Farmers mostly agree to state aid

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UPDATED: Norway’s largest farmers’ lobby has agreed to accept a sweetened support and subsidy offer from the state, while a smaller farmers’ organization was holding out for more money. It remained unlikely that they’d get any.

Norwegian farmers are expected to refrain from noisy and messy demonstrations this year after agreeing to a settlement in which the state more than tripled its counteroffer. PHOTO: Landbruks- og matdepartementet

Norwegian farmers are expected to refrain from noisy and messy demonstrations this year after most of them agreed to a settlement in which the state boosted its counteroffer. PHOTO: Landbruks- og matdepartementet

The conservative government coalition, which has been trying to wean farmers away from relying on protectionism and the state treasury, is handing over less than half of what the farmers initially demanded. The NOK 400 million worth of financial support that the farmers are now set to receive is three times the state’s initial counter-offer to the farmers’ demands. but it will dramatically reduce the taxpayers’ subsidy to farmers that comes on top of the relatively high state-regulated prices set for many food items that consumers must swallow.

After a year of some bumper crops, high milk prices and ongoing protection from foreign competition, the state agriculture ministry decided that farmers didn’t need nearly as much state aid as they’ve traditionally received. Agriculture Minister Sylvi Listhaug, who grew up on a farm herself but represents the anti-subsidy Progress Party, is keen to build optimism and self-confidence within the farming industry in Norway, and could point to statistics showing growth both in farmers’ income and the numbers of them going into farming.

“I’m very happy about this agreement,” Listhaug said at a press conference Friday evening. “It will lead to increased food production across the entire country.” It also will effectively give the farmers another raise, of around 3.75 percent, much higher than other workers are getting.

The farmers had continued to complain about their pay and working conditions and claimed they needed big raises to close an alleged income gap compared to other industries. Their wage hike demand came at a time, however, when most other Norwegian workers aren’t getting any raises or are losing their jobs as the oil sector slows down. The farmers cut their initial demand by nearly half from last year, but still sought NOK 950 million. The agriculture ministry responded with NOK 90 million.

That set off howls of protest, also from some opposition farmer-friendly parties in Parliament. On Thursday, in the middle of the Ascension Day holiday, the state boosted its offer by around NOK 200 million and dropped a demand to cut the number of regions that determines milk prices. The goal was to win a settlement by Friday’s deadline.

Still getting NOK 400 million
The largest farmers’ lobby Bondelaget accepted the state’s offer after the pot was sweetened by another NOK 100 million, to a total of around NOK 400 million. Lars Petter Bartnes, leader of Bondelaget, agreed with Listhaug that the settlement will increase food production and was “a good deal for the farmer.” Although he initially wanted a raise of NOK 24,000 a year for the average farmer, the state initially offered just NOK 6,000 and settled on NOK 13,000. “That means the negotiations resulted in a gain of NOK 7,000,” Bartnes said.

The smaller lobbying group, Norsk Bonde- og Småbrukarlag, still wasn’t satisfied and cut off negotiations with the state. Their dissent wasn’t expected to matter much, however, because the Parliament will be unlikely to make any changes in an agreement that Bondelaget had approved. The breakthrough means food prices will likely rise slightly and there won’t be any noisy or messy farmers’ protests this year like there were last year, when they drove their tractors into towns and cities, held rallies and parodied the politicians who have protected them for years.

Listhaug wasn’t moved by the small farmers’ unhappiness. “They have broken off negotiations in five of the last six years (also when their most supportive political party, the Center Party, held government power),” Listhaug noted. “They don’t take anywhere near the same type of responsibility that Bondelaget does.”

The new settlement (called jordbruksavtale) also cuts support for fur farmers. That upset their lobbying group (Norges Pelsdyravlslag) but delighted animal rights activists.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund