Farming is a cherished, pastime in New Jersey, but when the fall harvest comes around, so does the politics.
For the second year in a row, Republicans are claiming that Darcy Draeger, a Democratic Assembly candidate in LD-25, is a phony.
Or rather, a “fake farmer,” who is using the state’s farmland assessment laws to avoid paying thousands of dollars in property taxes.
This is not a unique issue. And the system probably does need reform.
On the other hand, Draeger is doing nothing illegal or unethical.
Let’s start unpacking this by looking at the law.
A farmland assessment gives those who farm a major tax break. So major that they pay virtually nothing in property taxes on their farmland.
Support for this concept is not controversial. Many agree that the Garden State should do all it can to help the small group of people in New Jersey who farm.
But here’s the problem – what constitutes a farm?
It’s easy to detect large farms by simply looking at them, but suppose someone grows hay or raises chickens on a small part of a large plot of land?
The state Department of Agriculture guidelines say property owners qualify for a farmland assessment if they sell at least $1,000 in farm products annually from five acres. If they have more than five acres, they must sell an additional $5 worth of products per acre. That threshold of $1,000 certainly seems on the low side. But that’s what it is. In fact, it was only a few years ago that the threshold was raised from $500 to $1,000.
Now we come to the issue at hand.
Draeger is running this fall against Republican Assemblywoman Aura Dunn in a special Legislative election in a district covering northern and western Morris and one town in Somerset, Bernardsville. There is also a special state Senate election between incumbent Anthony M. Bucco and Democrat Rupande Mehta All this is happening because of the vacancy caused by the death last fall of Sen. Anthony R. Bucco.
Draeger and her husband own a 9-acre farm in Chester Township called Hedgerows. She says they meet the annual $1,000 threshold by raising sheep and selling honey and other farm products. That makes her entitled to a farmland assessment on her farmland. The annual tax bill is about $26. In fairness, it should be pointed out that the couple’s home on the property is not considered farmland. They pay about $24,000 in property taxes annually on their home.
The Republicans are running as a team and this week, a statement from campaign manager Kasey Dearden said Draeger is using the farmland assessment as a “tax dodge.” After being told what Draeger is doing conforms to the law, Dearden said that “she is just gaming the system to pay less in taxes.”
Draeger said she expected Republicans to raise the issue again.
She said her farm is part of the Chester community, noting that she buys and sells products locally. She said that Republicans “just want to run on disinformation.”
Trying to take the politics out of the debate, it is probably beyond question that the $1,000 threshold is on the low side. At the same time, should someone be blamed for simply following the law?
Draeger mentioned that if Bucco has a problem with the threshold, he should try to change the law.
It was Bucco who defeated Draeger last year, a point the Republicans brought up.
“Voters rejected her hypocrisy last year and will do so again,” the GOP statement predicted.
It’s true Draeger lost last year, but it’s hard to say if the farm brouhaha had anything to do with it.