April 13, 2017 . Donnelle Eller
The land Steven Smith lives on has been farmed for more than 125 years.
It’s less than 10 acres, but Smith grows alfalfa and usually raises some cattle when prices are higher.
But earlier this month, the Wright County assessor notified Smith and about 70 other property owners that their small farms will be assessed like the homes in Clarion, Eagle Grove and the other small towns they live around — rather than as agricultural properties.
In other words, as far as his property taxes are concerned, Smith’s farm is no longer a farm.
The residential classification increases Smith’s property values 70 percent. He expects his tax bill next year will rise substantially as well, climbing about $600.
Unlike his urban neighbors, though, Smith said he gets few town amenities — no sewer, water or other services.
“It’s hard enough to live in the country and try to farm a little bit,” without the large increase in values and taxes, said Smith, who also cares for his 90-year-old mother.
Other small farms across Iowa are seeing similar changes with new property statewide assessments mailed April 2.
How property owners are treated across the state, however, may vary, Iowa assessors say, because the state gives little guidance outlining what constitutes a farm, despite repeated requests to lawmakers.
Most assessors look to the state’s administrative code that asks whether the land is “in good faith, used primarily for agricultural purposes,” said John Lawson, Clayton County’s assessor and president of the Iowa State Assessors Association.
That leaves a lot of gray area on deciding what’s a farm, especially when Iowa agriculture can range from four acres of vegetables to 4,000 acres of corn and soybeans.
“There’s not real good laws written on it,” said Steve Helm, Dallas County assessor, who spent a half hour Tuesday talking with a landowner whose small farm had been reclassified. Those discussions happen about three times a week, he said.