Small Farms and the Maintenance of Equality by Ottar Brox

My work as a social scientist has for a long time concentrated on rural problems. This applies especially to marginal areas of northern Europe. I will try to use my observations and reflections to approach certain problems that not only concern the countryside, but also the urban populations of industrial Northern Europe.
My starting point is many economists’ predictions that modern industrial countries must be prepared for an unemployment crisis as bad as the one that struck Spain and Portugal recently: 50% unemployment for young people, no jobs for new university graduates. Jobless people generally on the lowest wage scales being recruited to what the British economist Guy Standing calls the Precariat: a new dangerous class – because they are taking over from the proletariat of Marxist literature. They are called the Precariat because they are in a precarious situation. Unskilled people face a very difficult situation today in many countries.
Most of you will know that, as far as the economy and general welfare goes, Norway is not exactly a failed state. Not only is the national product per inhabitant the same as in most developed countries, but also this is better distributed among the citizens than it is in many rich countries, generally. That said, all the statistics indicate that income and class differences in Norway are increasing very quickly, which is of great concern to many commentators.
More and more economists and development theorists have become convinced that the social problems of rich countries are much more easily resolved by decreasing inequalities than by increasing the national product. This story is an attempt to describe and explain the important contribution of subsistence farms to the modernisation of Norway and its economy or through and beyond the middle of the 20th century. And, of course, how this has contributed to the maintenance of our old-fashioned equality.
We may compare the modernisation of Norway with the modernisation of other rich countries, especially Great Britain where the so-called industrial revolution started. The speed and massive character of this process in Great Britain from the late 18th century is probably best visualised by population statistics. In 1801 about 10% of the people were living in cities – towns of more than 10,000 people. In 1901, 58% were living in cities. It’s a very fast urbanisation process. By contrast, Norway had 93,571 farms in 1819, which increased to 246,634 in 1907 and 345,125 by 1959. This continual expansion occurred parallel to the industrialisation of Norway, as it became a technically advanced social democracy.
Very many Norwegians owned subsistence farm. These units kept one or two dairy cows and a few sheep – growing enough potatoes for the whole household. Dividing the national population by the number of farm units may indicate the importance of subsistence farming. Even after the Second World War, when you divide the whole Norwegian population by the number of farms, there would be about 10 people per farm. That is a large, three-generation household that could be fed by each farm. This was at the same time as the country was industrialised.
Today this is economic history. Subsistent agriculture has been reduced to vegetable gardens and pleasure animals like for example riding horses. For the long period that historians will refer to as ,the small farm age, which is I think lasted from around 1819 to 1950 approximately, the number of small farms changed or increased at the same rate as industrial labour force. And yet, from the so-called small farm age, Norwegians have inherited an extremely decentralised settlement structure. Most small subsistence farms still serve as homes for people renovated and largely isolated and connected to municipal services like roads, sewage, water etc. This situation may have critical implications if the dystopic circumstances of Spain and Portugal materialize in Norway.
To understand the historic importance of subsistence farming in Norway, compared to other countries, we will have to specify ecological as well as political variables.
Most of Norway consists of bogs, stony or wooded land riddled with tree roots, land that may be of use to people for subsistence farming, but which are worth nothing to an owner with commercial inclinations or plans. The whole of Norway is impediment to the geographer. That is the reason why so many Norwegians could live off farming. The land is of no interest to feudal lords or to early capitalists because it took so much work to harvest anything from it.
There are comparable examples in Scotland. Those who become owners of the Highlands and Islands reacted to high wool prices that accompanied the industrial revolution by getting rid of their tenants. They preferred sheep to their tenants. They kicked off the people who were living on the land and established millions of sheep. If a large Norwegian property-owner had decided to take advantage of the increased wool prices, he would – in most of the country – have had to collect winter fodder and provide winter housing for all his animals. He would have a hard time turning out a profit.
At the same time also many small farms were established by parents dividing land between several of their children––regardless of legislation trying to avoid farms that were too small. They give their sons or daughters small areas of woodland or bogs to cultivate. Because rich people couldn’t make any profit from the land, it was cheaply available, especially on the peripheries. Many people from the south went to the north, not only for the land , but also because of the great deal of fish available.
The development of benevolent public society early in the 20th century, supported by public money, helped young people establish farms to avoid or reduce emigration. Of about 80,000 farms established in Norway after 1910, 19,000 were part of this program.
A tempting conclusion is that the rural poor are lucky if they live in an area where land is poorly suited to commercial exploitation. In other countries with attractive farmland poor people had little chance to acquire a subsistence farm. At any rate, it is fair to say that 1) The low quality of agricultural land made landownership to be of marginal interest – under feudalism as well as under early capitalism. 2) The land market outside the small productive areas indicates that land rents as well as actual prices of land have been very low– especially in the Arctic and otherwise marginal regions.
II. Size. Subsistence Farming and the Economy of Scale
Under preindustrial conditions, domestic units find it “profitable” – or should we rather say necessary? – to apply their labour to the gathering, hunting or cultivation of food and other necessities that they need – or are able to consume. But for many hundreds of years, North European households have needed cash to stay viable – for taxes, rents or goods that they could not produce themselves – or get hold of by bartering.
Under certain conditions, like in the North American prairie states, farmers like Scandinavian immigrants could be able to expand one or more of their subsistence activities in order to provide necessary cash. If they grew wheat for their own use, and had acquired a team of oxen and a plough for that purpose, their expenses and labour in order to earn needed dollars might be low – as they could take advantage of the economy of scale.
Under less hospitable conditions, like in most of Norway, draining bogs, clearing away stones and tree-roots took so much hard manual work that very little was produced for sale. We could put it like this: Collecting winter fodder for the third or fourth cow takes as much digging new soil and yearly haymaking as was necessary for the first and second one. The incentive to increase agricultural production drops suddenly as soon as the quantity needed by the household has been achieved.
Norwegian subsistence farmers would be looking around for easier ways to get the necessary cash – like fishing, crafts or temporary wage work like building houses, roadwork, or cutting, floating and processing of timber. Outside of the limited good farming districts, food production for the market tended to be the least attractive way of making the money needed to keep the household viable.
Small-farm families as a labour reserve
The necessity of small farm households to supplement subsistence production with a certain minimum of cash, and their varying capacity to take jobs off the farm – locally and regionally – implies that small farm communities may have represented a reliable source of labour – perhaps as important to Norwegian industrial growth as rural – urban migrants were to the British industrial revolution.
This implies that rural small-farm areas could be considered as a source of easily available labour. Prominent among the business lines of the new class of entrepreneurs were fish export, saw mills (later pulp), shipbuilding and shipping. Much of these activities took place in rural environments, i.e. within reach of subsistence farmers.
Small farm families were probably as important as a source of labour to the Norwegian primary-based export branches and shipping as the urbanized masses of peasants and farm hands in the very fast-growing industrial cities were to the British manufacturing industry.
Part of the explanation why the number of subsistence farms and industrial employment grew more or less at the same rate, may be that at the same time as there are small-farm-generated industrial communities, we also find cases where industry or mines have generated small-farm settlements.
Entrepreneurs planning to start simple production of clothes, furniture or house-building articles, based on local skills and local materials, could rather easily find small-farm communities with a predictable surplus of local labour. Many upstarts began production in their own home village, employing daughters and sons of their neighbours.
But industry-generated small-farm communities are not difficult to find: An industrial workplace, based on a natural resource, like a mine or a fish factory hires industrial workers from everywhere. They may be given barracks in which to live. But sometimes they are married, get children who need milk – and may have wives with a rural background. Very soon, the miner or fish-packer would be another subsistence farmer.
In other cases small farmers may have had to spend part of the year away from home – in barracks for road builders, narrow huts for forestry workers, or other kinds of haphazard housing. But even several years after WWII, this kind of commuting by chosen by those who were owners of a small farm – rather than leaving it for unskilled urban jobs.
In other words: Industry also created small farms in Norway – not only when it expanded, but also when and where it shrank. This may help to explain why the number of subsistence farms in the country grew at the same rate as industrial employment.
When I did fieldwork among the last generation of fishing farmers in Arctic Norway in the 1960s, it struck me that very many of them – and not only the young ones – had expansive ambitions. At the same time as they got rid of the dairy cow, they saved money to buy more efficient fishing gear – such as nylon nets and electric jigging- machines. Both kinds of decisions were generated by important changes in “The rules of the game”:
The Fresh Fish Act of 1938 made landing prices less dependent on the local market (many small boats with limited mobility against one buyer with limited capacity to handle large quantities). The Act gave their organizations much more power in the settling of landing prices. In effect, the law gave the man in the boat the resource rent of the fishery, rather than allowing the merchant to collect it. Coastal people carrying on seasonal labour-intensive fishing in small boats increased their standard of living considerably, investing in more efficient and labour-saving gear, and soon got rid of their very labour-demanding cows, who paid the household very little per hour. On the island of Senja, in the rural districts of Berg and Torsken, with a population of 3510 in 1950, the number of boats below 30 feet increased from 62 in 1934 to 378 in 1960.
What makes this local story relevant to the main problems posed in this article, which is to find out why the number of subsistence farms continued to increase after the industrial take-off? The substantial improvement in the life conditions of self-employed fishermen-farmers implied in the 1938 Act, is simply a typical case of politically decided rules, aimed at improving the life conditions of the majority of the citizens.
Norwegian subsistence farmers have sometimes been referred to as “peasants” in comparative literature. They may have been, but only with regard to the size and market value of their holdings, and may be lifestyle. General peasant theory define this social category as powerless in relation to landowning, commercial, political and ceremonial holders of power. But it is obvious that even if many people living on the land did not have the right to vote before 1898, the rural interests could not be ignored in the Parliament, which after the 1830s was nicknamed “Bondestortinget” i.e. “The Peasant Parliament” by the urban middle class. Promoting the practical interests of the small farmer made the Liberal Party (Venstre) grow very fast, as Labour did – partly for the same reason – in the 20th century. One could specify an impressive list of political benefits to the subsistence farmer population up to the first years after WWII, like cheap loans for building, subsidies for draining and cultivating outfields, and culminating in legislation securing a decent landing price to the fisherman-farmer.
Hence there are reasons to believe that a small farm was a realistic alternative to an urban industry or service job – as long as households were able to find some source of the necessary cash minimum. Which means that industrial and other employers had to compete with self-employment for labour
We may compare the Norwegian economic growth process with the extreme alternative – the British industrial revolution –, which, according to Karl Polanyi, implied destruction of the subsistence economy of the rural masses. The Norwegian rural population maintained and improved their pre-industrial subsistence economy at the same time as the country was industrialized, which means that the value created by the modern economic activities came on top of a growing small scale household-organised economy.

Arthur Brox: Berg og Torsken Bygdebok, Vol. I. Tromsø 1959.
Bjørn Bækkelund and Stig J. Kalvatn: Folldal Verks historie ca. 1745 – 1993. Folldal kommune
Karl Polanyi: The Great Transformation. Norwegian ed.: Den liberale utopi. Res Publica, Oslo 2012.
John Prebble: The Highland Clearances. Penquin, Harmondsworth 1963.
Francis Sejersted: «Den norske Sonderweg», in Demokratisk kapitalisme, PAX, Oslo 2002.
Guy Standing: The Precariat. Bloomsbury, London 2011.