April 8, 2014 Pat Beaujot
Estonia: Ripe for Innovation?
In March, I had the opportunity to travel to Estonia for a few days to tour the countryside and speak to some of its farmers. As a quick background, Estonia is a beautiful country on the North-eastern edge of the EU bordering Russia, Latvia, the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Finland. It has a population of 1.3 million people, and roughly 1.3 million hectares of agricultural land. Over fifty per cent of the country is covered by forest, and it has a humid continental climate, with plenty of snow during their cold winters. Unfortunately the snow had not yet melted during my visit, so I didn’t get the chance to take a close look at the soil these people value so much that it is represented proudly in their flag, but more about that later.
Farming in Estonia has had a troubled history, as during the 1940’s the country was claimed by Russia, forcing the surrender of farm land over to a state farm system, which has only been controlled by original landowners since the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Many of the farmers that I met were children or grandchildren of the farmers who had their land taken, who were slowly able to regain access to their farms as descendants. Coincidentally enough, this regain of control happened right around the time of the founding of Seed Hawk, so I found that interesting. With the return of their land and no access to development subsidies available in other parts of Europe, these growers had to begin again, and find ways to innovate and market their crops wherever they could.
There has been much growth and development since the 1990s. It is not unusual to hear of farms that are 1000 ha these days. While driving around, I could see that growers took pride in their farms and their farming practices. The fields looked beautiful and they were quite large, so they have a little larger scale than in Sweden or Germany. In 2004 Estonia joined the EU, giving them some access to subsidies. Previously they had been on their own. They were very much like Saskatchewan farmers in that they didn’t have any government backing to support them. They were producing crops and building their farms through their own determination.
The access to subsidies has been a slow change since 2004. Today they have nowhere near what countries like France, Germany or Sweden have, but I think that their situation and history makes them similar to places like Australia and Western Canada in that they had to be willing to change and adapt in order to thrive. The reason I touch on this subsidy issue is that this is something I have noticed wherever we go to help farmers change and improve their farming practices: places that don’t have access to subsidies seem to be more eager and quicker to change than those who have had access to them for years and years. Western Canada and Australia are excellent examples of this in that they switched to zero till quickly and benefitted greatly from it. It is changing much slower in parts of the US and Europe. Innovation is driven by necessity. It makes sense; if you’re making money, then why change? If however you’re threatened with losing money or losing the farm, then you have to change. It was really refreshing to see this interest in innovation.
The other thing about Estonian agriculture that I thought made them similar to Western Canada had to do with climate. Approximately 70 % of their crops are spring seeded to 30 % winter seeded. This fits with our practices, as they are able to fertilize more in the spring. As part of the EU, Estonia is limited by restrictions on fertilizing in the fall due to concerns about nitrogen run-off and leaching. The land is rather flat and well-drained, with tall forest all around and they don’t seem to be subject to the wind or water erosion that we see. Their focus wasn’t so much on erosion, but rather on improving their soil.
I spoke to a group of 30 or so farmers as part of my trip, and their major concern was “can we do something to improve our soil and save money?” My answer was that with zero-till as a practice, they could achieve both. The group was very receptive to the things I was talking about. They experience cold, wet springs, and warming the soil with a knife opener appealed to them. Many of the attendees have mixed farms, so they were using manure in slurry in the spring. The farms that I toured were really nice operations, and really innovative.
I am really looking forward to returning to Estonia in the future. I had a really nice time: the people were warm and friendly, the countryside was beautiful and the farmers really knowledgeable and open minded to new ideas. Zero-till will really appeal to them as a way of cost savings and soil fertility. I was particularly impressed by their flag, which is three horizontal stripes, the top blue stripe is the sky representing hope for the future, the middle black representing the soil that provides for them through forestry and farming, and the white, representing hard work and dedication. Estonia has been taken over by many neighbours throughout its history and has suffered greatly, but they have persevered through commitment to their way of life, and that same hard work and dedication their flag describes, and that is certainly to be admired.
Facts about Estonia were found at: