June 2014

Op-Ed: Our Land Is Worth More Than That


Ursula Beck


The Taos Tax Assessor’s office recently held a public forum attended by 300 people to explain its current adverse rulings impacting some of our precious agricultural lands. This was an opportunity for the community to voice its concerns and put a human face on just what a tragedy this truly will be unless a more humane way forward can be found.


One couple stood up and said that, without any warning or communication of any kind, their taxes had gone from $300/year/acre to over $3,000. They simply received a formal notice stating that unless they paid this new amount immediately, a lien would be placed on their house. Since they saw no way to come up with that amount, they initiated plans to put the land, which has been in their family for generations, on the market. (The realtors are circling…) Another woman pled, “Who will help us?” A gentleman, who had recently returned to his family land, said he was trying to re-create the growing of winter wheat, since this used to be “the breadbasket of New Mexico.” But his agricultural (“ag”) status was taken away because he could not prove enough actual current “product.” (The water brokers are circling…)


And then there are the horses. They don’t count for “ag” status unless you drive cattle with them or, perhaps, eat them. Anything, to produce that almighty “product.” A show of hands indicated that close to a quarter of the audience had horses. One gentleman said he had worked with horses all his life, starting with his grandfather, and he felt horses deserved respect for helping to build this land into the productive place it had become, supporting many families. Another elderly gentlemen had tears in his eyes as he said that he still kept two old horses on his land that were part of his heritage. His only choice, if his land was taxed away, was to sell them for slaughter, and that would break his heart. (The butchers are circling…)


To be fair to those in the Assessor’s Office, they are trying to operate honestly, and they truly have an open-door policy. Last year I met with Darlene Vigil, and I believe she is trying to be as fair as is possible, but she is hampered by the governmental rules she is sworn to uphold. As currently interpreted, this basically means that if land is to meet the requirements to be considered agricultural, the only way is to prove it is the production of a product. Here in northern New Mexico, with our 90-day short season and limited water, this has traditionally meant only hay, cattle and the occasional orchard. That might have made sense at the turn of the century but not now. Our land is worth more than that.


The Assessor’s Office is currently misinterpreting one specific provision in the code that allows for land to be designated as agricultural if it is simply “capable of production.” A compassionate look at this specific provision could be very helpful.


So, we are faced with the need to ask our legislators to adjust the rules to fit what is happening today. Despite our smaller families, limited acreages, drought conditions, increasing pressure from realtors and water brokers, intergenerational need for family members to leave to find work, and the ever-increasing search to create more tax dollars, the love for and connection to the land remains the same.


Number One: Respect the Cultural Aspect of Our Land

Because it is difficult to find a job here, young people often have to leave. Patriotism is very strong, and many join the military. I know of families whose young adults return and want to pick up farming, but the old folks could no longer keep it up while they were away. Only a few relative newcomers seem to be able to afford to hire someone to keep their land in compliance. For the rest of us, it is our families, and sometimes they need to be away for a while. But what do they have to return to if the land they love has been taxed out of existence while they are in another town earning a living to support their families? This is an intergenerational disaster. Land that has been in families for generations means more than just a unit of production. A forced sale for short-sighted tax requirements strips away something vital; much like losing a language.


Number Two: Create Legislative Support for New, On-Farm Income Opportunities

It is of paramount importance that we find ways to generate income from our lands. And here is where agricultural tourism can come into play. In the past, tourism has meant only low-wage, dead-end jobs, so it is understandable if the “T” word raises a few eyebrows. However, agricultural tourism is an entirely different breed. First, there is no middleman; all money goes directly to the farmer/rancher (except for gross-receipts tax). Secondly, the farmers/ranchers create exactly the experience they wish to offer, at the times most convenient for them. Some might wish to host a group of painters for an afternoon only; others will want to offer a real B&B experience to a few guests per year. The possibilities are endless: Weddings in a field of flowers, children’s parties, cooking lessons, fall harvest cookouts, horseback riding and boarding. None of this can happen if our lands are taxed out of existence.


Attention, Bobby Gonzales and Carlos Cisneros. Thank you for showing your support and coming to our forum. We appreciate you. There are some areas where we could really use your help with legislation. For example, recognition of small family occasional lodgings, honoring of cultural uses, liability protection, insurance availability and group marketing specific to Taos. We are not reinventing the wheel here, and I can point you to legislation already in place in states such as Minnesota and Iowa. These regulations are carefully crafted to permit seasonal and limited farm-stays, so that neighbors are not unduly affected.


If we work together to think outside the box of only hay and cattle being valued as agricultural uses, we can protect our precious heritage that is so closely tied to our beautiful land. We won’t have to sell our land if we can find ways to rent its experience through agritourism.



Ursula Beck founded and has been the director of the Taos Art School for 23 years. She also founded and directs Left Bank of the Río Grande and coordinates Taos Cultural Farm Visits. ursularb@q.com




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