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After giving up her Wall Street career, Democratic Assembly candidate Darcy Draeger is a full-time farmer.
Draeger’s small farm in rural Chester Township has 24 sheep, 15 chickens – down from 19 after an unfortunate incident with a raccoon – and 7 active beehives.
She sells honey, eggs, meat and fleece locally.
That hasn’t stopped her Republican opponent, five-term incumbent Anthony Bucco (R-Boonton), from calling her a “Fake Farmer” and accusing her of being a tax cheat because she qualifies for New Jersey’s Farmland Assessment program on her 10.7 acre Morris County farm.
Bucco’s allegation is deliberately misleading.
While Draeger pays just $25.98 in property taxes for 9 acres set aside for farmland, she also pays $23,875 annually for the 1.7 acre portion of her property where her house is located, tax records show.
The part that could get Bucco in trouble is his accusation that Draeger isn’t a real farmer.
“I don’t know how you can say she’s a fake. Obviously, she’s a farmer,” said Frank Carrajat, the Morris County Director of the New Jersey Farm Bureau.
Carrajat, who farms several properties in the Mendham and Chester areas, says he doesn’t know Draeger, but thinks attacks on farmers like her is unfair.
“Does she need one more sheep? Two more beehives?” asked Carrajat. “It’s just an easy attack. She’s an easy target.”
The New Jersey Farm Bureau, the state’s largest grassroots agriculture advocacy group, calls the program “a big reason agriculture remains a thriving industry in the most densely populated state in America.
The Farm Bureau says that the state “counts on small farms and small farm operators to help maintain the working landscape of New Jersey.”
“It’s keeping people like myself viable,” Carrajat told the New Jersey Globe. “If it wasn’t for small farmers, there would be a lot fewer green fields.”
Rob Costello, the campaign manager for Bucco and running mate Brian Bergen, says that Draeger has been cheating taxpayers for years “with a tax-dodging scheme.”
That strategy could backfire on Bucco in parts of the 25th district, where residents take preserved farmland seriously, according to Micah Rasmussen, the director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University.
“Word is going to get around fast. Even people who aren’t farmers in agricultural communities care a lot about the way of life that attracted them to the area,” said Rasmussen, who noted that nearly half the land in Chester is preserved. “As a resident of a community that similarly values farming, it’s a big deal when you call out a farmer who is doing the real work of preserving the rural character of the community. “
Draeger’s campaign manager, Daniel Fleiss, slammed Bucco and Bergen for a seeking to “defraud voters.”
“Since Anthony can’t even get these basic numbers straight, it’s no surprise he hasn’t done a single thing to lower our property taxes in his ten years in the Assembly,” Fleiss said. “If he’d like to brush up his arithmetic, he’s welcome to count sheep on Darcy’s farm any time.”
Draeger isn’t the first North Jersey candidate to tout their farming experience as a candidate for public office.
During the 1996 U.S. Senate race, Rep. Dick Zimmer ran a TV ad that shows he and his wife walking around their Delaware Township farm feeding their sheep.
When Zimmer first bought the farm in the 1970s, he delivered eggs and his wife milked their cow every day.
Zimmer, who represented part of the 25th district in Congress, used his farm to highlight his record on support of environmental issues and an endorsement by the League of Conservation Voters.
The Democratic Senate candidate, Rep. Bob Torricelli, attacked Zimmer for taking the Farmland Assessment tax benefit on his 23 ½ acre farm.
The Globe reported last month that New Jersey Transit boss Kevin Corbett qualifies for the Farmland Assessment tax break because he raises sheep at his Mendham Township home.
The difference between Corbett and Draeger is that the Assembly candidate is a full-time farmer while a spokesman for the NJ Transit boss says that the sheep farm is a hobby.
“Some people play golf. Kevin’s a farmer,” NJ Transit spokesman Anthony Grieco told the Globe.
Criticism of part-time farmers taking advantage of reductions in their property taxes in nothing new.
During his first campaign for Congress in 2010, Rep. Jon Runyan (R-Mount Laurel) defended paying less than $500 in property taxes on 20 of his 25 acres because he sold firewood and grazed donkeys.
Two years earlier, Rep. Scott Garrett (R-Wantage) faced calls for an investigation into his farmland tax assessment when his Democratic opponent alleged that the congressman saved as much as $41,000 annually thanks to a Christmas tree farm run by his brother that did not appear on his personal financial disclosure.
State Sen. Ellen Karcher (D-Marlboro) was hammered in her 2007 re-election campaign by Republican Jennifer Beck for claiming a tax incentive for a cord-wood and Christmas tree farm. Karcher did not initially include her farming income on her financial disclosure, but later amended it to do so.
Her loss was blamed on the farmland tax assessment issue.
In the 1993 New Jersey gubernatorial race, Gov. Jim Florio made a farmland tax reduction obtained by rival Christine Todd Whitman into a campaign issue. Whitman had sold firewood to friends and family to show revenues for her farm.
Whitman, who defeated Florio in that race, was able to deflect the issue by inviting reporters to tour the working farm and enjoy a lunch made with food raised there.
President Donald Trump saves about $88,000-a-year on local property taxes on a portion of his luxury Bedminster golf course because of a flock of eight goats he maintains, according to a report in the Huffington Post.
Bucco is already in a precarious position as he seeks re-election.
He recently announced that he will seek the State Senate seat left vacant on September 16 when his father, Anthony R. Bucco (R-Boonton), passed away.
The special election convention to fill the seat is scheduled for October 16.
Despite his ascension to the Senate, Bucco has decided to remain in the race for an Assembly seat he has no plans to hold.
If he wins, Republican leaders meet in January to select a new State Assembly member, who would then run in a November 20020 special election for the remaining fourteen months of Bucco’s term.
Either way, Bucco will face the voters next year in a special election to complete his father’s term.