Farmers gear up for a new fight

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Norwegian farmers were preparing for another fight with the government this spring over how much subsidy and protection they can continue to receive. The farmers are also angry over a government proposal to allow more small farms to be sold off as holiday properties, instead of restricting them to full-time residents who’ll work their land.

Farmers' leader Lars Petter Bartnes (center) handed over his organization's demands to Leif Forsell of the state agriculture ministry on Monday. At right, Merete Furuberg of Norway's other farm lobbying organization, Norsk Bonde of Småbrukarlag. PHOTO: Landbruks- og matdepartementet

Farmers’ leader Lars Petter Bartnes (center) handed over his organization’s demands to Leif Forsell of the state agriculture ministry on Monday. At right, Merete Furuberg of Norway’s other farm lobbying organization, Norsk Bonde of Småbrukarlag. PHOTO: Landbruks- og matdepartementet

The farmers’ two major lobbying groups, Norges Bondelag and Norsk Bonde og Småbrukarlag, delivered their demands to their longtime bureaucratic opponent at the Ministry of Agriculture this week, Leif Forsell. Even though farm income has increased dramatically during the past year, a result of lower costs and strong markets, the farmers’ groups are demanding a 6 percent pay increase (NOK 20,800) per farmer per year, in the form of subsidy, tariff protection and other government price supports.

That’s roughly triple the pay raises being offered to most other Norwegian workers in an economy reeling from the decline in oil prices. The total package of financial support demanded by the farmers is at around NOK 860 million, NOK 577 million of which is direct funding through the state budget and NOK 193 million in price rises for what they’re allowed to charge for their products. The package is valued at less than some demands made in prior years but much more than the government is prepared to offer.

“The agricultural sector has put forward a high demand which is nearly identical with last year’s demand,” Forsell stated upon receiving the farmers’ documents on Monday. “They have not seemed to realize that the Norwegian economy has changed considerably since last year.” Forsell also noted that other labour negotiations going on this spring have involved hardly any pay raises at all, in exchange for preservation of benefits or changes in pension programs.

Forsell also noted how Norwegian agriculture collectively “has had a very good development” during the past year, with average income growth of 14 percent from 2014 to 2015.

Norway's small farms and rural landscapes are attractive but expensive to maintain, with taxpayers and consumers paying high prices to support local agriculture. PHOTO: Views and News

Norway’s small farms and rural landscapes are attractive, and often appeal to buyers in search of vacation or secondary homes. Now more of them may be made available. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

That sets an ominous tone for negotiations that will commence after the ministry responds with its counteroffer next week. Meanwhile, the farmers also strongly object to a government proposal that could allow more small farms to be freely sold in the open real estate market, instead of being restricted to full-time occupants, preferably farmer who’ll work the land attached to the properties.

Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported on Tuesday that nearly 1,200 small fams in Hordaland County alone could be converted to holiday properties if Parliament frees them from the  boplikt rules that require them to be owned by full-year occupants.

“We want active use of the land, with people living in the farm houses and working the land they own,” Arne Lofthus, a deputy leader of Norsk Bonde- og Småbrukarlag. “The small towns and residents here will be the losers.”

Advocates of liberalized farm property regulations cite the numbers of abandoned farm houses and property that could be renovated and used as secondary homes by their buyers. That can also provide new jobs, they argue. Sellers of such properties also stand to receive much higher prices than what the agricultural market can offer.

“The numbers of abandoned small farms are growing,” Gunnar Gundersen of the Conservative Party, which leads Norway’s minority government coalition, told NRK. “We need new means of strengthening property rights. And it’s time to think new in Norwegian agriculture politics.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund