work you do to make our lobbying efforts even more successful on Beacon Hill.
I believe that just about every sector of Massachusetts agriculture received a ‘win’ this legislative session. I encourage everyone to use this piece as talking points for recruiting other farmer members into our organization. Your efforts will be counted towards our ‘One for One’ membership challenge as we strive to meet American Farm Bureau Federation’s Nov. 15 deadline for quota!