N.J. Politics Lives Down to Its Reputation

Congressional challenger slams farm owner's farm - and loses.

Published on: Nov 12, 2008

Political mud-slinging probably doesn't get much nastier than in New Jersey. But this year, voters were more than fed up with negative advertising, if the race between New Jersey Congressman Scott Garrett and challenger Dennis Shulman provided any clue.

Before the November 4 election, Shulman aired television and radio advertising that made it all the way to YouTube. Shuman's campaign staff also posted a Web site musical parody about "Garrett's Tree and Shrub Farm". The ads panned Garrett for owning 9.88 acres of farmland, and not reporting income on it since 2002. Shulman's ads also alleged that Garrett should be paying up to $41,000 in property taxes if the land were valued as residential property.

Therein lies a nasty perception that Shulman attempted to capitalize on. Mike Garrett, Congressman Garrett's brother explains: "My brother was accused of cheating on his property taxes. The implication is that every landowner who continues to farm and refuses to pave over his land is doing the same."

"Scott and I love this land where we grew up. We should not be made out as villains simply because we keep our land in open space and prefer to leave it that way for future generations to enjoy," adds the owner of Shale Hills Farm, Sussex, N.J. "It's been a very stressful couple of months."

Scott Garrett's 9.88 acres has been part of the family farm since 1961. Today, it's part of Shale Hills' Christmas tree operation. "I have thousands of Christmas trees on Scott's land, and it's planted hedgerow to hedgerow," says Mike.

"There are no rental payments," he adds. "I pay all sales and income taxes on all crops produced and provide the necessary documentation to the township."

New Jersey farmland tax assessments, as in many states, are lower than residential or commercial tax assessments – as incentive to keep agricultural land open. Property owners must have a minimum of 5 acres actively devoted to farming activity.

The voting majority of New Jersey's fifth congressional district didn't buy into Shulman's beef. Garrett won re-election with 57% of the votes. And now Mike Garrett can get back to what he loves – readying Shale Hills Farm's for the Christmas tree season.