A group of young women studying agriculture in Norway recently wrote a song supporting small family farms. Their music video has gone viral on YouTube, where it has been viewed more than 300,000 times. Their song, “Norway Needs a Farmer” protests proposed neoliberal reforms Norwegian farm policy that would reduce farm subsidies, change inheritance laws and encourage a shift to large-scale agriculture. In the video, members of Pikekoret IVAR, a female choir based at a Norwegian agricultural university, drive tractors and dance with farm tools while singing about the importance of farmers. When someone dressed to resemble Agriculture minister Sylvi Listhaug appears, the young women drop their tools and chase her across a field.
This week, Reidar Almås of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTSU) in Trondheim explains the historic and political context of “Norway Needs a Farmer.”
Norwegian Agriculture: The Context of Issues Currently under Debate
by Reidar Almås
Norway, unlike its Nordic neighbors Sweden and Denmark, does not belong to the European Union, so its agricultural and rural policies are determined primarily by the nation-state. It has slightly above 5 million inhabitants and 40,558 registered self-employed farmers; agriculture employs around 2 percent of the country`s total workforce. Norwegian agriculture consists mainly of family farms, and the modal farm has 23 hectares of land in operation. During the last 30 years both Norwegian society and Norwegian agriculture have gone through major changes. The present structures within agriculture and the framework that constitutes their business and work environment are different from the past.
In the mid-1970s, Norwegian agriculture was at a turning point. From World War II on, the ruling social democratic party policy was to move labor from primary industries in rural areas into manufacturing industries in new towns and cities. Young people left agriculture and the countryside in order to find better paid and easier jobs in urban areas. The remaining farmers responded by mechanizing agriculture, introducing artificial fertilizer, and utilizing concentrated cattle feed. Grain production was concentrated in the most fertile areas in eastern, southwestern and mid-Norway, while animal husbandry was attracted to the fjords, valleys, and mountain areas though price policies. Almost half of the postwar work force in agriculture had departed by 1970, and another half disappeared from 1970 to 1990. But thanks to specialization, increased efficiency, and labor productivity, production was kept up. The annual work force was reduced from 303,000 man-years in 1950 to 160,000 in 1970, while the amount of agricultural products increased by 50 percent. Most farm work was done by the farm family, and hired labor had almost disappeared by 1970.
The number of farms declined after the 1970s, and the proportion of farm families who relied solely on their income from farming decreased. Pluriactivity and part-time farming have always been prevalent in Norway, especially in combination with fishing and forestry. From the 1970s on, however, combining farming with wage labor in the industrial and service sectors became more frequent, especially for farm women.
Before the 1970s, farmers were losing some of their status in society, while industrial work and occupations that required a formal education were better paid and acquired greater societal prestige. But after protests from agricultural organizations and a tax strike by farmers in 1975, the Norwegian parliament decided to equalize the income of farmers with that of industrial workers by 1982. This decision led to an increase in governmental subsidies and raised the prices of agricultural products. This policy was meant to reduce the decrease in number of farms that had been taking place as a result of the structural rationalization policy in the postwar period.
In 1982, as a result of this governmental commitment, farmers had an optimistic outlook. They invested in new buildings and machinery and cultivated new farmland, and young people moved to the countryside and took up farming. But this expansion was more than the market for food could consume, and overproduction resulted in price decreases and policy changes that reduced governmental subsidies. From the mid-1980s on, farm policy stressed adaptation to market needs and lower burdens on consumers and taxpayers. Through the yearly negotiations about the agricultural agreement with the government, farmers’ organizations had to take responsibility for overproduction. In the 1990s a set of reforms was adopted that can be summarized as marketization, adaptation to new international frameworks, and a waiver of the ambitious goal of income equalization.
In the first decade after 2000, only limited reforms were undertaken in the Norwegian farm policy model. Both the center-right government (2001-2005) and the center-left government (2005-2013) made small adjustments in regulation: farm subsidies were maintained at a high level, and import restrictions with relatively high tariffs were kept in accordance with WTO obligations. But the annual negotiations on the agricultural agreement could not prevent farmers’ income from falling to two-thirds of the income of industrial workers. The country’s self-sufficiency in food dropped below 50 percent. Despite highly regulated and subsidized agriculture, the number of farms fell by three to five percent each year, and the remaining farmers were better off than before but worse off than the majority of the population.
In this situation, two right-wing parties in Norway won the election in 2013 and formed a cabinet with a neo-liberal minister of agriculture and food, Sylvi Listhaug. Her government wants to make fundamental changes in agricultural laws, lower payments to farmers, and reduce import tariffs on agricultural goods. The present government intends these changes to lead to larger-scale farms and cheaper agricultural products. This rather radical policy shift to the neo-liberal right has aroused wide opposition in rural areas, as well as in center-left policy groups in urban areas. Last spring there was no agreement in the negotiations between the farmers’ organizations and the government, but in Parliament the farmers got 200 million NOK extra after intervention from two center parties. This year it may be another hot spring in these important negotiations. At the same time, several proposed legal changes, including the abolition of farm price controls and the deregulation of concession laws, will be discussed in Parliament. But at the rural grass roots, there still is popular support for a small-scale multifunctional agriculture all over the county, not just big, commercial farms in the central valleys in the south.
Almås, R., ed. 2002. Norges landbrukshistorie (4 vols.). Oslo: Det Norske Samlaget.
Almås, R., ed. 2004. Norwegian Agricultural History. Trondheim: Tapir Academic Press.
Reidar Almås is affiliated with the Center for Rural Research (Norsk Senter for Bygdeforskning) and the departments of Sociology and Political Science at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTSU) in Trondheim. In addition to editing the definitive volumes on Norwegian agricultural history and writing about agricultural and policy changes in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, he has done research on gender relations in Norwegian farming in cooperation with several feminist sociologists, including Marit S. Haugen.