Farmers refuse to negotiate demands

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UPDATED: Negotiations between Norwegian farmers and the government for more agricultural subsidy and financial support ended before they began on Thursday. Now some angry farmers are also threatening coordinated protest action and even civil disobedience in an effort to secure more taxpayer support.

Lars Petter Bartnes (left), leader of Norges Bondelag, is none too pleased with the state offer delivered by Viil Søyland (center). At right, Kjersti Hoff of the small farmers´group Norsk Bonde- og Småbrukarlag. PHOTO: Bondelaget

Norway’s two major farm lobbying organizations, under severe pressure and criticism from farmers themselves, announced they were refusing to meet officials from the agricultural ministry. They were insulted by the government’s initial offer worth NOK 962 million of the taxpayers’ money.

The farmers had earlier presented demands for twice that amounting to NOK 2.1 billion. That would have given farmers among the biggest pay raises in Norway at a time when other labour groups aren’t getting pay hikes that reflect the rise in the cost of living. The farmers, however, claim they’ve lagged behind for years, and it’s time for the government to make up for it.

“The government doesn’t understand how serious this is,” claimed Lars Petter Bartnes, leader of the large farmers’ organization Norges Bondelag, at a hastily called press conference Thursday afternoon. “The distance is too large between the government’s perception of reality and the income boost that we believe is absolutely necessary.”

The farmers’ groups thus refused to even sit down at the negotiating table. Talks were supposed to begin this week and conclude later this month. Agriculture Minister Olaug Bollestad of the farmer-friendly Christian Democrats party said she was “incredibly disappointed” by the farmers’ refusal to seek a settlement, claiming their position led to “lost opportunities.”

Milk delivery may be disrupted
Instead some dairy farmers, for example, were threatening to turn away the trucks that come to their farms to pick up their cows’ milk. That could eventually lead to a lack of milk and other dairy products in grocery stores.

It didn’t take long for the farming representatives to start protests, this one on the street outside the agriculture ministry in Oslo. Their banner reads “Recruitment (to the farming industry) demands profitability.”PHOTO: Bondelaget

“We have to mount protest actions,” dairy farmer Erlend Brede Fossen in Sunnfjord told state broadcaster NRK. “The protests we’ve launched so far have been too mild. I can think of things that would hurt more and hit third parties, our own customers.”

That wouldn’t, however, endear the farmers to Norwegians who reacted negatively to their demands that would have given farmers raises of around NOK 48,000 at a time when even teachers and nurses can expect only a third of that. The state’s offer represents average income growth of 4.5 percent, compared to the 2.7 percent for which the first round of industrial labour workers settled.

Many media commentators have also noted that 2020 was a banner year for most farmers in all sectors. When the pandemic closed borders, Norwegians could no longer shop in Sweden where prices are lower and selection better. They’ve had to buy all their food at home in Norway, where sales of dairy products, meat, fruit and vegetables boomed.

Parliament won’t ride to their rescue
Most Norwegians have long accepted food prices that are among the highest in the world (because Norway’s costs are, too) and gone along with restriction on imports to protect their farmers from foreign competition. This year, however, there’s been a surprising amount of critical reaction to the farmers’ demands in both left- and right-leaning media. Some suggest farmers don’t have their ear to the ground. One dairy farmer told NRK earlier this week that she was hurt by all the criticism of the farmers’ demands on social media lately, and how farmers were being ridiculed on several platforms.

The farmers’ rejection of the government’s offer generally transfers the issue over to Parliament, but there’s no majority there to significantly boost the government’s offer. Agriculture Minister Bollestad will likely try and be able to sweeten the offer somewhat, but nowhere near what the farmers demand.

Meanwhile around 25,000 farmers and their most loyal supporters have signed on to an online uproar aimed at securing them more money and other forms of support. The goal is to narrow the gap between farmers’ calculated hourly pay (low because of long hours worked). Others claim farmers, as sole proprietors, can compare their hourly pay to that of salaried workers, in the belief farming isn’t just a job, it’s a lifestyle. Consumers can expect lots of noisy debate in the weeks ahead, and may be advised to stock up.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund