Left to the past?
Special Rønningen Ramblings report about Norway’s dwindling farm culture
Norway is a rich country, a fact determined not just by the amount of income people have, the taxes people pay or the cost of things they buy. Norway is rich in natural resources. The fact that we have oil is a given, and since its discovery in the North Sea in the late 1960s Norway has prospered, but we also have one of the best coastlines for boat traffic thanks to all the inlets, islands and fjords. The Gulf Stream gives us ice-free waters and our landscape makes the production of hydroelectric power possible. Forests dot our landscape making logging a huge industry, and mining gives us even more income.
But what about the farmers?
When you think of Norway you don’t picture oil rigs, mines or lumber trucks. You imagine picturesque small farms with red barns dotting the landscape, perhaps with a cow or two grazing by the side of the road. The frightening thing is that soon that image may be a thing of the past.
As has happened in the Midwestern United States, many small family farms are disappearing because farmers can’t make a living. My sister-in-law, who took over the family pig farm a number of years ago, was getting paid the same price per kilo for pigs that her father did in the 1980s. All other costs had gone up considerably, and she just couldn’t make enough to survive. She may have been born to farm, but that is no longer possible.
I ran into professor of agricultural economics, Normann Aanesland, in the security line at the Storting in Oslo a few months ago and we started chatting about the state of the Norwegian farmer. In the 1970s Aanesland ruffled a few feathers with his ideas about giving subsidies to agricultural areas that were struggling in an attempt to increase employment, an idea that is better accepted today, and when I met him he was on his way to educate our elected officials.
Aanesland feels that Norwegian agriculture should be subsidized if for no other reason than to preserve this iconic image of Norwegian culture. “Not to mention all the little towns that are dependent on the income of farmers…restaurants, schools and stores… all dependent on the income of the surrounding community.” It is not simply a matter of one farmer going belly up. When a farmer quits, he or she needs another job, but the income the farmers produced fueled the local economy and so soon there are fewer and fewer jobs to be found. People are forced to move on, the population diminishes, and the local economy suffers even more. We have seen this happen time and time again in small-town America and there is a great fear that it is happening in Norway as well.”
It gets even more complicated with all the inheritance and residency laws in Norway that I don’t quite comprehend, but as I understand it if you inherit a farm you have to live on it, and if you don’t you have to get special permission not to. Smaller farms may be exempt from some of the residency rules as regulations are in part determined by the amount of land you own. Farmland is to be farmed.
But still, many farmhouses are not lived in. I read recently that 34,510 agricultural properties (or more) stand vacant in Norway, and 45 percent of the owners say there is no question of selling the properties, regardless of the selling price. According to Aanesland that is due to the deeply ingrained Norwegian tradition of inheritance. “It’s about emotions,” he says, “and tradition still reigns supreme.” This is their family home, and they will do what they can to keep it, even if it is run down. Some use the farms for holiday properties but many stand empty. “If Norway removed the residence requirements and price controls in place today,” comments Aanesland, “more people would maintain these small farms in Norway.”
There is also a lot of discussion, especially in rural areas, about the quality of Norwegian food and the availability of locally grown products. During World War II Norway was largely self-sufficient when it came to food, but people were also willing to pay for it. Today we demand a wider variety of choices year round and want food as cheaply as possible. That means importing from countries with a lower cost of living, and Norwegian farmers don’t stand a chance. So what does that mean in the future? Is it wise to be so dependent on other countries, especially when we have the resources we need literally in our own soil?
“We would be better off if the farms were in use and not abandoned,” says Aanesland. “That would safeguard both Norwegian food production and improve the landscape. When I’m on my farm, I see a maximum of one person. Imagine, it could have been so different.”
Do you have thoughts about the state of farming in Norway? If so, please send them to me at email@example.com and put FARMING in the subject line.
Heidi Håvan Grosch moved to a Christmas tree farm in the heart of Norway in Sparbu five years ago to marry her husband Morten. She says, “Our small piece of land originally had homes for three or four different families working for the bigger farm down the hill. The property is too steep for most crops to grow, but my husband’s grandparents raised what they needed to survive, selling eggs and raising their Christmas pig. Today my husband and I are fortunate to have other jobs, but want to get back to the land as much as possible. We grow potatoes and pumpkins for our own use, and are hoping in the near future to give children and their parents / grandparents the opportunity to come and experience some of the old traditions for themselves, including cutting their own tree for Christmas.”
This article originally appeared in the July 6, 2012 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.