Farmers struggle to make living, on several fronts
NORTH EAST, N.Y. — “You used to be able to sell land for whatever you wanted. Now you can’t give it away,” said Chip Barrett, owner of the 75-acre Driftways Farm here.Barrett gave as example a recent land auction held by fellow farmer John Perotti of Lone Pine Farm in Millerton, in the town of North East, who offered his 314.8 acres for bid to a tepid crowd. Not only did the auction produce no sales, but Barrett said with the land being so close to New York City the bids should have been in the neighborhood of $10,000 to $15,000 an acre; instead the bids came in a disappointing $5,000 to $8,500 an acre, not even meeting the bid minimums.But Perotti was not as pessimistic. He said even though the numbers didn’t meet his expectations, at least the auction stimulated interest. He said an auction like his hadn’t been done before and had brought roughly 100 people, many of whom were real estate agents. Typically, he said, farms hold cattle auctions, or forced auctions, and the people at his auction weren’t familiar with how it worked.“There’s a lot of land for sale in this valley and this might be a way for [farmers] to market their land, too,” Perotti said, adding his land has been on the market for five years, and that’s why he’s now willing to try unconventional methods. “Auctions are another tool for landowners who need to sell their properties.”He has already sold most of his 160-head dairy herd to a farm in Lebanon, Penn. Eighteen older cows remain at Lone Pine.“The dairy industry is a bad industry,” Perotti said, adding he put off selling his herd for nearly three years. “Grain is doing OK, but that’s bad for animal farmers who use grain as feed because grain is more money than the income generated on dairy farms.”It’s widely recognized that the challenges facing farmers these days are great, but around here, agree both Barrett and Perotti, many challenges stem from steep property taxes. That is especially true in North East, they say, where a recent property reassessment saw values spike. North East Assessor Katherine Johnson said the accusation is neither accurate nor fair. She said the reassessment project was necessary and she stands by the town’s values 100 percent. And although the bids made at the Lone Pine auction did not meet Perotti’s expectations, she said they were not as dismal as some have claimed. What painted a dim picture, Johnson said, was that Perotti wanted to sell his farm off in parcels.“His farm was assessed at a value of $1.6 million,” she said, “and for the whole of it I believe there was a bid of $2.7 million. But they didn’t want to accept it, so I don’t know what more I can add. Even if they didn’t accept the bids they were still well above market value.”Lone Pine Farm is re-listed at $6 million, as it was before the auction. According to the assessor, that proves its owner knows the farm is worth more than its assessed value. If that land is ever developed, she added, it will become even more valuable. But the state prohibits municipalities from assessing properties for their potential.“By law I have to assess each parcel at its current use,” Johnson said. “[Perotti’s property] is currently used for farming, so I must assess it that way. I don’t take [development potential] into consideration.”Despite Johnson standing by the property reassessment project, Barrett (who is on the North East Planning Board) insists it dealt a poor hand to those in the agricultural community. He said his assessment rose 35 percent, and many of his neighbors suffered similar fates.“It’s a dangerous thing that is happening here,” he said, adding he wants a new assessment. “The land is not worth what it is assessed at. North East is the only town [in Dutchess County] that had evaluations go up. No foreclosures, short sales or auctions were taken into account. It really puts farmers in a bind.... I want to keep my farm and I want to keep it intact.”“The auction showed clearly that land values are going down, not up,” agreed Perotti, a third-generation farmer. “We need to look closely at how we’re assessing property. North East is the only town in Dutchess County with taxable values that went up, while North East and the surrounding towns have the lowest incomes in the county. This will be looked on by New York state negatively and we’ll get less state aid for our schools.”“It’s a snowball effect,” said Barrett. “The repercussions of being over-assessed are tremendous.... This is just killing the farmers.”Johnson disagreed.“I stand by the reval because of the number [of farmers] who came to me and complained — and no one physically came to me and asked for a reduction — as well as what the county provided me when it said the tax burden actually decreased,” the assessor said.Her last word was that in spite of the farmers’ verbal complaints, they all qualify for agricultural assessments when filing their taxes, given by the state.“It exempts them from a huge portion of their tax burden,” she said. “It varies because the state bases each acre on the quality of the acre, so the exemption can be anywhere from $200 to $800 an acre, [but they do get relief].” Stefanie Giglio contributed to this story.