Local governments can put into place programs and policies that support the business of agriculture and the future of farming in their community. The following tools help stabilize the land base, support local economies, and keep farmland available for the next generation of farmers. Below is a selection of tools available.
Agricultural Commissions and Advisory Boards
Communities can create formal or informal advisory boards to serve as the voice of agriculture in local affairs. These can be used to identify issues of concern, raise public awareness of the benefits of community food production, and ensure that local policies and regulations support agriculture’s business and land use needs. They take many forms including agricultural commissions, Blue Ribbon panels, and other bodies to engage farmers in developing local policies and programs to support agriculture. Their size and composition vary by location and may include members of other local boards with related interests, such as a planning commission, zoning board, conservation district, or economic development commission.
Agricultural Ombudsmen and Agricultural Development Staff
Communities can hire staff or engage experts to advise farmers and ranchers on how to take advantage of new production and marketing opportunities—whether for traditional livestock and crop production, value-added processing, direct marketing, or things like energy production on farms. Some California counties have created “farmbudsperson” positions to work independently of regulatory staff to help farmers navigate the state’s complex regulatory process.
Agricultural District Programs allow farmers to form special areas where commercial agriculture is encouraged and protected. Programs are authorized by state legislatures and implemented at the local level. Enrollment in agricultural districts is voluntary. In exchange for enrollment farmers receive a package of benefits that varies from state to state. Agricultural districts protect farmland and support the agricultural economy by preventing local governments from passing laws that unnecessarily hinder farming and ranching. Minimum acreage and terms of enrollment varies along with the package of incentives, which typically includes property tax relief and protection from private nuisance lawsuits. Enrollment may also be required for eligibility in a PACE program.
Livestock regulations typically address nuisance, environment, and animal welfare issues. Successful livestock regulations use guidelines that focus on site suitability, buffers, reasonable setbacks, and generally accepted agricultural practices. Since most states have regulations affecting livestock production, it is important to be familiar with state law before developing ordinances.
Livestock and Poultry Ordinances
Many communities restrict raising livestock and poultry, especially in populated areas. Local governments can develop guidance for backyard livestock and poultry and ordinances to regulate activities. For example, some permit the keeping of livestock or domestic fowl as an accessory use on any lot of 2 acres or more, while some communities provide guidance to residents on backyard animal husbandry.
Right to Farm
Right-to-farm ordinances provide nuisance protection from unduly restrictive regulations and neighbor complaints. They are especially important where new residents move into traditional farming communities and object to the noise, dust, smells, and slow-moving vehicles associated with agriculture. All 50 states have a right-to-farm law and some local governments have enacted ordinances to strengthen and clarify language in state law and to educate residents about agricultural activities. Local right-to-farm ordinances are widespread in California, where the state farm bureau developed and distributed model language.
State and local governments use property and other tax incentives to support agriculture as well as other community priorities. While this guide focuses on local government, state policies often can be modified and adapted for use at the county or municipal level.
Farm Building and Other Exemptions
Some local governments allow property tax exemptions for farm buildings and equipment. These exemptions forgive the increase in assessed value that results from improvements such as new barns, silos, grain storage, greenhouses, farm labor housing, or even food preparation facilities. Farm machinery and equipment also may be exempt or exempt up to a specified monetary value.
Leasing Development Rights
Also known as term easements, leasing development rights is a way to retain farmland by reducing property tax assessments in exchange for time-limited deed restrictions. It complements other property tax reduction programs, especially for part-time farmers or rural landowners who do not qualify for agricultural assessment.
Property Tax Relief
Every state has passed some kind of legislation to offset the impacts of suburban land values on agricultural property taxes. One of the most common responses is current use taxation (also called differential, present use, or preferential assessment) that taxes farmland at its current value for farming, not its potential market value for development, which is usually higher. Each program has its own requirements for participation, addressing things such as ownership, size, income, and management. In some states, when land is no longer farmed, landowners are required to pay a rollback penalty.
Three states—Michigan, New York, and Wisconsin—allow farmers to claim state income tax credits to offset local property tax bills. These programs are called circuit breakers because they relieve farmers of real property taxes that exceed a certain percentage of their income.
State and local governments may provide sales tax exemptions for specific kinds of farm purchases. Exempt items include building materials and services used to install, maintain, or repair farm buildings or structures; motor vehicles; and energy, refrigeration, or steam used for production/operation.
Zoning can be used to support the business of agriculture and encourage innovative ways to increase farm income, such as direct-to-consumer marketing and on-farm enterprises to add value to raw products. It can require buffers and setbacks to protect farming operations from new neighbors. This can be especially helpful for poultry and livestock operations. And it can build awareness and support for agriculture by allowing agritourism, signage, and accessory uses while ensuring that non-farming enterprises support the agricultural economy and do not replace it.
Farm Labor Housing
Safe and suitable lodging for farm labor is important to some farms, especially produce operations. Local governments may decide to be flexible about suburban standards for farm housing as long as it complies with public health and safety laws. For instance, they might allow a second or third house on a farm without triggering the need for multiple lots, or cabins to be used for seasonal housing.
Setbacks and Buffers
Regulations such as setbacks and agricultural buffers reduce conflicts between farmers and non-farming neighbors by creating a space between them. This is especially important for livestock operations. Effective regulations protect existing operations and require new developments and subdivisions to create the setback or buffer. If substantial new development is occurring in a traditionally agricultural area, local governments can require a no-disturb zone. These ordinances call for a minimum setback between new residential properties and existing farmland, tied to the subdivision approval process and described in the property deed to alert potential buyers of the need to honor it.
Growing Food Connections project integrates research, education, and extension to understand, evaluate, and share lessons learned about food system planning and local policy development. Its overarching goal is to enhance community food security while ensuring sustainable and economically viable agriculture and food production.