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Agriculture

Finland, Land of Developing Agriculture

Urbanisation is a global phenomenon that has long affected Finland. People are moving to towns and cities with an ever diminishing number working in agriculture. In Finland in the 1940s, agriculture employed about half the work force, today it employs fewer than 4%.

At the same time the number of working farms has collapsed. It fell by over 50,000 in the 1990s. Although the rate of decrease has been considerably slower during the 2000s, the trajectory of change is still clear: in the year 2011 the country lost about 1,200 farms. Last year there were 61,000 farms in Finland, and their average size keeps growing.

Despite the general trend towards centralisation and the shift into other economic sectors, we do still have an agricultural sector in Finland which is around 54,000 businesses strong.

What is it like working and progressing in the sector, which produces food for the Finnish population? Vihreä Tuuma interviewed two farmers.

Lauri Hantula, 45, raises livestock and farms land in western Finland. Aittomäki farm, located near Seinäjoki, has about 75,000 chickens and 400 pigs. The arable land of 250 hectares is planted with barley and wheat. The farm has been involved in experimental methods under the auspices of Finland’s environmental administration for nine years, the most recent project being an investigation into how to reduce nutrient loading in the soil.

“I come from a farming family. This is a family farm and my mother’s home that I’m trying to take forward as respectfully as I can. My brother has his own farm next door.”

From time to time the question is raised about whether it is worth practising agriculture at all in the Nordic countries.

The permanent staff are Lauri and his wife Jutta, and one non-family employee. In addition, eight or nine temporary workers help with seasonal work on the fields and in the henhouse. Hantula, who has a qualification in agricultural science, concentrates on his main work and leaves things like repairing machinery to other professionals.

Atte Hermansson, 32, leases an organic and biodynamic farm in Sipoo’s Majvik. He too got a taste of farming at an early age. When he was little his family moved to Kirkkonummi where his father started producing garden plants and barley on a small plot of land.

As an adult Hermansson worked in technology for about a decade before realising he wanted a change. He visited Majvik to find out more and when he noticed that a vocational school in Uusimaa was offering training courses in organic gardening, his decision was made. Hermansson was among the first to graduate from the course this year, and he plans to take over the farm in his own name soon. He will move there with his partner and two children in the spring.

No guaranteed holiday

Majvik hosts a diversity of activities on its 20 hectares of land. The main crop is potatoes, but the yield also includes spelt, wheat, rye and many root vegetables and herbs. Additionally, there are four cows and a calf in the cowshed. The work is mostly structured according to the seasons: winter is for selling the previous year’s crop, tending the forest and catching up with today’s “indoor chores”, in other words, paperwork. In spring nature awakens and with that comes ground preparations and seed sowing.

“I liked the farm’s social side and its buzz, since mostly the work here is powered by people. In the winter we get by on our own but in the spring we have many interns and volunteers, and even the customers sometimes lend a hand”, Hermansson explains.

On Aittomäki farm, the winter lull in agricultural work is used for additional training, for construction and repair work and for seed care. The livestock side, in contrast, follows the same pattern through the whole year. The day begins at around six in the morning with three or four hours of work. The afternoon consists of the same tasks of looking after the animals, and between these hours there is time for other activities. An evening check-up is done at around nine.

Whatever the job, it would be good to have a holiday from time to time. Farming, however, is fundamentally a vocation where the calendar year and the demands of the livestock set a very tight schedule. The pace of work in livestock management is rather similar throughout the year, which is why a holiday and stand-in scheme has been devised. In practice it means that a farm relief worker takes care of the farm temporarily, giving the farmer’s family a break from work.

The idea is good, but the service could be improved. A lack of relief workers, and ensuring the required level of expertise, create significant challenges.

“The relief worker who looks after the pigs comes to us via the municipality, but even though we put in our requests two years in advance, we seem not to get the relief at our preferred time. And if the relief worker isn’t familiar with the feeding machinery, you can’t leave them alone with the pigs”, Hantula says

Hermansson is also part of the holiday and stand-in scheme, but because of the many overlapping activities that go on on the farm, it seems impossible to find a competent stand-in for everything. Because there is so little livestock, the amount of relief services tends to be small, despite the fact that there is plenty of agricultural work to be done throughout the year.

“Daylight time is working time, always. Sundays we try to keep free.”

Shortly before the interview Hantula had taken a fall on the ice and, due to a dislocated shoulder, for a while was not fit for work. Short periods of sick leave like this can be covered with the help of the usual workers, but over a longer time, the load on them would be too much.

Reliant on subsidies and on nature

These days the market economy is pervasive, which means that food production is concentrated. It is concentrated internally within a state but also between countries. From time to time the question is raised about whether it is worth practising agriculture at all in the Nordic countries.

Thinking about the role of agriculture in Finland in the 2010s, both interviewees agree that local production and some level of self sufficiency is a priority. This is important for coping with crises and because of the increased cost of transport, among other things. Domestic production is also something that consumers value.

Hantula raises the point of respecting the environment as a precondition for producing not just a good quality crop, but ambitious quantities.

“You have to work in balance with nature, and that’s why I went for experimental farming. We have achieved good results, and the greater the yield, the easier it is to reduce nutrient loading in the soil”, Hantula explains.

In practice the biodynamic farming practised by Hermansson means organic farming with a few extras; for example, paying more attention to closing the cycle of nutrients within the farm. At Majvik this has made it possible for the farm and the land area to stay the same for almost a hundred years. Their small tractors are from years gone by, newer technologies, such as potato harvesters, are not used at all.

Meanwhile within conventional farming the development from the smallholding model to the modern and mechanised labour practices of the 2000s, has been enormous. Even on Aittomäki farm the scale of operations is quite different from what it used to be.

“When this land was still in my parents’ hands in the 1960s, it was 17 hectares of land and eight cows. That’s where it started. The whole time we have tried to keep up with developments, because if we don’t, things will go wrong, and that would bring the story of this farm and this business to an end.”

It was on this basis that the broiler-chicken business was started in 1986, with significant investments in the technology. At the moment expectations of growth are focussed on the arable side. The farm makes use, for instance, of precision agriculture, where a GPS-system on a tractor collects information about the fields. The data is collected onto a computer, which automatically guides sowing and the amount of fertiliser to be used on any part of the land. The system, which enhances profitability, is precise up to the scale of twenty square metres.

“The bureaucracy is a little too heavy and is bound to be a force that prevents many producers from making the shift to organic”. – Atte Hermansson

The direction of developments is largely dictated by the broader economic framework.

“Without agricultural subsidies this work would not be profitable in Finland. Though it certainly produces a lot of paperwork. I use about a day a week just for that”, Hantula says.

In the same vein Hermansson uses one fifth of each working day for filling forms. He has thought a lot about the attractiveness of farming, because it is largely done on zero margins. At Majvik the proportion of subsidies is about half of the bottom line.

“Organic farming makes economic sense in Finland. Still, this year has been challenging because of the wet summer.”

Both men have several ideas for developing the system of subsidies. Hermansson has already discovered that a small organic farmer’s daily routine can be difficult from time to time.

“The daily auditing of the production cycle that’s required for organic inspection is really tough on a small producer, particularly since we do direct sales from the farm and because our range is so varied. The bureaucracy is a little too heavy and is bound to be a force that prevents many producers from making the shift to organic”.

Hantula would change the way conventional farm subsidies are allocated.

“Subsidies should somehow also be directed at quantity. That way you would be rewarded for work that aims at producing a better yield from the same area of land.”

Towards the future

As the conversation shifts to expectations of the future, Lauri Hantula becomes thoughtful. He is worried about the future, which is influenced by so many factors. Today farming is a political hot potato, and decisions that affect the sector are constantly being made that pull it first this way then that. Disagreements between the responsible departments also create headaches for agricultural entrepreneurs, who find themselves between a rock and a hard place.

“If we want there to be agriculture in Finland in the future, then the sector needs to be a more inviting option in relation to other jobs. Even now it tends to be difficult to find the entrepreneurs, and the worst nightmare scenario is that farmers will disappear.”

Atte Hermansson also avoids complacent fantasies about the future; rather he sees it as a huge challenge. Still, his choice of profession is not something he regrets.

“I am confident, and certain that this will become a sociable livelihood and a going concern as a farm. This is a way of life, where you are constantly meeting friends, customers and neighbours”, Hermansson sums up.

Farming may be demanding work but it’s also rewarding.

“The best thing is when you walk into the open fields of Pohjanmaa just before harvest time. That smell of a harvestable crop coming up from the beautifully waving fields. These are things that you can’t convert into money”, Hantula says.

 

Sources

Tilastokeskus – Statistics Finland

Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, Agricultural Statistics

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Finland, Land of Developing Agriculture

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