White bread beats black brother


PHOTO: Peeter Kümmel / Sakala

Why is Estonia’s rye and potato farming shrinking fast? Blame the white bread/macaroni revolution, and all things wheat. And the people spitting on unending propaganda trumpeting the wholesomeness of rye.

Compared to ten years ago, Estonians are growing – and obviously eating – multiple times less black bread and potato. To compare with the beginning of 1990ies... let’s better not go there. «Last year, mere 6,600 hectares were under potato,» said Ellen Pärn, senior research fellow at Estonian Agricultural Museum. «It used to be 100,000,» she continued.

Still, Ms Pärn does not think potato growing will die out in Estonia. «A big potato eater myself, I don’t even want to think about the scenario,» she said.

Still, gradual demise of the potato-eating-habit cannot be totally excluded. Let’s recall that even the middle aged will not remember the shape and taste of turnip. Still, for centuries the vegetable was of great weight for the Estonian eater. In 19th century, it was the very potato which, after being imported, pushed back turnip and buckwheat. According to Ms Pärn, on larger fields fodder turnip was still grown in the 1980ies; by now, however, turnips have retreated into the rare few hobby gardens.

Not much better with rye. Statistical office says it shrunk to 11,500 hectares last year – down nearly twice from 2001. Alas, for a tonne of rye a farmer gets less than when selling wheat.

Barley rising

To the surprise of readers, perhaps, next to wheat it’s barley that is grown the most in Estonia: last year, on a whopping 133,000 hectares. Largely, it goes for animal fodder, but malting barley is grown as well. And then, of course, groats, pearls, and flours are made of barley.

In the Soviet times, city folks used to be herded to the vast state/collective farm fodder beet fields where, for hours on end, they had to weed the things – by now, fodder beet is history. «Regarding fodder root, the statistics are zero for 2012 and 2013 already,» said Ms Pärn.

With fodder root, the downfall is because of labour intensity – farmers prefer to make silage. As a replacement, rape growing has gained popularity. For starters, at the beginning of 1980ies, rape was grown for fodder. The oil side of is only started to be appreciated in the 1990ies.

Over the past years, rape growing has diminished somewhat, as it asks for lots of pesticides and wears out the soil. According to Estonian Crop Research Institute director Mati Koppel, the excessive spread rape resulted in various plant diseases and pest.

Mr Koppel says pesticide use has gone down somewhat. «In the beginning, there was this little crop farming revolution and the yields kept increasing – while the farmers were, to a large extent, slaves to the advice peddled by pesticide sellers,» explained Mr Koppel. «But when they finally added up the benefits and costs, they discovered that the extensive buying and using of pesticides was actually to their loss.»

Flax field dreaming

As one man, agricultural experts admit it is a pity fibre flax growing was allowed to totally die out. Firstly, flax is «in» again. Secondly, South Estonia would be an ideal place, climate-wise, to grow it. And why not mention, while at it, the beauty of flax fields in the wind like waves of the sea...

In 1990ies, fibre flax was still grown here and there, but by the beginning of the 2000ies, the one-time blessing of South Estonian farms ceased to be. As recalled by Mr Pärn, at the end of 19th century our flax and flax seed pocketed many a big international reward.

The chief reason fibre flax went down is money, of course – as the EU accession talks were underway, flax growing was already in a hole. Therefore, Estonian officialdom paid not much attention to bargaining for fibre flax growing direct aid. Also: to grow flax, special equipment is needed, which costs a lot. And, last but not least, Estonia no longer has flax processors to sell the fibre to. «For this phoenix, rising from the ashes would be really hard, even though it would make sense for us to grow flax,» added Ms Pärn.

Mr Field Bean

According to Mr Koppel, there are some positive examples, though, of traditional Estonian crops coming back. For example, pea and field bean areas are on the increase. «For years, field peas growing area was at 3,000 hectares; this year, it has jumped to 15,000,» said Mr Koppel. Part of that goes to feed animals in Estonia, a part is exported.

Barley grown in Estonia is mostly consumed domestically; wheat is also left over, for export. When it comes to rye, Mr Koppel says it is currently grown at the minimal level to cover domestic demand, and sometimes even below that.