Karnack farmer petitions against Appraisal District
By: Kevin Schmidt on June 27, 2016
From The Marshall News Messenger
Published on June 26, 2016
KARNACK - Doodley Dee's Farm in Karnack, the only certified organic farm in the area, is being penalized for making improvements on its 73-acre family-owned farm, manager Kevin Schmidt said.
Schmidt will be going before the Harrison Central Appraisal District in a hearing, scheduled this Tuesday, to dispute the increase in property taxes, which rose dramatically from $4,000 a year to $31,000.
"Now, our property is paid for," he said, on a video he uploaded on the website, change.org, petitioning for changes.
He described how hard they've worked, upgrading the property through their hard-earned savings. He shared the risks they've taken to bring their vision of being an organic farm, to reality.
"Now they want to penalize," Schmidt said. "They weren't there for all the many failures and struggles we've had over the years. They just want to tax us for living on the property.
"If we don't pay, it's pretty simple. They will sell our property at a sheriff's sale. If we do fail to move, the sheriff (department) will, by force, try to remove us from the property," Schmidt said.
He compared the government to the Mafia, saying the government is much worse.
"They have a legal right to extort the people," he said of the government. "We wonder why all of these businesses take their companies overseas. (It's) because you're penalized in the United States. Why improve the community? Why go out on a limb and take those risks when you have people coming and scouring your property … to take all sorts of little measurements to see what we keep manicured and what we don't so they can tax us for being all nice and pretty."
Schmidt described it as "shameful."
"It is not the America where our forefathers had envisioned where you can come and build something nice and employ people, grow things, grow all this beautiful organic fruit that feeds many citizens and all the schools that we supply, all the different institutions and restaurants …. all these people that rave about our products, they love it," he said. "People cannot get enough of our organic food and we brought it here to Harrison County. Had we known that we were going to get punished for bringing a simple organic farm here, we would've not done it."
Giving a tour to the News Messenger this past Friday, Schmidt said the main instigator that's caused his taxes to rise, is the construction of a new barn. The 6,000 square-foot barn boasts high ceilings, attractive light fixtures, a large screen, stylish chandeliers, stables and a bar. Although immaculate, Schmidt said they were very frugal with their expenses, building it for a little of nothing, using cheap material and second-hand tin.
"(About) $2.5 million, they say, is the value of it, which is crazy," Schmidt said. "I mean this is a big, pretty nice barn and we built it really nice, but this is just tin and it's just a wood frame."
They finished constructing the barn in early December.
"We're penalized for it," Schmidt said.
He said appraisers assume that the building is going to be utilized primarily as a venue to be leased out for events. While he's only leased it out once and has a few bookings scheduled for next year, Schmidt said its sole purpose is for agriculture purposes.
"We use it as a barn. I keep all kinds of equipment in there. They are saying we have it as a venue and that's all we use it for," Schmidt said. "It's crazy because upstairs is our farm office. We keep all the files; our seeds. We use it for ag."
Schmidt said weeks before they started building and developing the farm in 2012, the appraisal office initially told them that they wound grant them an agriculture exemption on the next assessment, giving them some tax breaks.
"They told us because we're building a farm, and we are a certified organic farm, the only one around here, and a true asset to East Texas, in our opinion, that they would bring us ag exemption on the next assessment, which means we don't pay taxes," Schmidt said. "We'll still pay a lot of property taxes, but you still get some agricultural breaks, so I'm like OK, we'll build. So, then they came in and reassessed us. My property taxes went up from approximately $4,000 a year to $31,000."
Had he known, "I would've just never built it. I would've kept my savings and been much better off for it," Schmidt said. "I never would've hired the ten people we got hired right here (had he known his taxes would skyrocket)."
When asked by the News Messenger about the issue, Robert Lisman, Chief Appraiser Robert Lisman at HCAD, declined to comment, at this time.
Schmidt said for the barn, all they used was "number 2 grade" yellow pine for the interior walls.
"What's really upsetting is these people don't understand construction," Schmidt said.
"I mean it looks nice; it's clean, but it's unfinished lumber," he said. "The only thing that was stained was this bottom."
"We just randomly put them up and then came back over and put a coat of poly (polyurethane) on it and that's it," Schmidt said. "So, it looks nice, but it's not expensive to build."
"They're saying it's twice as much to build it than for what we actually built it for," he said. "They said basically because you built something nice you're going to get penalized for it."
He said appraisers even upped the price because of the light fixtures.
"They said, 'Well, your light fixtures were expensive,'" Schmidt said. "I ordered them from Lowe's because they were a discounted item. Even if it wasn't a discount, they weren't expensive anyway."
The track lights played a role in the increase in taxes, too.
"They're saying because we have so many track lights, I guess they couldn't see it but the track lights are all (in) one ball each," he said.
The second-hand tin was, purchased at a discount store, was also a culprit.
"They have dents in them and their imperfections," Schmidt said. "I said, 'Well, heck, the ceilings are so tall nobody's going to see if they have scratches on them.
"It looks nice and we get punished for it," Schmidt said.
He said they're also getting punished for their 3,000 square-foot, open space storage building.
"They said this building was a lot more expensive than what it is and I tried to tell them that is 4x8 plyboard," Schmidt said. "There's nothing fancy about that. It looks nice because we put a nice coat of paint on it, but it's not the half a million dollar storage room that they think it is."
"I could understand the point if we put brick or stucco (material), but we're talking about plywood," he said.
Appraisers also took into account a dainty bridge added to the property several months ago.
"Any improvement, you get taxed for it," Schmidt said. "I mean that's not how America was built. What the state of Texas has done and what the enforcers of the law are doing is supporting anti-personal sovereignty by being able to live and do and be more on your own property. You're always under the threat of: 'Can I pay rent to the government?'"
Schmidt said HCAD didn't agriculturally classify them as a farm to reduce taxes because Doodley Dee's way of growing food is nontraditional - growing food in water instead of soil.
"What's funny is we're growing food organically and they don't understand aquaponics and organic growing because during their experience in the past few decades everybody uses harsh chemicals and pesticides and herbicides and all that, but organic farming has been around forever," Schmidt said. "That's how we've always farmed and to say it's nontraditional, their way of farming is what is intrusive and what has weeded out organic farming; and now because we're bringing organic farming to the community and providing all these school kids with great opportunities of learning how to grow food and bringing healthy food choices to Marshall and Harrison County, they say that is not traditional."
He said another issue concerning the agriculture exemption is that a farm has to at least be in operation for a consecutive five years before qualifying for an ag exemption.
"But they told us the last time they had the discretion to waive that five-year period and that's what they were going to do for us this time," Schmidt said. "They outright lied. They said no."
About the farm
The farm - complete with greenhouses, living quarters, a storage area, fish and grocery store - has been opened for nearly three years, serving fresh, organic produce to East Texas schools and restaurants. They started developing the land in 2012.
"We do field trips here. Kids love to come and see how stuff grows," Schmidt said.
Doodley Dee's serves fresh produce, mainly lettuce and tomatoes, to Karnack and Jefferson schools.
"We are making arrangements to see if we can service Longview, Tyler and Elysian Fields," Schmidt said.
They've also caught the attention of Whole Foods, who has offered them a chance to provide food from Dallas to New Orleans.
"Their exact words were: '(You're) one of the nicest farms we've ever visited,'" Schmidt said. "That's a pretty big statement coming from Whole Foods."
Doodley Dee's is also recognized in the "Farm to School" program.
"That's what cracks me up," Schmidt said regarding the Appraisal District's non recognition of them as a farm.
"You can't say we're not a farm because schools promote us on their website as the farm of East Texas for the farm to school program," Schmidt said. "We're serving this community with clean, good food that they cannot otherwise get."
Schmidt said he took to change.org on June 4, posting a video and message, petitioning the HCAD in hopes of forging change. The petition is titled: "Family Fights To Save Farm From The Government - Please Help."
"I think we need to change the law," Schmidt said, noting the video has received nearly 400,000 views. "What we've done is turn every single person in America into a renter. The government owns every piece of property. Nobody owns anything anymore and if you don't pay, they will remove you by force. It happens all the time."
Schmidt said Doodley Dee's is the only certified organic farm, growing lettuce and tomatoes on a large commercial scale, in this area.
"Right now, we produce about 30,000 plants a month, which will end up being about 250,000 plants every month when we finish the construction (of more greenhouses)," he said, sharing they grow a lot of red and green romaine lettuce as well as red fire lettuce.
Schmidt said they harvest the produce, wash and clean it, and then dip it in ice water to keep it crisp.
"We harvest that morning and they get it that day. It doesn't get any fresher than that, and Harrison County says we're still not a farm," Schmidt said.
Having his taxes increased has discouraged him from wanting to continue to invest in Harrison County.
"What's really sad is, our deal with Whole Foods, where they want us to supply from Dallas to New Orleans, I'm going to take it, (but) I will not put that in Harrison County. I will not bring those extra 15 jobs to Harrison County," Schmidt said. "I'm going to take it right across the state line because they penalized us."
If things aren't resolved at Tuesday's hearing, he plans to take his dispute to 71st District Court. If he's not successful there, Schmidt said he'll just appeal.
"We spent our savings to build it. We'd never get it back," he said.