Can you see the Forest for the Trees?

P1010430

After the first year of owning our property the taxes doubled. I contacted the Assessor’s office to see why and found out that when the larger parcel was split, our 24 acres became classified as residential. Mind you, there is no residence on this land [yet] and the property had previously been classified as agricultural.

I asked why the taxes doubled and was told because now that it is a smaller parcel it is a more marketable size and therefore there are more comparable parcels to measure it against, so our taxes were increased to match what similar “residential” parcels are rated at. Now that doesn’t seem fair, does it?

I asked about getting the Ag classification and the assessor was kind enough to advise me  that it would be easier and a better tax rate if we applied for the timber classification on the 13.5 acres of our parcel that is wooded. She said filing for the Ag classification was more complicated and you have to continually show a certain amount of gross income per acre.  Well, at least that was helpful.

At about the same time we attended a workshop on mushroom cultivation sponsored by our local land grant university extension program (WSU) and hosted by a small farm nearby.  In addition to learning how to cultivate mushrooms from the farmer, the WSU rep talked to us about using your woods for wildcrafting as another value-add to farming.  Wildcrafting in this instance was about using your woods to grow mushrooms, host wildcrafting workshops where participants would gather wild edibles and medicinal herbs, or make crafts from forest products and by-products like wreaths and baskets.

Interesting to note that the farmer (who had the “appearance” of being a little on the “hippie” side – not a criticism by any means – just providing a visual) was cultivating his mushrooms in plastic bags in highly managed and sanitized re-purposed shipping containers – not in the woods on logs.  In contrast, the WSU forestry guy (picture a 60-something university professor type) was promoting going out into the woods and communing with nature.  The juxtaposition was priceless and just goes to show you can’t (and shouldn’t) judge a book by it’s cover.

We chatted with the WSU guy at the break about our property and he offered to come out and do a walk-about with us to discuss forest management practices, wildcrafting/value-add ideas, etc….  He works in the Forestry department at WSU Extension and they help local landowners develop Forest Stewardship Plans, a much more intensive plan than the Forest Management Plan the assessors office requires for the tax classification change.

Well, as with most things, time slipped through our fingers with the barn building and earthworks projects this past fall/winter, so when I stumbled upon the Timber Tax Classification application the assessor sent me last summer I cringed.  You have to file the application along with your FMP by Dec 31 to qualify for the tax benefit for the following year – so this would not go into effect (assuming we filed on time and qualified) until 2015.  If we missed this deadline, we would be looking at waiting until 2016. Ding dang it – another opportunity lost… or was it?

I emailed Mr. WSU guy mid-November just in case he was available but it took us until mid-December before we could find a mutually agreeable time to meet up.  He came out and spent a good 3-4 hours walking the property and discussing the status of our current timber stand, ideas for improving it, as well as tips on thinning, harvesting and replanting it.  We also ran some of our ideas past him for value-add products and related ventures and he shared some additional ideas as well.  It was a great meeting and well worth it even if we weren’t able to get our application in on time to qualify for the tax break in 2015.  And I still pinch myself as it didn’t cost us a penny.  Thank you local land grant university!!

Now I have to take this opportunity to remind myself that even though this entire farm venture can be incredibly stressful, financially draining and time-consuming – we have met more of the nicest and most generous people since we started down this path than we have in our entire lives.  Not to say we haven’t known nice and generous people in our “other life” – but seriously – everyone we’ve met in connection with the farm has been over the top genuine, friendly and generous with their time, their tools and their knowledge.  Well, there is one exception – we’ve met one nasty fellow and unfortunately he will be one of our neighbors, but maybe he’ll mellow by the time we live there full time. Anyhow, Mr. WSU guy who was going to be on vacation until the end of the year said he’d work with us on getting our tax app and FMP filed on time and not to worry that he was on vacation.  CAN YOU BELIEVE IT?  Pinch me again.

We researched forest management plans and poured through the info Mr. WSU guy shared with us.  We emailed a couple of drafts back and forth with him (he was happy with what we had done) and filed it in person at the Assessor’s office on Dec 30 (right after we dug that second hugel bed). Whew!  Just in the nick of time.  Fingers crossed the inspector that will come out to our property in the next month or so will be able to make sense of what we filed – I can tell you it is not a standard FMP as we have no intention of ever clear-cutting our woods.

Red Alder

Red Alder

Our woods are mostly 20 – 30 year old Red Alder and Douglas Fir with some Bitter Cherry and a mix of other native trees. For the FMP, we divided it into 9 tracts (probably way more than a typical timber property would and we are only 13.5 acres!). The FMP requires you to list and describe the current timber species in each tract, provide somewhat detailed plans (dates, methods, etc), for harvesting, site preparation and replanting each tract.  In a nutshell, we will be thinning to improve the health of the timber stands, selectively harvesting over time, and replanting with trees that target the specialty hardwood market (handmade furniture, woodworkers, etc) as well as marketing non-timber products (i.e. mushrooms, chair bodgering workshops, wildcrafting workshops, and so on) and maintaining a healthy eco-system to support native plant species and wildlife.  We plan to take WSU’s Forest Stewardship Plan class this spring. The FSP goes into way more detail than the FMP and will help us to manage our woods in a much more sustainable way.

Douglas Fir

Douglas Fir

Red Alder

Red Alder

Somewhere in between hugel building, charcuterie and preparing the forest management plan we squeezed in a little Christmas.  Just a little Charlie Brown tree from the woods behind the house – no lights, no decorations. We never made it up into the attic to get everything down. We intended to make a popcorn and cranberry garland to then leave out for the birds but charcuterie day turned into charcuterie week and we ran out of time.  No Christmas cookies or candy making this year – just a rum cake for Christmas day dessert.  The grand plan to serve Duck L’Orange for dinner turned into Rooster L’Orange.  I waited too long to get a local duck, but luckily M had recently harvested a couple of our young roos.  Despite the busyness, we somehow managed to overstuff our stockings and ourselves (with pate and sausages from charcuterie week – yum!) and still ended up with quite a few presents under our tiny tree come Christmas morning.  Thank goodness for that free trial of Amazon Prime.

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About La Femme Farmer

Starting up a small farm is the goal for the second half of my life. It's a late start I know, but better late than NEVER! Growing food, cooking and eating are my passions and now I get to do it full-time (and then some). and yes, that's a tomato from my garden!
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13 Responses to Can you see the Forest for the Trees?

  1. DM says:

    You guys are doing some cool out of the box thinking for your property. make sure you take good notes @ the WSU’s Forest Stewardship Plan workshop, I would love to hear some of the things you come away with. Have you set a target date for when you hope to have your home built? Can’t wait to read about that process. As a contractor, I find that sort of thing fascinating. DM

    • Thanks DM. Your feedback means a lot to us! Re: The house, we know we want to use those poles as upright timbers and need to get them peeled. We have a good idea of the footprint and layout but what to build with is up in the air. Cob walls? Mud daub? Shingles and sheetrock? Money, time, and what we can do ourselves are the big factors. Imagining being 70 and doing maintenence on a farm budget has us scratching our heads. …But you know some of that alder is getting milled and turned into cabinets and doors in my shop. 🙂

      • DM says:

        If I were going to build my dream house @ this point, after 35 years in the construction business, I would build some type of earth home,. I would put a traditional roof on it rather than 3 feet of earth, just pump some extra insulation and you can get the same energy savings, with lots of windows facing south. I’ve been in them before and it doesn’t feel like you are in a basement. They are also very quiet and energy efficient .long range maintenance is also a slam dunk. I’m sure you’ve probably read about them if you’re thinking about cob or mud daub construction, but just in case you haven’t..google “earth homes” and let me know what you think. 😉 DM ps here’s a link to a 2003 mother earth news article about them that is pretty good : http://www.motherearthnews.com/green-homes/earth-sheltered-homes-zmaz03fmzgoe.aspx

      • Thanks for the link! We have looked into earth-sheltered homes, but in order to take advantage of passive solar gains, we can’t build into our north facing slope. Our current debate on cob is how long it will take us to build it ourselves.😖

      • mashazager says:

        We built an earth-sheltered house into a north-facing slope (with at least partial success) using south-facing window wells on the roof. Contact me if you want details.

      • That is a good idea with the window wells, however in our case I think that ship already sailed when we put in the moat, er, I mean the curtain drain. 😖 I would be interested to see any pics/read more about your earth-sheltered house. Is there info on your blog about it?

      • mashazager says:

        Not in any detail, but maybe I’ll commission my partner to write a guest post about it, since he designed it.

  2. Holy mackerel, you guys have been having a busy time. I agree with DM, the ideas and possibilities you’re coming up with for your 13.5 acres are so diverse and creative. It’s going to be interesting to see how things develop.
    As for Coq l’orange – yum! Rum cake – double rum, I mean yum :). Charcuterie and books under the tree? Perfect.
    The whole tax assessment thing can be such a nightmare when you don’t know what you don’t know. We fortunately were aware before we moved back to the farm that we needed to maintain farm status for property tax purposes, so never got caught on that, but lots of people do. I’m glad there are other options for you to pursue, but yeah, the time lag on a tax year can hurt.
    I know zilch about house construction, but a friend of mine has now supplied the straw bales for three straw bale houses. As DM says about earth homes, they are apparently very quiet and energy efficient. I don’t remember what kind of roofs they all have – one for sure has a living roof.

    • Coq l’orange definitely has a nicer ring to it – but rooster l’orange pretty much summed up how things were going around here! Speaking of which, we still have one more roo to harvest, so there will probably be Coq au vin on the menu sometime here soon.
      Thanks for the vote of confidence – I guess we will either sink or swim with all of our “creative ideas” 😉
      The 13.5 acres is just the wooded areas that would qualify for the timber tax break – we have a total of 23.7 (to be exact ; D). Apparently the tax savings just on those 13.5 acres will be significant. I looked up the tax records for other properties in our ‘hood with the timber tax class – and they are barely paying any tax at all, so we may not need to apply for the ag class on the remaining acreage which is pasture and where we will be planting our perennial and annual gardens, fruit and nut food forests, hugel beds, etc…
      We originally planned on strawbale but in recent conversations with the county – they nixed it. Too moist around here. There have been 4 or 5 houses built in the county using strawbale and apparently they have all failed so they won’t allow them. Wah!
      I also love the living roofs but even though we have too much water most of the year, the summer growing season is dry as a bone, so as much water as we can sequester using swales, cisterns, ponds, etc… to save up the better. The house (whenever it gets built) gutters will also tie into the “grain bin” cistern.

      • I had forgotten the size of your property. That is pretty awesome that the timbered section could carry the total acreage tax wise.
        We have a very similar climate pattern to you (obviously), and I’ve always wondered how people manage to maintain living roofs sustainably in the summer, when things here are dry as a bone as well.

  3. Bill says:

    Property taxes are a major impediment to homesteading. Not matter how self-reliant a family becomes and no matter how much they reduce expenses, the tax man can destroy all plans and dreams by demanding more currency than the homestead can produce.

    We had to jump through the hoops to get our agricultural classification (missing the deadline the first year) and that helps. But our home isn’t included and they keep jacking up the assessment on it. Likewise the pastures and fields. Even the tax rate is lower on those areas, by escalating the value of it they’re still able to extract more and more money from us. Very frustrating. I hope it works out for you but I’ve just had to factor into our long-term future that we have no control over property tax and it looms as a threat to our plans.

    I was pleased to see that your extension service was so helpful. We really need to try to take better advantage of ours. The agents who are there everyday are oriented entirely to industrial ag, and don’t seem to understand what we’re about, but I know there are specialists available for the kinds of things we do. I really need to seek them out. Thanks for the motivation.

    • As soon as we build our home the non-timber portion of our property taxes will likely skyrocket, but by then we will be in full farm operation and can put the rest of the acreage, (except the 1 acre for the home) into Ag. Hopefully it will be enough, but as my grandma would have said “it’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick”.
      As to our local extension – it is a great resource, one that we’ve used in our current residence county quite a bit. The county in which our property is located sounds a lot like your local extension – geared towards industrial Ag and we have not had the most positive experiences with them yet. The extension forestry guy happened to be from the next county over which is much more supportive of “newer ideas”. Our property is literally located just over that county line, and the city which is part of our address (about 12 minutes drive from our place) is in that county, so we are lucky to be able to partake of their services.
      I’ve participated in extension events, trainings and workshops in several counties within the last couple of years. Perhaps you can find more helpful resources in another county. WSU’s extension program website links to all of the counties allowing you to shop around to see what others are offering. Good luck!

    • you are so right. taxes and the other cost… inurance. Liability, vehicle, health, home owners. Those numbers really add up.

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