Greetings! Today, September 4th marks my first day of being on board full time with American Farmland Trust as the New England director. I’d like to take a few lines here to introduce myself and then talk a little about what AFT has been doing recently, including a major recent win in Massachusetts.
My name is Nathan W. L’Etoile and I come from a farming family in Northfield, Massachusetts. I spent my first few years wandering the woods, swamps, and fields of my grandfather’s farm in Rhode Island before my parents took the leap of purchasing a farm in western Massachusetts to expand their own operation. I grew up working weekends and summers on the farm and, after college, returned to the farm. I quickly caught a bug for policy, advocacy, and local government. Over the last twenty years, I have spent time as a professional advocate, a government policy maker, and a farmer. While I now work off the farm full time, my wife, brother, and parents are all still on the farm full time, and they drag me back for nights and weekends frequently.
My family, like many other farm families in New England, struggles with the challenges facing farmers throughout the region. These challenges include a tough economic environment for farmers, generational transfer issues, land access challenges, a changing climate (how about the weather this summer, right?), labor challenges, and more. But we also see the joys of keeping our land in farming, healthy soils, raising the next generation on our farm, small towns, local food, and close communities. It is those challenges and joys that have led me to spend my time as an advocate, and that have led me to AFT. I’m thrilled to be on board and join this important movement to protect farmland, promote sound farming practices, and keep farmers on the land!
I have only recently come to work full time at AFT, but have been working for several years as a contracted advocate. I want to share one major recent win that we have had in Massachusetts that is the culmination of several years of both my and AFT’s work on an issue affecting many farm families: estate tax. Currently, Massachusetts taxes all estates valued at over $1,000,000. This tax is graduated, but can be as high as 8.08%! New England has some of the most expensive farmland in the country, subjecting even what many would call small farms to this tax. In fact, more than 1,200 of the 7,700 farms left in the state are large enough to make an estate taxable, and those 1,200 farms steward 335,000 acres of farmland.
We also must face the fact that our farmers are aging. In fact, roughly 1.7% of the state’s farmers die every year, leaving estates behind that must be settled. Given all of this, approximately 22 farmers who pass away every year have enough farmland alone to make their estates large enough that they incur significant taxes, putting roughly 5,700 acres of farmland at high risk for development or parcelization. When faced with a large tax burden, many inheritors of farmland that may have wanted to keep that land in agriculture are instead forced to sell some or all of their land to developers who are often willing to pay a premium over agricultural values.
But there is good news! I’m proud to say that in July 2018, AFT and partners across the state scored a victory for farmland protection by passing a bill to decrease the tax liability on inherited farmland. It was a long process. Over the last two years, I was part of a coalition that engaged the Baker Administration, legislators, farmers, and other advocacy organizations to reform the estate tax law in Massachusetts. Now, if an estate wishes, they can choose to value their land at its use value, not its highest and best use. In exchange for relief from potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes, they agree to make sure the land is farmed for 10 years. Land that was not being actively farmed is eligible, provided it enters production within two years, and stays in agriculture for the additional 10 years.
It’s simple, it’s clear, and it’s good for our farmers and our farmland. It will not only protect existing farmland, it’ll get more land farmed, and provide real incentives to identify a next generation of farmers and put them on the land. This was a big win for farmland and for farmers. It was made possible by those individuals who specifically support AFT’s policy work in New England, so thank you.
I'm looking forward to meeting many of you and excited to get going on this important work!