A century in Estonian agriculture

Sometimes one must look back in order to move forward. We celebrated 100 years of Estonian Republic on 24th of February, and this century has been a turbulent one for our agriculture. Declaration of independence in 1918 had profound impact not only from political point of view but also for everyday rural life.

The young republic carried out a radical land reform, transferring land ownership from the large estates mostly owned by the Baltic German aristocratic minority to the mostly ethnic Estonian farmers. The reform was not based on ethnicity though but solely on the size of the estate. Of course there had been a pre-history to that story. Servitude had been abolished in Estonia over a century earlier and more wealthy among Estonian farmers had been buying farms from the land-lords for more than half century. Nevertheless significant part of less well-off Estonian peasant population remained landless. All this changed in 1919 – the young republic, still at its Liberation War, radically changed the land-ownership patterns from that largely based on big manorial estates to the one based on family farms.

Soviet occupation turned back the wheel. Originally farmers were promised that nationalisation of the land will not take away the entitlements to farm it – but this changed soon. Crippling taxes that were introduced soon after the war undermined the viability of the farms, but farmers still kept on. Mass deportations of 1949 however scared the farmers into accepting the fate of being “voluntarily” forced into the “collective farms” - in reality a new form of servitude being presented as a socialist model. Later these farms were lumped into still larger ones step by step, resulting in enterprises much bigger than the manorial estates of the past. “Land improvement” projects destroyed landscapes and created enormous fields, and animals were brought together into ever larger farms. Use of mineral fertilisers soared, largely simply because everything, including the use of farm inputs was planned.

The environmental foot-print of soviet agriculture was quite devastating. Literally train-loads of nitrogen were flushed down with spring floods, resulting in algal blooms choking the recipient water-bodies. Use of mercury containing compounds for seed treatment resulted in significant contamination of aquatic food chains. Destruction of landscape elements and loss of semi-natural meadows and pastures put significant strain on agricultural biodiversity. On the brighter side the use of larger semi-natural meadows and pastures still continued.

Restoration of independence in 1991 lead to the restitution of the land ownership, with hopes of the return to agriculture based on family farms. The original economic policy was very radically market oriented – all subsidies were abolished, as well as possible barriers to import of agricultural products. This policy ignored however the agricultural subsidies of EU, and also the then non-EU Nordic Countries. This distorted significantly our agricultural markets and resulted in many of the newly (re)established small farms never becoming economically viable. The ones who seemed to be the winners then though were the ones with over twenty cows and/or above forty hectares of land. These are now seen as small farms in Estonia, but it seemed different then – after all, this size of farm is not small in most of European countries.

Overall the agricultural production decreased, and so did agricultural pollution. Farmers were heavily pressed and had no spare money to buy too much fertilisers or pesticides. Also the drainage activities all but stopped. Not all news were good for environment though, since the use of remaining semi-natural meadows and pastures also plummeted.

However, as time went on and governments changed, some shifts in policy also happened. By the time the pre-accession funds of EU became available they were channelled mostly to larger farms – the ones that had been created by restructuring the former soviet style agricultural enterprises. The family farms also had to “grow or die”. Overall the concentration trend is common to many lands but the speed of the process was much quicker here than in most of our neighbouring countries.

By the accession time our agriculture was already quite concentrated and this trend was further speeded up by the accession. Many agri-environmental indicators have deteriorated after the accession, even though nothing is yet as bad as in soviet times. The algal blooms are nothing compared to the soviet time but at the same time are also much more eutrophic than the clear waters of the millennium change time. CAP has contributed to increase of fertiliser and pesticide use, and renewed activity of land drainage.

Some positive impacts of CAP agri-envrironmental measures should however also not be forgotten, for example in managing the semi-natural meadows and pastures. First steps were made already in the nineties, when first pilot support schemes were introduced. The original payments were ridiculously small, but the low incomes of the farmers made them interested in any additional earning possibility. After accession we managed to include the earmarked support for semi-natural habitats into the RDP as a sub-measure of the agri-environmental measure. CAP bureaucracy has created several obstacles here and therefore area managed falls short of the nature conservation needs, but nevertheless thousands of hectares currently included in the scheme are of international significance.

Subsidies alone of course are not enough. Since most of the dairy cattle has been concentrated into the huge units where the cows are kept indoors year round, something else was needed. Sheep and horses are important but still relatively marginal, therefore only the quick development of beef cattle farming – a relative novelty for Estonia – has saved the semi-natural pastures. Also innovative shift from fossil fuel based central heating to that based on alluvial meadow hay in a small town of Lihula has contributed to management of this critically important habitat in the Matsalu wetland. This shows that innovation is sometimes important for saving traditional high nature value agricultural landscapes and their habitats.

What promise does CAP reform hold for our agriculture? Recent developments have not added much to what has been already written in this blog. Agriculture and Fisheries Council has met twice in the meantime (See videos: https://video.consilium.europa.eu/en/webcast/eff1a32f-4049-4640-9d2a-7ebfdc68987e and https://video.consilium.europa.eu/en/webcast/24428877-36eb-46d3-81ff-8681f93f8d12) but the main questions remain open still. It is possible however that the Commission will unveil its plans for the CAP (environmental) objectives, so keep an open eye!

As important for the future of agriculture as CAP debates themselves are the developments of the MFF (see for example http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-18-745_en.htm). CAP budget cuts are clearly on the table with Commission discussing options of same budget allocation versus 30% cut or a middle way cut of 15%. Such third options seem to be usually the Commission’s favourite ones, therefore at least some cuts seem very probable. Of course the final decision is in the hands of the Member States and to some extent also depend on the Parliament but the result will most likely be not very different from the Commission’s proposal. If we would be able to cut CAP Pillar I and maintain the Pillar II, the future of our agriculture might be better than its past or present. Let’s work for it!

Author: Aleksei Lotman, Estonian Fund for Nature


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