Finland and Ireland vary enormously, notes Irish agricultural journalist Rachel Martin, yet there are many similarities: both are geographically isolated with an economic importance on agriculture.
Rachel, and Egbert Jonkheer from the Netherlands, were among the 20 participants in the Finnish ENAJ tour during four days at the end of August and the beginning of September. Egbert Jonkheer and Rachel Martin give their impression while Michael Godtfredsen, one of the organizers, provides some background about the tour.
Egbert Jonkheer was curious about how Finland developed after joining the EU. “I think we got a good and honest impression about that. Your agriculture went through major changes. The natural handicaps of a short season and their impact on the production do not make it easy to compete on a free market and it was good to get a better understanding of that. Time to step forward.”
Michael Godtfredsen explains why this tour was organized. “In Finland we have felt for a while that there would be a need of showing up our sub-arctic agriculture for European journalists. In earlier days the Finnish agricultural sector was a bit careful about showing up internationally, probably because of our special subsidies. We are still allowed to pay some national supports even though we have been members of the EU since the last of December 1994.
Nowadays both import and export are much more common than earlier and, especially after the Russian ban, we have realized that it is necessary for Finnish food production to go international. During the same time subsidies have also been more harmonized with the other member countries of the EU.”
Support of the politicians
Egbert did have an impression of some reasons behind the Finnish politics of agriculture: “Your government really supports the farmers and is putting effort and importance into self-sufficiency. At the same time Finnish consumers are backing up Finnish products”, he says. “this is very important and it gives hope for a good future for the on average very young farmers of the EU – 52 years!”
Some favourite visits
Egbert points out especially two of the visits, the organic farm Knehtilä near Hyvinkää and the cheese factory and lunch cafe Juustoportti (” The Cheese Gate”) in Jalasjärvi. ”They were great examples of people trying to find business models in new sustainable ways of farming and trying to build on the green image of the country.”
Rachel too mentions Juustoportti: “Their innovative approach to dairy was fascinating.” Rachel’s favourite visits were the dairy farm Saarinen, Avant, Helsinki Mills and the demonstration of Logset forestry machines. “I also found the visit to the farmers’ association MTK very worthwhile – so many of the issues affecting the group are issues affecting new organizations globally.”
Finland 100 years
The tour was arranged during the first centenary of Finland as an independent nation. It is fairly obvious that this was mentioned now and then during the tour, especially at the introduction the first evening.
“I could feel how proud Finnish people are about their country and their culture,” says Egbert. “The presentation about 100 years of Finland was a very good start – with a clear and warm message to the world: ‘Not leaving anyone behind’. And staying with locals and sitting in the sauna did the rest to really get to know your country from inside out. I appreciated that very much.”
Rachel from Ireland saw more of the country than she thought was possible in four days. ”I found so many points of interest it was hard deciding which ones to follow up on once I got home. I had not only gathered some great stories but I had also experienced true Finnish culture”, she says.
“It was insightful to hear about the challenges affecting Finnish farmers and the many innovative solutions they use to overcome these – such as the Riola brothers and their pride in farming, despite the challenges of the market. The key message I got from the trip was how Finland had developed a successful agriculture sector in the face of adversity.”
ENAJ wanted to visit Finland
By January 2016 there was already a demand in ENAJ for a trip to Finland. But the Finnish association Maataloustoimittajat was not yet ready to organise it, Michael Godtfredsen explains.
“The main reason was worrying about the financing. In these days it is not very easy to get sponsors, especially if you try to focus on something different from the usual things. It is a challenge to arrange a low-budget trip in a high-cost country and at the same time keep the basic comforts on an acceptable level.”
Later on, the association gained enough sponsors. “We did not hear much complaining, but in that case it is also important to keep a kind of common feeling of a good time during a trip. The evening saunas combined with bathing in some of our many lakes were very helpful in that case. From the beginning we thought about 15 participants, but almost double that number would have liked to join. When we had some more sponsors we could raise the number to 20.”
Basic information in advance is important
Another challenge was the tight program, Michael Godtfredsen says. “We wanted to visit a lot of places, and the commercial sponsors wanted to be seen and heard as well.”
As Egbert Jonkheer from the Netherlands expresses: “Yes, the program was tight. But the other side is that we were able to see a lot. And since you prepared the tour so well, we still got all the info we were looking for. It was very well documented.”
Michael Godtfredsen adds: “One thing we had learned from earlier trips was that you have to bring so much basic information as possible in advance of the places you are visiting. That saves a lot of time – especially when you sometimes have to translate – and gives the participants the possibility to ask their own individual questions. So we printed a magazine with the basic information we could get and distributed it at the arrival. We also sent it by email to all the participants before the trip.
That was useful to Rachel Martin from Ireland: “The magazine was very well done and has really helped me put stories together, the first of which was published on Agriland.ie. The magazine also allowed discussions to get straight into the big issues; because the information was laid out clearly and in a way everyone could understand it saved everyone in the group asking for the same basic points.”
To Rachel the introduction on Finnish values and demographics set the participants up well for the rest of the visit. “The translation provided by our Finnish colleagues was excellent and ensured that the interviewees knew exactly what they were being asked and were able to respond exactly as they wanted to.”
At the first week of October Rachel had her first story published at Agriland.ie. Egbert has so far written two stories: one with a broad description of Finnish farming, and one specific on dairy.