18 September 1998

Family matters put first when it comes to Norways farms

An ancient law and modern subsidies

have kept the Norwegian farming

landscape intact but Tessa Gates

found out these can be mixed blessings

in todays economic climate

IT was Jon »sten Ringis destiny to farm. It was something he knew he had to do from an early age, not because he wanted to but because he was the eldest child of a farmer and in Norway the law says the first-born – male or female – carries the right to farm that land.

"It is an old law and there is very much discussion about it today," says Jon, who farms with his wife Charlotta just 20km from Oslo on land his family have worked since the 17th century.

The government sets the price of farmland, which is almost impossible to buy outside of family, for the holder of the Odel (the right to farm) cannot pass it to anyone other than a farmers first born. Even when one generation decides not to farm and sells or rents out the land, the next generation retains the right to farm that land and can buy it back.

"You have to live on the farm and run it for five years but a lot of young people dont want to do this, especially where the farms are very small and very rural. The discussion is why should that one person have the farm when he isnt interested in it, and 10 others are!" explains Jon, adding that the right cannot pass to siblings.

Jon, who has a younger sister, found being expected to farm a burden. "I didnt want to farm. At 20 I wished it was only me that decided if I would run the farm – I thought not. I was going to agricultural school and had to help my father on the farm at weekends and so hadnt much free time.

"In 1979 I went on an exchange to a sheep farm in New Zealand for eight months. Before I went I said if it is great in New Zealand I will never come back but it was not that great."

After his return to Norway, Jon decided his interest lay in growing vegetables and he learnt about it by working at a horticultural school for four years, after which he went back home and rented the farm, together with his cousin.

"I dont think I ever seriously didnt want to go back but you get a bit angry that your parents just tell you

that you should be here," says Jon, now a parent himself. He met his Swedish wife Charlotta at a convention for young horticulturalists in Vienna. They have two children, Eric, 10, and Kari, seven.

Jon farms 30ha (74 acres) and has 90ha (222 acres) of forest – an average size for the country – but works across three farms with his cousin which brings the arable land up to 90ha (222 acres). "My father and my uncle were running the farm but because of the law knew I would have to have the farm. My uncle was lucky and got to buy the neighbouring farm in 1968 because the owner didnt have any children, so they ran the two farms together with the money going into one pot. When my cousin and I were old enough we continued this, the first year renting the farms from our parents. This is quite normal, you rent the farm and buy the machinery. Then Charlotta and I started growing sweetcorn and my cousin started strawberries and we run these separately.

"In 1988 we went into partnership with a neighbour who had staff running his farm and we all sold our machinery and bought bigger machines. We have the incentive to farm his land well as the more we produce the more money we get."

The partnership made the newspapers as it was very unusual then, although more common now. "Today you would start a company," says Jon. "In 92 we bought our family farms and continued farming together."

Jons parents still live on the farm and share the big old farmhouse with Jon and his family. It is a very traditional holding and has been used as a show farm by Norsk Hydro who have taken a couple of parties of foreign visitors round to give them an idea of farming in the area. There are 12 barns on the property including a huge split level one, painted in the traditional red. Apart from the grain drier it is practically empty but once it housed the dairy herd.

"In 1965 grain prices went up and all round Oslo dairies shut down as farmers turned to grain. The government wanted to keep dairy farming in other areas. But now grain prices are down and Norway has milk quotas so we cant start dairy farming again," he explains.

Today dairy farming brings the best returns. Sheep and grain prices are down but grain still commands double EU prices. The Norwegians have turned down joining the EU twice but many rules and regulations mirror EU lines. Less than 3% of the country is farmed and the farms are very small and well subsidised. The government and farming organisations set prices each year most produce is bought by the government.

"Norway is a rich country. Farmers prices are going down but it is still good to be a farmer although we are not popular with the public because they think farmers are getting too much money from the subsidies and are too rich. But when you ask people if they want to keep farms and have home produce, they say yes and understand that because of the climate it has to be subsidised," says Jon.

"Ten per cent of the income on this farm comes from the government. In the Districts (more rural areas) it is up to 50% on some farms. You can live on 10 cows or 100-200 ewes."

"If you want farming here you have to pay for it. Norway is a beautiful country because of it and there is life in the small valleys," says Charlotta, who works alongside Jon at »vre Ringi Gård.

The couple grow wheat and barley on contract for seed. Winter wheat is common on the best land but winter barley is not as it dies back in the long winter and is grown by as few as 10 farmers in the country. Oil seed rape is another crop where spring varieties only can be grown. On Jons farm half the income comes from sweetcorn, a crop rarely grown in the country. The couple grow 3.5ha of it and it is sold as a pick-your-own crop

The seed is sown May and covered in plastic for five to six weeks. Once the plants start to grow through the cuts in the plastic, it is removed and they are covered in a fleece that is light enough to be carried by the plants as they get taller. The fleece stays in place until mid-July. "We bring it off and roll it up like a giant snowball," says Jon, now in his 13th season of growing sweetcorn.

He also sells seedlings and expertise to about 20 other growers in Norway through a franchise system he runs with a chap who started sweetcorn growing in Sweden 25 years ago.

"A friend of mine was in partnership with the Swede who has the rights for the seed varieties. Three or four years ago he wanted to move on to other things and he sold his 50% of the company to Charlotta and me.

"Sweetcorn can only be grown in the best areas so it has to be around the coast or the Oslo fjord, but each grower has his own area so there is no competition between us. We all meet up once a year and all we learn and all we know, we tell everyone," explains Jon.

"A lot of people think you cant grow sweetcorn unless you are in this group. We say you can but we can do it better because we have 20 times 10 years experience."

Oslo is on the doorstep and the pick-your-own enterprise has proved very popular with city people. "We have learned so much about people and selling, and have become quite professional at it," says Charlotta. "We try to make it an experience and people say it is not autumn without picking sweetcorn here."

Last year children coming to the farm had their faces painted and were given feather headdresses and played red indians in the orchard. Everyone gets a free grilled sweetcorn, soft drink and biscuits.

"They love it," says Charlotta, who intially wondered if the enterprise would be a five-year wonder. "This is a wealthy area so people dont pick for cheapness. They bring the children when they are small. To our surprise they then come back with grandchildren – there are always new people."

Farmers need several enterprises if they are to make a living without an outside job and the Ringis are no different. Winter work is forestry, with a ready market for the slow growing timber. Jon is in a group of 10 which has a mobile band saw. Many farmers who live near cities also provide road clearing services and those in the Districts sell firewood.

Summer is the busiest time and in addition to the main crops, Charlotta grows plants for other farmers to grow on for dried flowers. She has also has added another autumn enterprise to the farm – apple juice pressing. In the early 90s a female agricultural minister encouraged women to start new projects by funding study tours and in 94 Charlotta took up a grant for a study tour to England to find out more about juicing apples. In 95 they had a trial run with the new equipment. In 96 the old orchard at the farm failed to produce a crop so last year was the first time they could try it for real.

But first they had to make a pressing room, and Norwegian hygiene inspectors are every bit as zealous as their British counterparts. "We just wanted a little farm pressing room but we feel what we have now is a little factory because of all the rules," sighs Charlotta. And all for an enterprise that runs for about a fortnight each year.

Customers bring their own apples to press, by appointment. "The apples must be washed and good. The minimum we press is 50kilos, the maximum is 80kilos but they bring 150kilos and ask if that is enough.

"We ask if they want to pasteurise, freeze or add preservative to the juice and 90% add preservative. We encourage them to try a bit of each," explains Charlotta, who charges 5NKr/litre for the process.

"We make our money on the plastic containers they take the juice away in. We buy them cheap and sell expensive but they are still priced less than in the shops."

The pressing runs for 14 very long days. "We work really hard from early morning to the middle of the night and it takes us two hours each to do the cleaning – we have to streamline this a bit somehow," she says.

There is no possibility of the farm making cider because it is illegal to make alcohol. Despite this moonshine brewing is rife and in some areas a blind eye is turned to this where it is just for personal use. "But some shops are selling tonnes of sugar and yeast that cannot possibly be used for home baking and laws are being discussed to stop shops selling in such quantities," explains Jon.

The couples children go to school locally and the school day starts at 8.30am and finishes at noon or 1pm depending on the pupils age. They only have a 30-minute break and because there are no school dinners, food has to be taken from home. However, the school is open from 7.30am to 4pm to provide care for children of working parents – if they pay for it.

"Children start school at six years old and the first year is spent learning by playing. In Norway it is thought very important for children to play and they should be left to be a little bit bored, so they find they own activities," explains Charlotta.

Certainly Kari and Eric do not seem to expect to be entertained. When Farmlife visited they were busy balancing on huge stilts, oblivious to the falls, and played happily without the need for constant attention.

Eric, of course, is in line for the farm but Jon is young enough to remember the pressures this can bring, and is leaving the boys options open. After all, it remains to be seen how long governments will value farming enough to pay for it.