WINSLOW, Maine — When Elery Keene moved to the central Maine community of Winslow in 1970, there were many farms and an abundance of businesses that supported and were connected to those farms, including a dairy and two local slaughterhouses.
But now, approaching 50 years later, the community has changed. Some farms have closed and with them many farming-related businesses, meaning the town has lost those jobs along with part of its agricultural heritage. But Winslow is working to try to help its remaining working farms stay the course — by forgiving their local property taxes.
“What started this process was an interest in promoting more agriculture activity in Winslow,” Keene, the chairman of the Winslow Planning Board and a member of the Winslow Agricultural Commission, said Monday. “I am excited about the potential of this program.”
At the beginning of October, the town received two applications for its new Voluntary Municipal Farm Support Program, which was passed by the town council in May. Winslow is the first town in the state to adopt the program, which was established through legislation nearly 10 years ago as a way for municipalities to protect farmland and help farmers. The program allows qualifying landowners to grant a temporary agricultural conservation easement to the town.
In order to be eligible for the program, farms will have to meet certain criteria, including having at least 5 acres in production and generating a minimum gross income for crops and agricultural products of $2,000 per year.
One of the farmers who applied this year owns a former dairy farm that has gone into hay production because of the high cost of overhead. The other is Winslow Town Councilor and dairy farmer Steve Russell, who local officials said has recused himself from votes pertaining to the farm support program.
Judy Mathiau, the Winslow assessor, said that if the two applications are approved, beginning the next tax year the farmers will be assessed and will have to pay their local property taxes “just like anyone else,” but then their taxes will be refunded by the town. That would be about $7,000 for these two properties, she said, adding that she crunched the numbers for a dozen properties in town that likely could be eligible for the tax relief program. If all applied for the program and were approved, the town could lose nearly $13,000 in local property taxes every year, she said, leading to a 2-cent increase in the tax rate.
“I think the council will be really, really careful and will know from year to year the impact the program will have on other folks,” Mathiau said.
According to Keene, the idea came about after the town formed an Agricultural Working Group in 2013 to investigate how Winslow could better support its farmers. The town sent out questionnaires to a number of farmers to get feedback from them, he said, and sought help from the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. That’s how officials learned that the municipal farm support program had been established in 2007.
“I think it could be a really important tool, because it’s not as permanent as the conservation easements that the Maine Farmland Trust and other land trusts create with farmers,” Ellen Sabina, outreach director of the Maine Farmland Trust, said Monday. “It’s a good stepping stone to keep land as farmland, for at least a short period of time. I think that’s the biggest reason why we’re excited about it.”
She said she is hopeful that other towns will follow Winslow’s lead in making this option available to farmers.
“Winslow’s really leading the way by being the first ones to incorporate this, even though it’s an idea that’s been around since 2007,” she said. “This is a great example of how these kinds of programs can take a long time to develop and [be] put into action.”