Do Skinny Cows Make Lowfat Cheese?

The California Milk Advisory Board is an agency of the California Department of Food and Agriculture dedicated to promoting California dairy products. You’ve probably never heard of the Board. But we’ll bet you’ve seen their television spots, with their catchy slogan: “Great cheese comes from happy cows. Happy cows come from California.”

Now, The Atlantic magazine reports that landowners on the other side of the country are saving millions in tax by taking advantage of “America’s Dumbest Tax Loophole: The Florida Rent-a-Cow Scam.” But are those Florida cows as happy as their cousins in California?

Here’s how it works. Florida’s “greenbelt law” aims to help preserve farmland by taxing it according to its agricultural-use value, rather than its (higher) potential development value. To qualify, you just have to file a four-page application and convince your county tax appraiser that you’re using the land for “bona fide” agricultural purposes. You don’t even have to make an actual income from your “farming” in order to lower the valuation on your property. Pretty sweet so far, right?

But what if you’re not even really a farmer? What if you’re a rich developer, with land just sitting idle that you’re getting ready to build on, and you want to get in on the party? No problem! Lease your land to a nearby cattle rancher, plop a few cows in what’s left of the grass, and start saving big! Some landowners let ranchers graze their cattle for free. But the tax breaks are so rich and creamy that some landowners actually pay the ranchers to graze their cows, justifying the “rent-a-cow” nickname.

At this point, you’re probably scoffing this is . . . well, udderly ridiculous. Au contraire, my naive friend, au contraire!

The Miami Herald reported back in 2005 that over two-thirds of the greenbelt law’s biggest beneficiaries aren’t true farmers. Developer Armando Codina saved $250,273 in 2004 by grazing cattle on land he owned in northwest Miami-Dade County while he built industrial warehouses on it. Then he asked the county to declare his “ranch” to be an environmentally contaminated “brownfield,” while he still had cows on the land! (That had to make the cows happy.) Developer Richard Bell saved $140,168 that same year by grazing 16 cows on a 49-acre tract where he planned to build million-dollar McMansions. Even U.S. Senator Bill Nelson got in on the act — he keeps “about six cows” on 55 acres of property near the Indian River and saves $43,000 per year. The Herald found “skinny” and “underfed” cows eating garbage and grazing on bare, rocky land throughout the state.

Developers confess that this may not have been exactly what the Florida Legislature intended when they passed the greenbelt law back in 1959. But they argue that vacant land shouldn’t be taxed at full value if it’s just aging till ripeness. And they point out that once the land is developed, new homes and offices generate plenty of tax revenue.

We have no clue if the Florida cows are as happy as the California cows. Nor can we tell you if their cheese is any good. But we can tell you that you don’t have to go to such ridiculous lengths to save big on your income taxes. The tax code is full of legitimate deductions, credits, and opportunities that serve legitimate public goals. And it’s our job to help put all those opportunities to work for you.

 

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