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Sunday, May 26, 2024

Frustrated farmers roared into town

NEWS ANALYSIS: Norway should have avoided noisy demonstrations by angry farmers like those seen around Europe this spring, since one of the country’s most farmer-friendly parties shares government power. Sloppy politics and endless demands by farmers already wallowing in subsidy led, however, to more messy protests in Oslo on Thursday, even before annual funding negotiations get underway.

Farmers from all over the country drove trucks and tractors into Oslo this week, to demand higher income. PHOTO: Berglund

Norway’s rural-oriented Center Party thus wound up as a target of farmers’ frustration, instead of being in their more usual and comfortable role of offering sympathy and support. Both the party and its key constituents want to increase food production in Norway and limit imports, and can now even point to how wars and other crises abroad reinforce the need for self-sufficiency and preparedness. Consumers accustomed to Norway’s high food prices also tend to favour locally produced food, while Norway’s so-called “district politics” have long offered special protection to outlying areas to keep them populated. Farming can generate jobs and be an important source of local income, while also preserving the cultural landscape.

The farmers, meanwhile, want reliable incomes and thus need financial assistance from the state, since traditionally small Norwegian farms don’t offer much economy of scale. Many farmers have extra jobs in addition to their work on the family farm, but still want the highest prices possible for their milk, eggs, meat, poultry, fruit and vegetables in a country with long and dark winters and less than 4 percent arable land.

The angry and frustrated farmers set up hay balls and gathered outside Parliament to make their dissatisfaction known. Signs claimed, among other things, that “Norway needs more farmers” and demonstrators also spread manure but mostly cleaned up after themselves later. Some also spent the night camping outside. PHOTO: Berglund

The farmers, all of whom operate as sole proprietors, thus demand that their income must be raised to the level of an average wage earner, currently just over NOK 600,000 (USD 60,000). That requires a plan for narrowing the gap between, for example, a farmer and at least a teacher or nurse.

And that’s where the trouble began, when the two minority government parties Center and Labour suddenly struck a deal not with their own more likely partner SV (the Socialist Left Party) but with the Conservatives and the Liberal parties. They had agreed, much to the farmers’ lobbying organizations’ surprise, on what they intitially called “an important foundation for planned increases” in farmers’ compensation. It set a farmers’ average work year as amounting to 1,845 hours (35 hours a week), sparking immediate protests from farmers who wanted no more than 1,700.

The calculation method is complicated, and then came a last-minute proposed compromise from Center setting the number at 1,750 hours. Then the Conservatives were angry, since the rules suddenly changed in the middle of the game, and they backed out of the deal. SV, the Christian Democrats, the Reds and the Greens quickly agreed to back Center instead, but there was no majority in Parliament for all the other factors needed for a new farmers’ pay formula.

That set off a chorus of cow bells, shouts and other forms of protest from the hundreds of farmers demonstrating just outside Parliament. With loud chants of “ærlige tall (honest numbers),” they let their displeasure be known, as police stood by to maintain order. For the farmers, a lot was at stake, not least because a new formula can result in less financial support from Norwegian taxpayers who already pay among the world’s highest grocery prices. A new formula for calculating farmers’ income will also affect annual budget negotiations for years to come.

A string of speakers launched appeals while politicians battled inside Parliament, but ultimately failed to settle the issue and landed only a compromise. PHOTO: Berglund

Bjørn Gimming, leader of the large national farmers’ organizaton Norges Bondelag, was relieved the higher number of hours was abandoned but disappointed that the lower number was rejected, too. The compromise was “a step in the right direction,” but no solution, he told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK), which closely followed the farming drama live on both radio and TV Thursday morning. At one point commentators reported “total chaos” in Parliament amidst all the noise and ruckus outside. In one of those “Only in Norway” moments, the Kings Guards and marching band strutted past along the boulevard connecting Parliament and the Royal Palace, Karl Johans Gate, which police had already closed to vehicular traffic after the tractors were parked.

Gimming told NRK that he now thinks “important issues have been reduced to political play-acting,” with the farmers caught in the middle of financial formulas and rules that most don’t fully understand. The leader of the farmers’ youth group, Norges Bygdeungdomslag, was outraged over the politicking in Parliament, calling it a “scandal” that can affect the future of thousands of members of the next generation of farmers who may not want to take over the family farm. The Center Party’s agriculture minister, Geir Pollestad, had a lot of explaining to do.

Also among the speakers was Per Olaf Lundteigen, a veteran Member of Parliament for the Center Party and a farmer himself, who had to explain to the crowd that they simply failed to win a majority in Parliament on Thursday. It was also his 71st birthday on Thursday, and demonstrators departed from their protest yells to sing Norway’s traditional birthday song, “Hurra for deg” (Hurrah for you) for him. There wasn’t much else for them to cheer about. PHOTO: Berglund

Actual funding allocations and tariff protection will be negotiated later this spring, at a time when the farmers’ own cooperatives and so-called “market regulators” have already been in trouble for recently miscalculating production of eggs and milk. Grocery stores all over the country but especially in cities like Oslo have often been left with bare egg shelves, and the shortages may continue into May. They follow severe butter shortages several years ago that spread nationwide and eventually softened Norway’s tough import restrictions, but lasted for months.

Critics claim Pollestad and his party have found themselves let down by their own policies, and it may get worse given proposals to further restrict imports of, for example, potatoes as prices for them keep rising. Some economists acknowledge the need for self-sufficiency but claim it’s not a huge problem in reality: Agricultural advocates in Norway often prefer to ignore all the fish and seafood Norway produces and which would provide plenty of food in a crisis. Newspaper Aftenposten recently editorialized that other nourishing food like porridge and rye bread can go a long way in a crisis, while asstant professor Ivar Gaasland at Norwegian business school BI has written that Norway actually has a high self-sufficiency rate, and “more than enough resources to provide the population with calories and protein.”

Farmers have won big funding and subsidy gains in recent years, while food prices have logged double-digit rises in the past year. Researchers and economists have criticized Norway’s tough agricultural policy as outdated and “out of step with current challenges.” Farmers remain uneasy, and demanding.

“We don’t want to become a mob that breaks windows and trashes cities, but trust me, we could do that,” Tor Jacob Solberg a dairy farmer and leader of another farmers’ organization, Småbrukarlaget, told newspaper Klassekampen last month, when French farmers were protesting all over France. Solberg was among the loudest and visibly angriest during a televised debate on farming issues this week on NRK.

“The government (parties) campaigned on a platform of straightening up the numbers and foundation for farmers’ income, but we still don’t have them,” he complained. He bought a farm in 2004 and now has 57 dairy cattle and raises grain on 12 other farms. He earns more money, though, by renting out a barn as a garage for camping vans. Berglund



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