Farmers returned to the state’s table

Bookmark and Share

UPDATED: The two large lobbying groups trying to cultivate more state support for Norwegian farmers set aside some of their most spicy rhetoric on Tuesday and headed back to the state’s bargaining table. Agriculture Minister Sylvi Listhaug, meanwhile, seemed inclined to sweeten what she had on offer, but talks didn’t last long.

New Agriculture Minister Sylvi Listhaug is trying to reform Norwegian agriculture to lower costs, boost food production and encourage more full-time larger-scale farming. Many small farmers and their powerful coops feel threatened, but a week of new negotiations is underway. PHOTO: Landbruks- og mat departementet (LMD)

New Agriculture Minister Sylvi Listhaug is trying to reform Norwegian agriculture to lower costs, boost food production and encourage more full-time larger-scale farming. Many small farmers and their powerful coops feel threatened, but a week of new negotiations is underway. PHOTO: Landbruks- og mat departementet (LMD)

The farmers are demanding hundreds of millions of kroner in additional state support, in the form of both direct subsidies, price setting, other regulatory measures and protectionist policies. The state initially offered NOK 150 million more than the roughly NOK 13 billion the farmers got last year, equivalent to an average 3.5 percent pay raise for all farmers. The farmers, however, demanded NOK 1.5 billion in additional support and slammed the state’s offer as a “provocation” when they only got 10 percent of what they wanted.

Political winds changing
In the week that’s passed, though, rumblings from opposition parties in Parliament, along with the government’s own two support parties, indicate they may back Listhaug’s offer. She didn’t, they’ve reasoned, propose any cuts in state support and actually increased it, so the government’s offer was better than expected.

Others also hail the new conservative government’s attempt to finally force through what Aftenposten commentator Joacim Lund has called “a healthy and long-sought debate on Norwegian food production.” Politicians within the small farmer-friendly Center Party, Lund wrote recently, have tried to halt the debate before it began, making “ridiculous” threats and accusations along the way. Norwegian consumers aren’t as passive as they once were, though, and restaurant owners and even many farmers themselves are among those who hail Listhaug’s effort to make some reforms.

It’s worth noting that the farmers were also angry and dissatisfied when their own Center Party held government power and ran the agriculture ministry. They didn’t feel they got enough support during eight years of the last left-center government, either.

Fears of ‘industrialized’ farming
Despite the much-reported gap between the farmers’ demands and the state’s offer, the farmers may ultimately realize that they can only push their luck so far. They’ve been offered more than what many other working groups are getting during annual spring wage negotiations, and the state stresses that its proposals for agricultural reform in Norway are aimed at boosting food production every bit as much as the farmers’ are. The difference is that the government, led by the Conservatives and the Progress Party, promotes more economy of scale and wants to make it more lucrative for larger-scale farmers to be able to make farming a full-time job.

Farming organizations claim that will come at the expense of the small farmers in isolated areas of Norway, who won’t get the same level of state support they do now. They want it to be as lucrative for the owner of a small plot of land to have a few cattle and raise crops as it is for the large farmer with much bigger herds closer to population centers. Otherwise, they claim, Norwegian agriculture will become “industrialized.”

It’s a question of how much more protection and support Norwegians will give their farmers in a country that already has the highest food prices in the world and tough restrictions on imports. Farmers argue that most Norwegians can afford the high prices, because generally high salaries make food a smaller drain on household budgets than in other countries.

The farmers also hope that if they reject even a sweetened offer from the government, they may stand to gain more support in parliament. It’s the government, though, that’s supposed to negotiate with the farmers, not Members of Parliament. That’s why Nils T Bjørke, leader of the farmers’ biggest organization Norsk Bondelag, and his colleagues decided to head back to the state’s table, after spending the weekend refining their positions. Both sides were supposed to reach agreement by the end of the week but talks broke off after just a half-hour. Now the matter will be settled in parliament after all.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund