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.