The film was made almost 15 years ago when farmers had no option but to leave their farms for the city. It was part of a trend that started half way through the last century and has continued unabated ever since. Fifty years ago over 80% of the population made their living from farming; today it is less than 3% .
This country has never seen commercial farming on a large scale. The sub-arctic climate and poor soil conditions have prevented people from growing wheat and other cereals. Farmers instead have had to rely on growing hay in their pastures for sheep and cattle. What they have produced in terms of meat, wool and dairy has been used for their own consumption or to provide the domestic market; there has been no real export trade.
One step forward, one step back
Drive along any road outside of Reykjavík and you will soon come across deserted farm houses and buildings that bear witness to the dilemma that farmers and the government now find themselves in. It has gotten to the stage where farming has never been carried out by fewer people and yet never has there ever been so much tax payers’ money ploughed into keeping the activity alive. It is becoming increasingly difficult to see why. Farming contributes less than 2% of the GDP and yet uses up the same amount in grants. The World Trade Organisation has finally got the major countries to agree that farm subsidies are not working. The subsidised overproduction of one crop is dumped into poorer countries at a price that the local farmers cannot compete with, which leads to farm closures and poverty. The effect here has been to maintain high prices for home grown products and to create exorbantly high prices for imports. The taxpayer supports the 4,000 farmers in this country through over US$100 million each year in grants and subsidies – in return they receive the highest priced food in Europe and Scandinavia.
One man, four votes
A degree in economics is not necessary to ask the simple questions: “Why does the country continue support the agricultural sector, when products can be sourced far more cheaply overseas? Why doesn´t the overburdened Icelandic tax payer complain more?” The answer to both questions is political rather than economical.
One rural vote is worth four times a Reykjavík vote in this country and this is at the root of the problem. Governments which may attempt to address the imbalance of farm subsidy in the overall budget have ultimately backed down when faced with opposition from the Progressive (farmers) Party who more often than not have held the balance of power. “Do anything but don´t upset the farmers” seems to have been the credo. A clear example of this political leverage in action is next month´s appointment of Halldór Ásgrimsson, the leader of the Progressive Party, to Prime Minister. The Progressive party represents only 17% of the electorate and yet, in a deal that was brokered with the Independence Party when the current coalition was formed, they end up with the top job and a third of the cabinet. You can only be impressed by their political skills, but it doesn’t bode well for the consumer.
There is, of course, more to it than this. The country has a tradition of farming – it runs through the veins of every Icelander, many of whom view the activity with a mixture of nostalgia and pride which emerges when the subject is discussed. But looking back over the country’s history it seems that there has been a constant ebb and flow to and from the land; long periods of famine, plague and rural poverty appear all too frequently in the history books. Is this nostalgia and sentiment really justified?
Farmers aren´t sentimental
Farmers are not sentimental people by nature. The carrying out of the trade of rearing animals for slaughter has always implied a detached view. As Halldór Laxness said; “There´s no such thing as a free lunch.” Historically, farmers understood the need to balance the books but the world changed in the depression of the 1930s when governments around the world started agricultural subsidy. It made perfect sense for the country to follow suit, when all but a few of the work force were involved in farming. But that is not the case now, nor has it been for a very long time.
The prospect of living in remote communities combined with a harsh working environment and an uncertain future has meant that the children of farmers throughout the world have been walking away from the land to the brighter prospects of the city. The same is true here and it is going to take more than subsidies to persuade them to return. The time has come for farming to be seen again for what it really is – hard work for little reward other than the satisfaction of a job well done. The majority that live in the towns should not be forced to support the minority that live in the country at any cost. In a country which has achieved the lowest unemployment in Europe, those farmers who choose to farm should be encouraged to, but not featherbedded by the taxpayer who, in turn, should be free to buy better priced product from overseas.
It may be bad news for sheepdogs but it makes good sense for the country.
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