Rolling back the estate tax is the least of our concerns.
The mystique of the family farmer in this country goes all the way back to Thomas Jefferson’s model for democracy. Jefferson centered his vision on the yeoman farmer, who, with family labor, worked a small farm and embodied the virtues of honest and hard work. It was an important idea to a new nation that was supposed to be built on independence and fairness — not aristocracy and privilege.
The idea of the yeoman farmer has evolved into the present-day notion of the family farm, a life few Americans understand but one that they seem to hold dear and want to preserve: The family farmer cares for the land, the animals and the local community because that is their heritage.
It’s no wonder that food packaging depicts that image of the family farm, with little red barns, cows and chickens in the grass and the farm family working together — it sells. This image has nothing to do with how the vast majority of food that fills supermarket shelves is produced, but that hasn’t stopped politicians from invoking the family farm when selling the public on policies that have little to do with those of us who still do the work of family farming.
As Republicans push ahead with their tax reform plan, the small farmer is again invoked. This time it’s about the estate tax. During a speech in North Dakota, President Trump declared, “We’ll also protect small businesses and family farmers here in North Dakota and across the country by ending the death tax.” He added: “Tremendous burden for the family farmer, tremendous burden. We are not going to allow the death tax or the inheritance tax or the whatever-you-want-to-call-it to crush the American Dream.”
But few farmers put the elimination of this tax on the top of their wish lists. Only about 20 farms a year are subject to any inheritance tax, and in almost all cases, those farms have adequate liquid assets to cover the taxes without having to sell any part of the business to do so. After searching for 35 years for one example of a family farm that was lost due to the estate tax Iowa State professor Neil Harl stated simply, “It’s a myth.”
It is a sales pitch, nothing more, again capitalizing on that mystique of the family farm that people hold so dear. Getting rid of the estate tax is a gift to the very rich, not to farmers. As the old saying goes, ask a farmer what they would do if they won a million dollars: Keep farming till it ran out.