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Saturday, May 25, 2024

Tempers rise over bread and butter

A highly unpopular shortage of butter in Norwegian stores last fall and winter hasn’t stopped farmers from now trying to produce a shortage of bread. Their attempt to heat up support for their cause, however, may only backfire with consumers, while bakeries claim they have enough flour supplies to keep store shelves stocked.

This farmers' demonstration in Drammen was among many being held around Norway this week. PHOTO: Norges Bondelag

The farmers, protesting what they claim is inadequate financial support from the state, announced plans to start blocking four main Norwegian flour mills from early Tuesday morning until Wednesday morning. The mills – at Vaksdal near Bergen, Buvika near Trondheim, Skien in Telemark and Bjølsen in Oslo – supply flour for the entire country, and the farmers’ blockade against all deliveries from the mills is aimed at creating a bread shortage.

Several large bakeries, however, reported full silos of flour and didn’t think they’d have any problem baking bread as usual. “There’s no reason to think this will have any dramatic consequences for consumers,” Ole Neergaard, finance director for Norway’s largest baking conglomerate Bakers, told newspaper Aftenposten. Only some small bakeries with limited storage facilities might encounter problems meeting their orders.

The farmers also enjoyed ridiculing government officials like Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg. Trond Ellingsbø and Terje Holen posed before local state offices in Lillehammer with this poster, claiming that Stoltenberg had laid the biggest egg with the state's offer of "only" NOK 900 million in support. PHOTO: Norges Bondelag

The farmers also mobilized to start hoarding the bread already available in the stores. The idea was to create some sense of panic among Norwegians and prompt them to buy up more bread than needed. Retailers’ and wholesalers’ organizations, though, called the effort little more than a “stunt” that was unlikely to win sympathy from consumers.

The farmers resorted to more such “stunts” on Monday, like spraying milk over the asphalt outside a dairy in Bergen, placing a cow in front of a mayor’s office in Rosendal, ridiculing government officials who haven’t given them the 20 percent pay raises they want and snarling traffic all over the country with their tractors.

The average farmer in Norway currently earns around NOK 485,000 (USD 85,000) a year, with roughly NOK 155,000 of that coming from actual farming. Most farmers have other jobs as well, according to state statistics. The state supports their farming through both direct subsidy payments and indirect protectionist policies that keep cheaper imports of food products out of Norway. High tariffs on imports help farmers avoid competition from foreign producers. Norway’s direct and indirect subsidies are among the highest in the world.

Yet Norwegian farmers remain unhappy, arguing they still can’t make a satisfactory profit producing the food that Norway needs. Since refusing to even discuss the state’s offer of NOK 900 million, claiming it was far too low to be taken seriously, the farmers have effectively rejected a sweetened offer they might have won that’s been estimated at as much as an additional NOK 400 million. They admit they now don’t expect to win more financial support this year, and some political observers say the strategy is rather to make enough noise this year that they’ll be better positioned to get more next year.

The farmers believe they have support from Norwegian consumers, but consumers’ patience ran thin last winter when stores ran out of one of the farmers’ most basic products, butter. Another, this time artificially created, shortage just before the long 17th of May and Ascension Day holiday in Norway may be even less popular than the lack of butter during the Christmas baking season. The butter shortage was largely blamed on dairy cooperative Tine, and more questions are rising over the role it and other cooperatives play in providing economic prosperity for farmers – and why farmers aren’t demanding more money from their cooperatives as well.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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