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Green Acres changes upset farmers

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news Worthington, 56187
Worthington Minnesota 300 11th Street / P.O. Box 639 56187

BELLE PLAINE (AP) -- Changes to Minnesota's Green Acres program have some farmers getting ready to plow up wetlands that are now too expensive to keep in conservation.

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Minnesota introduced the Green Acres program 40 years ago for farmers who couldn't afford the rising property taxes that came with urban sprawl. Farmers who enroll in the program pay a set, lower amount per acre in property taxes than neighboring residents or businesses.

But the Legislature changed the program last year. It declared that only productive farmland qualifies for the tax break and defined that as land producing a crop. Wetlands or buffer strips do not qualify.

Lawmakers made the change after a state auditor's report said some property owners weren't farming at all but taking advantage of the lower taxes. But the changes have made it more expensive for farmers to keep the land in conservation than to farm it.

Heidi Morlock is among farmers who find themselves in a bind. Does she tear out the hardwood trees on her Scott County farm so she can avoid paying more property taxes? Or does she hope the Legislature rescinds or alters changes made to Green Acres?

Morlock dropped out of medical school to take over her family's farm seven years ago. She grows vegetables, chickens and more on 67 acres south of the Twin Cities.

The state will let her grandfather in the wetlands and woods to the Green Acres program, but it will cost her in the long run. Right now her parents own the land. The revised Green Acres program declares that when the farm gets sold or transferred, the new owner will have to pay seven years of back taxes on the unproductive land.

"It was farmed with corn and soybeans before we moved out here. It would break my heart to see it go back to that because we couldn't afford to keep it as a wetland," Morlock told Minnesota Public Radio News.

Greg Kramber sees a lot of farmers facing those kinds of decisions in Wright County, just west of Minneapolis. Kramber is the assessor for Wright County, where a lot of farmers are enrolled in Green Acres.

"A farm operates as a whole. And to sit and dissect these things into productive and nonproductive buckets seems like it just shouldn't be done," he said.

One Wright County family transferred 160 acres to their son earlier this year, he says. Roughly 100 of those acres are wooded. They ended up paying three years of back taxes totaling $4,000. They chose not to grandfather the land into Green Acres, Kramber says.

"If that would have happened, if they would have grandfathered in, they would have had to pay back (taxes for) seven years on that, it would have been close to $10,000," Kramber said.

Bills are set to be introduced to repeal the changes to Green Acres. But it may be a tough sell.

Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, who chairs the tax committee, said Green Acres was not designed to preserve wetlands, but farm lands.

"It's morphed into something bigger than that. But it was never the legislative intent. The thing that you need to remember when you lower somebody's property taxes artificially like that with a program, you end up raising everybody else's property taxes in the jurisdiction," Bakk said.

Bakk said he would rather see a new program, one that would help farmers maintain wetlands and buffers, but not in a way that causes other residents' property taxes to rise.

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