Minister aims to reform farming

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UPDATED: Agriculture Minister Jon Georg Dale launched a road show of sorts this week as he held the first of six open meetings around the country. He’ll be promoting and defending the conservative government’s latest plan to reform Norway’s heavily regulated, subsidized and protected farming industry, but faces the proverbial tough row to hoe.

Agriculture Minister Jon Georg Dale enthusiastically promoted Norwegian food at the opening of the huge Grüne Woche exposition in Berlin last week. Now he needs enthusiasm for reform from Norwegian farmers, but is unlikely to get it. PHOTO: Landbruks- og matdepartementet/Vidar Alfarnes

The plan was predictably blasted by the farmers’ lobby even before it was formally presented to Parliament last month. On Tuesday they turned out in force and Dale faced a hostile crowd in Jølster in teh county of Sogn og Fjordane. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported how one farmer even stood up and demonstratively crumbled a paper version of the agricultural reform plan in front of the crowd.

Dale, who’s from a farm in Romsdal himself, thus faces tough opposition as farmers and not least their backers in Parliament dig in their heels once again to preserve farmers’ protection and privileges that they claim are necessary to maintain a farming industry in a county with little arable land.

Dale claims the reform plans will make farm production more “future-oriented,” efficient and competitive. He presented them on Tuesday in the mountains of Jølster before moving on to Hå in Rogaland on January 30, Bodø in Nordland February 7 and Ullensaker in Akershus on Februry 9. On March 9 he’ll meet farmers in Nord-Trøndelag and in Ørsta in Møre og Romsdal on Friday April 21.

“The Norwegian farmer does an impressive job, every day, and Norwegian agriculture has shown an ability to meet challenges,” Dale stated in conciliatory opening remarks when he first presented his plan to Parliament. Dale added that “we have to hang on to that, if we’re going to take care of the important values that lie within Norwegian agriculture. We have all reason to succeed if we make the right choices, step by step. That’s what the government is proposing in this report to Parliament.”

Farmers feel threatened
Dale comes from the conservative Progress Party, though, and its goals for boosting efficiency and competition are viewed as a threat to farmers, especially small farmers who mostly resist any attempts at consolidation and centralization. That’s what they accuse Dale’s plan of being full of: “Not surprisingly, he’s continuing a liberalization of agriculture and proposes several measures that contribute to more centralization,” complained Lars Petter Bartnes, leader of the national farmers’ organization Norges Bondelag. “He’ll weaken the core of agricultural policy that has succeeded at allowing farmers (to operate) all over the country.”

Another major complaint debated on Tuesday was Dale’s proposal to replace state funding that allows farmers to hire in substitutes when they go on holiday with additional direct funding for farmers with livestock. Critics including politicians from the farmer-friendly Center Party claim that can increase “social dumping” if the farmers themselves become de facto employers. Dale fired back that then the Center Party has very little regard for the integrity of Norwegian farmers: “They’re suggesting the farmers will behave like criminals when they get control over their own money,” Dale declared. He argued instead that farmers “will be free to dispense the money themselves. In difficult years they can choose to take less time off and keep the money, or take more holiday later when they can. Norwegian farmers are sole-proprietors who will pay those working for them in line with tariffs.”

Dale also actively promoted Norwegian lamb and many other products in Berlin, from Norwegian cheeses and seafood to wild game, sausages and locally brewed beer. Nearly 80 Norwegian food producers exhibited their goods from the regions selected for promotion this year: Fjord Norge, Sørlandet and the Oslo region. PHOTO: Landbruks- og matdepartementet/Vidar Alfarnes

Dale wants to reduce the number of milk-producing regions around Norway, which would eliminate the need for tank trucks to expensively pick up milk from small farms with small production in remote areas. He also wants to phase out market regulation of eggs, grain, apples and potatoes. They were set up years ago to allegedly “balance” the market to avoid surplus production and are steered by dairy cooperative Tine, meat and poultry coop Nortura (which is behind the brands Gilde and Prior) and grain and produce coop Felleskjøpet. Another result of such market regulation has been to keep prices artificially high, contend critics like Tine’s small arch rival Synnøve Finden, which broke Tine’s monopoly around 20 years ago. Synnøve Finden’s leaders claim it has yet, however, to see real competition on equal footing.

They claimed in newspaper Dagens Næringliv (DN) last month that Dale now has “an historic opportunity” to really “set the farmers free,” boost competition and lower food prices. Other more dominant farm interests want none of that, despite other small farmers’ calls to be set free themselves.

Ole-Jacob Christensen, who owns a small farm in Oppland County, claimed in another commentary in DN that Norwegian agriculture remains a closed, rigid business “where any attempt at change is viewed as a threat.” He related how one farmer taking over a property in a mountain community was flatly told by a large local farmer that “you can’t think you can come here and start anything new.” The new farmer intended to start raising bees for honey, while established farmers believed that “those who have raised grain should continue with grain, and those who produce milk and potatoes should continue with milk and potatoes.” Christensen believes Norwegian farmers have a “golden opportunty” to raise new products and spur growth. While agriculture has diversified in recent years and locally raised farm products are more popular than ever, resistance remains.

Christensen and his political party, the Greens, isn’t happy with Dale’s plans either, though, contending that centralization encourages investments in large operations at the expense of small, and perpetuates “monoculture” within agriculture. Other Greens members have criticized the plan for removing a goal that 15 percent of Norwegian farm production should be ecologic by 2020. “That’s incredible,” Une Aina Bastholm of the Greens told newspaper Dagsavisen. She wanted to see a higher portion of ecologic production, not less.

Norwegian cured meats, speciality jams and jellies and the infamous aquavit were on display in Berlin as Dale helped promote Norwegian specialities abroad. PHOTO: Landbruks- og mat departementet/Vidar Alfarnes

Norway’s small but powerful Center Party, which has long supported traditional farming interests, was ripping Dale’s plans into shreds before he presented it and afterwards as well. Geir Pollestad, a Member of Parliament for the Center Party, even “declared war” to emphasize his opposition to Dale’s proposals for improving efficiency. “Production will be moved to central areas of the country and the (outlying) districts will lose,” Pollestad declared. “We see a plan here that in area after area liberalizes farming and weakens programs that have been important for agricultural policy.” He claimed it will mean that Norway will no longer have farming all over the country.

Dale is braced for the fight ahead. He insisted production will rise and that farms will still be widely spread geographically: “It’s important for me to stress that.” He thinks Norwegian agriculture will have to be restructured in order to boost production to meet the demands of a growing population. He also promises “less government meddling” in the farming business, increased competition and more production oriented towards the market and consumer demand, not the regulators. He points to increased production of chicken and turkeys, which has raised volume and lowered prices at the grocery store.

Dale hopes to win parliamentary approval for his proposals this spring and says he’s prepared for “tough” opposition from farmers who want to keep things as they are. “I wish I could say I looked forward to negotiations with the farmers (both on the proposed reform and how much subsidy and tariff protection they’ll once again receive) this spring,” he told Dagsavisen, “but I can’t ignore the fact that this will be demanding.” Berglund