Skip to main content

Tero Mikkola from Finland harvests heat – and his crops include caraway

By Erminia Ciarleglio, DLG

It’s over 20 years ago since this Finnish farmer travelled as an agricultural student for practical experience in Germany. There, the higher cereal yields and wide variety of speciality crops convinced him that the way ahead for family farming in the less favourable growing conditions of his homeland had to feature more diversification and niche crops. Perhaps this is one reason why the standard cereals and oilseeds grown on the 300 ha he farms with his wife Anne and three young sons are joined by specialist crops grass seed and caraway. Energy is also harvested, with five woodchip-fired plants producing 8 MWh for central heating systems. Three plants are owned and two managed. »As profitability in farming becomes increasingly difficult to achieve, we’ve concentrated more on the heat production sector«, says Tero Mikkola.

1. You studied agriculture in the 1990s. Comparing then and now, what are the differences and challenges?

Structural change has been rapid. Before Finland’s 1995 EU accession there were hardly any purely arable farms of more than 100 ha. Nowadays there are few commercial businesses with less than 100 ha cropland, and units of 400 – 500 ha are no rarity. Expansion is mainly through renting more land.

On the whole, agriculture nowadays is much more business-like compared with 25 years ago. Then, my father still sold his grain to the cooperative, and also bought his seed and fertiliser there. Nowadays, there’s a lot more trading activity and contacts abroad have grown more important.

That the margins in farming businesses have become tighter over that period can be seen from the way cropping, even in organic farming, has become more intensive.

2. In Finland back in the 1950s almost 50% of the population was involved in agriculture. Nowadays, the figure is only 8 %. What are the main reasons for this?

Is it really still at 8 %?  I think the background is very similar in both Germany and Finland. Opportunities for earning more outside farming are now more numerous. Within agriculture, efficiency has improved enormously. This has lowered farm product prices, meaning more has to be produced by fewer people in order to survive economically. Will any of my three sons (12, 15 and 17 years old) continue on the farm? I wonder.

3. What must Finland do to help boost its agriculture?

In southern Finland we haven’t an optimal climate for growing cereals, oilseeds or sugar beet. This applies even more further north. Our winters are relatively hard and wet, springs often short and too dry, summers too short and, in September, harvest and the subsequent sowing operations are sometimes almost simultaneous. Thus we don’t compare too well with good regions in central Europe for cereal or sugar beet growing. For instance, at maximum, we harvest only 50% of what is carted home in good German farming regions. 

This is why I see an advantage in Finnish farmers trying-out crops that are either not lucrative enough in central Europe compared with cereals, or where Finland can grow a better-quality product. Caraway, a perennial thriving in the long Finnish summer daylight hours, is such a product, a niche crop which has expanded substantially here. Finnish caraway now has more than 50 % market share of the global market. Still more important than the climate for this crop is the fact that a Finnish firm devoted much work into developing caraway as a quality product and into exporting almost 100% of output.

4. One of your main farm enterprises is grass seed production. How do you market the harvested seeds?

This crop is harvested for two firms that process the seeds and market them in mixes for pasture.

5. You’ve lived in Germany and worked in agriculture there. What are the big differences to your homeland? Which advantages and disadvantages can be identified?

In the 90s, I worked as student and harvest hand several times in Rhine-Hesse and the Dithmarschen region of Schleswig-Holstein. In the former region, I learned about specialty crops such as vegetables and wine. And in the latter, saw the absolute top wheat yields near the North Sea coast. In general, I always experienced very hard working and kind people in Germany and this has been a great influence on me, my work and ambitions since I took over the parental farm in 1998.

There are similarities, as well as differences, in the German and Finnish farming scene:  there’s the feeling that costs, including rents and farmland prices, are too high and incomes lower than they should be. The difference is that Finland is sparsely populated so that public pressure on farmers is perhaps a little less.

6. How has digitization developed in Finnish agriculture? Is it applied on your own farm?

Digitization is 100 % established in bureaucratic applications within agriculture, for instance in taxation and the ministries, as well as with field management mapping, book keeping, etc. District offices for banks are rare, with almost everything conducted via Internet and cash transactions have just about disappeared.

The themes digitization and automation are not so strongly present in crop growing, mainly because income per hectare is too low. Years ago, I wanted to fit automatic steering onto two of my tractors, but this is still not economically viable.

7. And your DLG membership? Can you profit from this?

I find the magazine DLG-Mitteilungen a very important source of information. There’s a DLG newsletter that I always look forward to and, naturally, I and my colleagues make sure we never miss the Agritechnica exhibition!