Commentary

A hidden tax break for factory farms

Christians are called to be caretakers of creation and work for sustainability. In Minnesota, we have a strong history of farmers committed to care of the land and growing healthy local foods. We also have a growing number of consumers who are aware of the importance of healthy food and supporting sustainable agriculture. But industrial agriculture and its pollution problems are still all-too-common in Minnesota. And a little known Minnesota law adds to the problem by unfairly favoring large-scale factory farms over sustainably-sized family farms.

In Thief River Falls, neighbors of a 1,500 cow mega-dairy complained for years before the Minnesota Department of Health declared it a public health hazard. The Excel Dairy had 500 pollution and public health violations in 2008, and the hydrogen sulfide it emitted registered 140 times the level the state says can safely occur twice in one year. The source of the problem was the factory farm’s 10-acre complex of liquid manure pits. Yet, even as these pits were being proclaimed a public menace, Excel Dairy was benefitting from a Minnesota law that exempts manure pits from property taxes.

A recent report details how a little known property tax exemption for liquid manure pits unfairly benefits factory farms.

Excel isn’t alone. The Land Stewardship Project has released a report detailing how this little known property tax exemption for liquid manure pits unfairly benefits factory farms. This exemption is available to any livestock farmer with a manure pit and many small- and medium-sized dairy and hog farmers use pits as part of a sustainable farming system. But the benefit of the exemption for them is relatively small. For example, a manure pit in Lac Qui Parle County valued at $35,000 has an estimated tax exemption of $78.

Challenges raised by large-scale factory-style farms

In contrast, for large factory-style operations the property tax savings can be substantial. Minnesota-based Christensen Family Farms is one of the country’s largest operators of factory hog farms. Its 51 hog operations in Minnesota have manure pits that, when combined, have an estimated total value of between $4,399,519 and $9,165,420. The firm’s annual savings on property taxes could total in the tens of thousands of dollars. If all large-scale hog confinements (900 animal units and larger) claim the manure storage facility property tax exemption, then the report estimates that between $71 million and $165 million worth of factory farm property is exempt from property taxation each year.

This preferential property tax treatment exists because the Minnesota legislature views manure storage facilities as “pollution abatement” equipment. In 1967, the Legislature declared that all “real and personal property used solely and exclusively for the abatement and control of air or water pollution” was exempt from property taxation. This provision was not created for factory farms which were pretty much nonexistent at the time, Later, however, factory farms began applying for the exemption and were granted it on a case-by-case basis. This led to the legislature giving manure pits blanket inclusion in this exemption in 1993.

The reality is that manure pits for industrial-scale livestock operations are a necessary cost of doing business, not a pollution control structure. In fact, multi-million gallon manure pits concentrate so much raw, liquid manure in one place that they cause air and water pollution, not prevent it. A family in my rural community had to replace their well at a cost of over $20,000, due to the pollution of their water by E coli and other harmful bacteria from the liquid manure from a nearby factory farm. The family was told by state officials that their new well will eventually also become polluted by the dangerous bacteria because it will continue to work down through the soil.

God’s call for us to be caretakers of creation is something that we must realize through individual action as well as collective or societal action. The laws we create as a society are perhaps the most important collective action we can take to care for creation. This property tax break rewards the largest factory farms, like the Excel Dairy, that have been so harmful to our rural environment and economy. Public policy that cares for creation would not allow this, much less encourage it.

Barbara Finley-Shea is pastor of an ELCA congregation in rural southeast Minnesota and a member of Land Stewardship Project. LSP’s full report, “The Money Pit: How Minnesota Property Taxpayers are Subsidizing Factory Farms,” is available at www.landstewardshipproject.org or by calling the Land Stewardship Project at 612/722-6377.

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