Boutique Farms Becoming Vogue With The Gentry A Little Space, Not Much Effort, A Crop Or Two - Sometimes That's All It Takes To Qualify As Farmers. It's A Designation That Can Mean A Property-tax Break.

Posted: September 05, 1994

As dawn-to-dusk, plow-till-you-drop farming declines across the nation, a new phenomenon is sprouting around major Eastern cities - boutique farms.

These farms require little land and little effort, produce vegetables for a roadside stand or a few lamb chops for the restaurant in the village.

And for some, running low-acreage, low-maintenance, part-time farms means qualifying for low property taxes intended to protect open space and full-time farms.

Data from the recently released 1992 Census of Agriculture show the growth of farms of less than 10 acres in some South Jersey suburbs of Philadelphia, in Connecticut and Hudson Valley suburbs of New York City and Virginia suburbs of Washington.

In the expensive countryside where boutique shops have replaced country stores, boutique farms now flourish.

Tina McNally is the agricultural agent for Virginia Cooperative Extension in the Washington suburbs of Prince William County.

"Land in our county is fairly expensive," McNally said. "People are coming out and buying land and putting a few sheep, a few head of cattle (on the land) so they can . . . get a tax break."

Richard Meinert is agricultural agent for the University of Connecticut Cooperative Extension in the New York bedroom communities of Fairfield and Litchfield Counties - home to the likes of Paul Newman and Henry Kissinger, who certainly can afford to live there.

Escaping property taxes, he said, "is the real concern of a lot of (other) people around here . . . (who) have small plots of land. The most asked question I get is: 'How can I make my land pay for itself? What can I grow that will pay for the land taxes?' "

In the pricey South Jersey suburb of Medford, horses have been the answer for Wendy Lippincott.

Three years ago, she moved from a 100-acre horse farm southwest of Dallas to a recently built house on 8 acres across from Lenape High School.

"I couldn't afford the taxes," she said, if she were to pay the homeowner rate in her Burlington County community.

But because she buys and sells horses and thus qualifies as a farmer, she said, her property taxes have been 50 percent less than for a non-farmer.

One morning last week, she was standing outside the small stable that houses five of her horses, showing one of them to a young couple.

Though several neighboring 8-acre properties look like suburban homesteads, she said, a plant-growing greenhouse is at the back of one property and another is a horse ranch.

Her Spinning W Farm is her main source of income, she said, but her neighbors tend to be part-timers.

"The people aren't here because they're farming," she said. They're farming because they're there.

Those neighbors are just up Hartford Road from Johnson's Corner Farm, a market largely supplied by the Johnson family's 112-acre farm.

And the Johnsons grow sweet corn and pumpkins at two of the boutique farms, said Bill Johnson, patriarch of the family. "We don't grow the pineapples and oranges there," he said, allowing himself a chuckle.

Even renting land to a farmer qualifies the landowner as a farmer, census officials have said.

The Census Bureau defines a farmer as anyone in the nation who sells at least $1,000 of agricultural products a year, or one who has that potential.

No acreage requirement.

But New Jersey law defines a farmer as one who earns at least $500 a year, off at least five acres, Rutgers Cooperative Extension agents say.

Jersey boutiques? Yes.

Pennsylvania boutiques? Not yet.

Such farms are not flourishing in Pennsylvania suburbs: The census counted no increase in farms of less than 10 acres - none even in farms of less than 50 acres - in Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery Counties between 1987 and 1992.

"It's happening a little bit," said Tim Fritz, agricultural agent in Montgomery County for Penn State Cooperative Extension.

But boutique farms are making no significant impact in Pennsylvania, he said, because "we have a little more stringent tax requirements."

A boutique farm, he said, "has to be more agriculture-related than raising a couple ducks."

Pennsylvania requires that a farm consist of at least 10 acres or have an anticipated yearly gross income of at least $2,000, Fritz said. Farmers must work the land for three years before applying for the status. And some counties such as Montgomery don't allow such breaks.

So, boutiquers, head east.

In Burlington County, there were 188 farms of less than 10 acres in 1992, up from 178 in 1987.

In Camden County, such farms were up to 63 from 48; in Gloucester County, they were up to 199 from 134; in Salem County, they were up to 113 from 82.

Or head to Connecticut.

"There is no minimum acreage, no minimum dollar amount that has to be generated by a farm" in order to qualify for the lower farm property tax, said John Filchak, Connecticut's deputy agriculture commissioner.

But there are six criteria which a town tax assessor must use, he said, for ''the land to be taxed at use value rather than market value . . .

"There's a big difference between what the market rate might be and the . . . farm taxation."

Filchak felt most small-timers in his state are serious about farming.

But he noted that Connecticut's 6 percent sales tax does not apply on such items as farm machinery or fencing if "you show to our state tax department you've earned a minimum of $2,500 in gross sales of ag products."

It gets better.

A. J. Janschewitz, spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Revenue Services, said "you even get a break . . . on motor vehicle registration.

"You can put anything on the road with a farm tag on it" in Connecticut, he said, "and it's legal."

Farm vehicle license plates there, he said, are "a prize for some people.

"They'll put these . . . 1948 Fords that have been reworked mostly out of driftwood, put these buggers on the road and toss a farm tag on them . . . and get to ride them around."

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