Gumboots? check. Akubra? check. Tax status?…

Hobby farming is a lifestyle choice that has been around for years and looks like an option that, if anything, is on the increase.

It can be easy to poke fun at the typical hobby farmer (like the old joke about their skills at growing blackberries and rabbits). For many the choice to embrace the rural idyll leads to a thirst for information about the taxation realities of owning a small country property.

It is true that small rural landholders may be pursuing “lifestyle” dividends rather than a genuine livelihood, but the option to claim the tax concessions for bona fide primary producers is still available, if eligible.

These extra tax concessions make securing “primary producer” status tempting — such as the three-year write-off for water facilities, deferral of profits in certain circumstances, and the ability to average income (contact us for more information)

Hobby farms can range from a modest block with a few cows and chooks to quite substantial small working farms capable of generating income for the erstwhile tree-changers. But owners require more than a ute with a kelpie in the back to be able to turn their small farm into a source of tax breaks.

In business or not?

The vital question to be settled is whether the small farm is indeed a “hobby”, and therefore operates with no expectation of making a profit, or if it is run like a business.

If the latter, the land owner will be looking to make money from the farming operations, and needs to show they are carrying on a productive business, with sound business principles and commercial intention.

This is not to say they need to be making a lot of money, but to qualify as a business, certain factors need to be satisfied. There is a substantial body of case law that has considered whether a taxpayer is conducting a farming business, with some factors established that contribute to forming a conclusion. None of these factors are decisive on their own, and the ATO considers all of them in combination to determine an overall impression of the activity. The indicators the ATO considers relevant are listed in the table below.

Examining the factors

The “prospect of profit” is something that the ATO considers to be an important indicator when determining the status of whether the activities relate to a hobby farm or a genuine primary producing business.

For example, if it could be shown that a business plan has been drawn up, or that expert advice was sought from relevant authorities or experienced farmers or consultants in an area of primary production, then this may lead to the conclusion that the taxpayer has the intent of conducting a farming business.

Soil and water analysis could be undertaken to determine suitability for a particular agricultural use, which can be viewed as further evidence of commercial intent, as well as investigation of potential markets.

Significant commercial activity Not a significant commercial activity
Purpose and intention of the activity No purpose or intention
Intention to make a profit No intention to make a profit
The activity is or will be profitable The activity is inherently unprofitable
Repetition and regularity of activity Little repetition or regularity of activity
Activity is carried on in a similar manner to ordinary trade Activity carried on in an ad-hoc manner
Activity organised and carried on in a business-like manner and records kept systematically Activity not organised or carried on in a business-like manner – no records kept
Size and scale of the activity Small size and scale
Not a hobby, recreation or sport A hobby, recreation or sporting activity
A business plan exists No business plan
Commercial sales of product Sale of products to relatives and friends
Tax knowledge or skill Lack of such knowledge

Note however that agistment is not considered by the ATO to be a business activity as the taxpayer, in such cases, is deriving passive income from such activities. Contact this office if you need help with establishing whether your activities constitute a business.

Non-commercial losses

Typically these farming activities give rise to losses in the early stages before the business turns over a profit.

However under the tax law, losses from non-commercial business activities conducted by an individual can only be deductible against other income (such as salary and wages) in the same income year if the activity meets certain criteria, and the taxpayer has an “adjusted taxable income” of less than $250,000.

The activity must meet at least one of four criteria:

  1. produce assessable income of at least $20,000 during the year
  2. make a profit in three of the past five years (including the current year)
  3. use land and buildings (“real” property) valued at $500,000 or more, or
  4. use other assets (tractor, machinery, but not cars) valued at $100,000 or more.

Losses can be quarantined where none of the above criteria are met and used in a later year, with no time limit. Note however that the non-commercial loss rules do not extend to companies or trusts.

It’s worth noting that primary production businesses, even if they don’t meet the above criteria, can still offset losses if other taxable income is less than $40,000.

The ATO however maintains discretionary powers over these tax laws, so a small rural landholder can always apply for discretion if circumstances beyond their control unduly influence the financial outcomes in any income year. Contact our office if you believe you have a case.

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