Farmers demand more subisidies

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Norway’s powerful farm lobby presented record-high subsidy demands of NOK 1.92 billion on Monday. They’re encouraged that they’ll be dealing with a new agriculture minister from the Christian Democrats party this year, who’s viewed as much more farmer-friendly than her recent predecessors from the Progress Party.

Leif Forsell (left), the top bureaucrat in the Agriculture Ministry, represented the state when the farmers’ top lobbyists presented their latest subsidy demands on Monday. From right, Kjersti Hoff of Norsk Bonde og Småbrukarlag, and Lars Petter Bartnes, leader of Norges Bondelag. PHOTO: Landbruks- og matdepartementet

Agriculture Minister Olaug Bollestad, who also serves as a deputy leader of the Christian Democrats, wasn’t promising anything. Nor was she feeling very good after breaking two ribs in a fall while taking part in a gunnysack race at the party’s annual national meeting over the weekend. Her rhetoric favouring Norway’s rural districts, however, has raised farmers’ expectations regarding their ever-increasing demands for taxpayer support in the form of import protection, subsidy and other financial assistance.

They did receive hundreds of millions of extra aid last year to help cover losses from the drought. Now they’re attempting once again to boost farmers’ income by as much as 9 percent, claiming that the taxpayer aid is needed to bring farmers’ annual pay more in line with that of other work groups.

‘Extremely ambitious’
Leif Forsell, who received the demand on behalf of the minister and will lead negotiations, called it “extremely ambitious.” Forsell also warned that it contained “several elements that will create challenges in the negotiating process.” Last year’s drought created a “crisis,” Forsell noted, for which the farmers were unprepared. The state helped bail them out. At the same time, consumer demand has stagnated for many of the Norwegian farmers’ most traditional products like pork, beef and lamb. That resulted in overproduction and a “market imbalance,” Forsell said, that doesn’t result in increased sales at higher prices.

“There’s a clear weakness in the agriculture sector’s income ambitions and its own ability to realize revenue potential,” Forsell stated, adding that “it’s neither desirable nor positive to make agriculture more dependent on state budget funding.”

The farmers argue that their demands will strengthen agriculture all over the country, which is necessary “for future-oriented and sustainable food production.” They have objected mightily to consolidation of farming to improve economies of scale, arguing that it’s important to keep small farms flourishing in outlying areas.

Boosting self-sufficiency
The farmers also claim that their funding demands will help diversify agriculture and boost production of more fruit and vegetables that are in demand. “We propose a major innovation and growth program for vegetables, fruit, berries and potatoes,” said Lars Petter Bartnes, leader of Norway’s largest farmers’ organization, Norges Bondelag. “Norwegian consumers are eating more vegetables, and the goal is that a larger portion of them are produced in Norway.”

Norway currently produces around 40 percent of its food, with imports making up the rest. Opposition parties in Parliament think the country’s degree of self-sufficiency is far too low, and have a goal of boosting it to at least 50 percent by 2026.

The Christian Democrats, which hold the swing vote in Parliament, were part of the opposition until January, when they joined the conservative government coalition. They’re expected to be more sympathetic to the farmers’ demands than either Forsell or their government partners.

The state will respond to the farmers’ demands with their own offer in early May, with negotiations due to be finalized before May 17th.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund