Alabama farmers likely will be targets of proposed tax increases during the current session of the state legislature, which began March 4, says the chairman of the Senate Agriculture, Forestry and Conservation Committee.

“There aren't many farmers left,” says Sen. Zeb Little, D-Cullman. “And when you look at the budget, you look at cutting off the exemptions, that's one of the first things that come up. People say if we did away with all the exemptions that we give, then we'd raise enough money. But I represent a farming district, and I know how important the exemptions on feed, seed and fertilizer are to your industry. I know how important current use is in keeping your property taxes at a reasonable level.”

The Family Farm Preservation Act, along with property tax issues, are at the top of the legislative agenda for the Alabama Farmers Federation, says Freddie Patterson, director of the Federation's Governmental Affairs Department. “We've positioned ourselves to pass the Family Farm Preservation Act and to monitor any tax legislation and constitutional changes that may arise,” says Patterson.

This will mark the third year farmers in Alabama have sought help from legislators by asking them to pass the Family Farm Preservation Act, he says. The proposed bill is aimed at keeping farm operations from being declared a public nuisance as long as they abide by current rules and regulations.

In the 2001 session, a similar bill passed the House of Representatives by a large margin but failed to come up for a vote in the Senate after it stalled in committee. Last year, the Senate Rules Committee failed to assign the bill to a committee, effectively killing the legislation for that session.

However, past defeats haven't weakened the Federation's resolve to pass the legislation. “This bill is extremely important to the future of agriculture in Alabama,” says Patterson. “It's important that farmers be protected and not live under the threat of being litigated out of business. As more and more people migrate to rural Alabama, farmers will have new neighbors who want the peace and quiet of country living but don't necessarily appreciate the sights of smell of production agriculture. We see this legislation as an insurance policy for our state's largest industry to continue to grow.”

The Family Farm Preservation Act would prevent city or county governments from being able to adopt rules that would classify a farm as a public or private nuisance as long as the farm is operated under all state and federal regulations.

The proposed legislation more clearly defines a farm, allows an operation to remain classified as a farm if it is transferred to another farmer, and allows a farmer to expand his or her operation within the current regulations while maintaining the farm's original establishment date.

The Family Farm Preservation Act also stipulates that any person or group who sues a farm who is abiding by current rules and regulations for public nuisance and loses, must pay the farmer's attorney's fees and expenses associated with the case.

Farmers also will be allowed the right to farm if there is a change in the use of property located adjacent to or in the vicinity of their farms.

Constitutional reform, water resource management, legislative appropriations and insurance issues also will be monitored closely by the Alabama Farmers Federation.

“It is more important than ever for our members to communicate with their legislators,” says Patterson. “Legislators pay attention to their voters and what they're saying. We can't afford to take a wait-and-see attitude. We have to be vocal and out front about what we want.”

Patterson says the Alfa Farmers Website provides a tool to help members monitor and communicate with state and congressional leaders. Members can visit www.alfafarmers.org and click on “Capitol Connection.” Periodic alerts will be posted to inform members about important upcoming legislation. The site also contains addresses, telephone numbers and e-mail addresses for all state legislators and state constitutional officers.

e-mail: phollis@primediabusiness.com