Sunday, February 8, 2009

A Great Big Food Garden Tax Break & Stimulus Package

Warning: The following may contain dangerously subversive thoughts. Young children should probably leave the room....

Although I believe in food gardening, I am also convinced that we will only get so far trying to persuade Americans that there is a healthier way to eat, and that growing your own is a big part of the answer. But I also know there's something else Americans care very much about: money. That's why I am proposing right here and right now a big fat tax break on kitchen gardens that will not only spur our fellow citizens to start digging up their lawns like crazy, but will fit right in with President Obama's economic stimulus efforts by getting everyone busy buying seeds and garden tools.

This proposal has the added benefit of creating a perfect opportunity for the kind of political bi-partisanship that Obama has been yearning for. I am certain that Republicans, who have never seen a tax break they didn't like, will jump at the chance to support one that will provide fresh fruits and vegetables to every man, woman and child in these United States. This is more than a bread and butter issue. This is more than a Mom and apple pie issue. This is a beets and potatoes issue that people of all political stripes can easily sink their teeth into.

Why shouldn't kitchen gardens get a tax break? We give tax breaks for home offices, which encourages workers to stay off the roads. We give tax breaks for mortgage interest, which encourages people to buy homes. We even give tax credits for children, which quite needlessly encourages couples who otherwise would not get along to have more sex. Written as they are into our federal law, these measures are a form of universally accepted social engineering, designed to create healthier, more productive, more satisfying living conditions for our entire society. So I ask you, what could be healthier, more productive, more satisfying than fruits and vegetables we can grow and harvest right outside our door? In fact, we can easily do without a home office, or our own house, or even more children. But we cannot do without food. Living without food would be hard if not nearly impossible. We should be encouraging people to grow more of it.

There is a deeper, more profound reason to use the federal tax code to promote kitchen gardens. As we all know, Congress has been unable to undo the corporate-government love knot that is responsible for so much of the bad food in this country. By that I mean the way our government uses our tax dollars to subsidize the production of a huge glut of corn and soybeans, which then finds its way via a chemical laboratory in New Jersey into nearly everything you see on supermarket shelves. Obesity, diabetes, hypertension, irritability--there's a whole litany of unhealthy repercussions from government-supported agribusiness that we needn't bother to repeat here. Try as it might, Congress hasn't been able to wrap its arms around this problem. So I say let's just put that one to the side. Let's not pull out our hair over it any more. Let's move on and consider tax breaks for healthy alternative foods, the kind you grow in kitchen gardens.

The reason I think our elected representatives in Washington will go for this idea is, first of all, it will get radical food groups off their backs about the cozy relationship they have with agribusiness. Once these tax breaks are passed, Congress can continue to accept those fat contributions from Monsanto and ConAgra and Archer Daniels Midland and nobody will care. That won't be where the action is any more. Everybody in the country will be focused on how to take advantage of the new tax breaks. Secondly, these new tax measures will win wide support because they embody two cherished American values: fairness and competition. Tax breaks for kitchen gardens will help level the playing field where growing food is concerned because up to now all the federal subsidies have been going to corn and soybeans. Nobody subsidizes carrots and broccoli. In fact, nobody even pays to advertise carrots and broccoli the way they do, say, Doritos and Pepsi, two products that just happen to contain a lot of corn. Giving tax breaks to people who grow their own collards and tomatoes will inject a fresh new competitive spirit into the business of producing food. With every family in America growing their own food, we can surely expect agribusiness to respond with a more efficacious high-fructose corn syrup, for instance, even a better tasting fry oil.

This is how it would work: If you are just starting your garden, you will be eligible for a federal tax credit on the land you put into production, up to one acre. I think $1 per square foot is a fair rate, which means that virtually every home owner could probably knock $1,000 right off the top of their tax bill. If you don't pay any federal income taxes, it would mean a $1,000 check from Uncle Sam. Even better, you wouldn't even have to own your own home. You could claim the credit if you rent, even if you are starting a garden on the roof of your apartment building or just planting basil in some window boxes. Starting your new garden will probably also require some tools and a good deal of labor. My plan provides a further tax credit of $500 for the purchase or rental of appropriate garden tools and any help you might have to pay for. The only catch is, you cannot claim tools that use fossil fuels. This conforms with our previously announced scheme to reduce greenhouse gases wherever possible in the gardening realm. Instead, this is what you do: When you go to Home Depot to buy your garden tools, grab a couple of those immigrant guys who are hanging around looking for work and take them home to help dig the garden. You can claim whatever you pay them on your tax credit form, anything within the $500 limit. Just remember to ask for a receipt.

As you might suspect already, this proposal would be a huge stimulus to employment, and not just for the guys hanging around Home Depot. Millions of gardeners will need their soil tested, which will instantly create jobs at state universities and other testing facilities nationwide. There will be a huge demand for shovels and trowels and watering cans: more jobs by the thousands for a nation hungry for employment in the manufacturing sector. Ditto for those factories that create compost and other soil amendments and are now sitting idle. They will be humming with new work. (Note: no deductions for artificial fertilizers or chemical pesticides. This is a sustainable, strictly organic tax program.) And what about seeds? You will certainly need seeds. My plan envisions a $50 credit for seeds, meaning lots of work for seed collectors.

What if you have never gardened before? Won't you need some instruction on how to prepare your garden, what to plant, when to plant it? For that I have a very special feature in mind, something that is sure to take thousands of unemployed horticulturists out of bread lines and put them to work. I call it the "Kitchen Garden Corps," whereby the federal government, as a further stimulus measure, would fund new positions in every single county extension service in the country, people trained and ready to show erstwhile kitchen gardeners how to grow more food and how to cook it for dinner. (And if we need to train the experts first, so much the better. More jobs for trainers.) Additional positions could be created to teach gardening on-line, a boost for the telecommunications and computer industries.

That's all well and good, you are saying to yourself, but what's to prevent cheating? What if somebody digs up their lawn but doesn't plant anything? Do we let garden scofflaws just kick back and collect their checks? I struggled with that one, too. Perhaps we should require some sort of site visit and certification by an extension agent. Or maybe we could require that people claiming the credit provide photos of their garden at appropriate intervals in the growing season. But I think an even better remedy--one that market theorists will like--would be to provide further incentives to grow as much food in the garden as possible, to garden as intensively as soil and local weather conditions permit. Remember what Earl Butz told farmers back in the 70s: "Plant fence row to fence row!" Well, we would be telling home owners to plant from the back of the patio all the way to the wooden fence that separates them from their neighbor on the next street over. The incentive would come in the form of a subsidy check for the produce you grow, very much like the payments the federal government makes to agribusinesses that produce corn that can only be eaten after it's been subjected to a complicated chemical process. You would be paid by the pound for all the organic eggplants and zucchini and butternut squash you grow. But you would need to weigh everything and keep very precise records. The IRS will print a form for this purpose, much like the one you fill out when you are claiming a profit or loss from the sale of your stocks. (The cost of the scale would be tax deductible, of course.)

In subsequent years, the tax credits that helped you start your garden would turn into tax deductions. Hopefully these incentives would be enough to keep you gardening year after year, producing food for your family and possibly even for the fruit and vegetable co-op you form with your neighbors. By then, there will be an enthusiastic response to the idea of further tax breaks for chickens, goats, rabbits and other small, food-producing animals. The entire nation will be healthier and happier, hooked on fresh, local food. That could mean hard times for traditional supermarkets and fast-food restaurants. But surely they will evolve in this competitive new food environment, perhaps even learning to serve healthy foods themselves. Thanks to these new federal tax measures we will be eating most of our food fresh out of the garden, which could lead to much less disease (less demand, hence lower costs, for health care) and much greater longevity (better days for retirement homes and registered nurses).

Which leads me to wonder: Will I still be gardening when I'm 140 years old?


Melissa said...

I really wish that the powers that be WOULD pass this as a tax break. Imagine, it would give many people a sense of accomplishment and, possibly, help others get off welfare and out of the "the world owes me something" rut.

Alas, it will probably never come to pass.

Melissa in FL

Joanna said...

Ed I LOVE this - we could do with something similar here in the UK, although our food issues are not quite so serious as yours (getting there, though). Much more effective than digging up the White House lawn.

Where do we sign? ;)


Peg A said...

What a sensible and radical idea!

Maureen said...

This is a tax break I can get behind...hear hear!

Chris said...

I'm in favor of anything that gets rid of lawns, and gets people out growing their own food.

Cornelia said...

We at love this idea. Radical, yet winnable - bravo!

Walter Jeffries said...

Yes, I love gardening, but I have a better idea. Let's eliminate all the tax breaks. Let's make it so that our entire tax code fits on one 8.5"x11" sheet of paper, with 1" margins and 12 point type, single spaced Times-Roman with no condensing. Okay, you can go double-sided.

While we're at it we'll reduce filing to a 3"x5" post card.

Keep it simple. Just say no to more tax breaks.

Never Thirst! Pat Ferraro said...

Home gardens need water subsidies from local water companies or municipal water departments. Retail water rates in California for homeowners is about 50 times more expensive than commercial farmers pay for the same water.

Read more about our efforts in Silicon Valley to get home and community gardeners the same discount farmers get for growing food at home:

Ed Bruske said...

Melissa, I wrote this tongue-in-cheek. But really--why not?

Joanna, you're name will be at the top of our petition from sympathetic Brits.

Peg, call your congressman.

Maureen, you too. Call your congressman. Or send a letter to Obama.

Chris, we both support the idea of replacing lawns with food gardens. Boo, lawns.

Cornelia, send a link to the White House.

Walter, you had me going for a second. I thought you were going to say no more taxes. We in the District of Columbia, the only U.S. territory that is required to pay federal income taxes without any vote in Congress, could certainly get behind the idea of eliminating federal income taxes.

Pat, thank you for bringing the water issue to our attention. We are all for a discount on water. We've got plenty of it here in the east. What about tax credits for rain barrels and cisterns?

Walter Jeffries said...

Ed, how about a combined sales tax and income tax. Sales tax is on _everything_. Income tax is on everything. It would be nice if the government had to live within its means. I do understand there are extra-ordinary times that call for extra-ordinary spending. FDR found another solution - war. I can see compromising on the income tax and having it only kick in after $X. Pick your numbers. Balance the federal, state and local budgets. Run for Congress. :)

Ed Bruske said...

Walter,we are pining for the Clinton days and a balanced budget. Weren't there supposed to be limits on government spending? Apparently the GOP is all about cutting taxes--then spending more. You can't trust any of 'em.

Josh said...

I think this is a wonderful idea, but I am concerned where the breakdown between home garden and farm is. And what about urban gardeners with little plots. I would hate to leave anyone out, but at the same time I could see where there would be a fine line between what is a garden and what is a farm.