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Pure natural food
More and more consumers are happy to pay somewhat over the odds for organically grown foodstuffs. They do so out of concern not only for their own health, but also for the wellbeing of the environment.

Finland has rapidly moved into the vanguard of European organic food producers. On average, around five per cent of the total arable area in the country is now cultivated organically, although there are some regions where the percentage is substantially higher. One such is Mikkeli's neighbouring municipality of Juva, where as much as ten per cent of the total arable area is cultivated using organic methods.

Researchers and farmers in cooperation

Organic farming excludes the use of easily-soluble artificial fertilisers and chemical crop protection agents. Renewable energy is used as efficiently as possible and plant nutrients are recycled. In breeding domestic animals, organic producers take the needs and behaviour patterns of various species carefully into consideration. Their overall goal is to produce choice-quality, healthy products of high nutritional value whilst also protecting the environment and ensuring the long-term fertility of the land. The ecological production research station in Juva works to a programme designed in consultation with scientists, advisors and farmers. Projects yielding new information that can be used to deal with current problems have been given priority.

"Organic farming demands a lot of skill," says researcher Petri Leinonen. "The old folk wisdom that it's the farmer's personal touch that makes all the difference is still perfectly valid. The farmer must know his land and be able to think long-term. There are great differences between farms; one vegetable grower gets bumper crops whilst his neighbour's yields are much lower, and yet both seem to have the same starting point. Research has a lot to do to explain mysteries like this and many more, and we can learn a lot from farmers. That's why we are so keen to develop a good dialogue with them."

A balance of terror

"Compared with conventional cultivation methods, the levels of nutrients released into the environment in organic farming are only half the amount per unit of area. The organic farmer tends his land in a way that makes it naturally fertile and gets it into such good shape that it can take care of itself. We develop our cultivation methods in a way that maximises crop yields and minimises releases of substances that harm the environment. An organic farmer's crop is about two-thirds of what conventional farmers achieve. Yields on livestock farms likewise fall somewhat when organic methods are adopted," Leinonen explains.

"A balance of terror has to be maintained in the fields: when pests and their natural enemies are kept in the correct proportion to each other, they sort things out among themselves. The cold Finnish winter takes care of a lot of problems relating to pests and disease. "

Finnish organic farmers have enjoyed excellent success with several varieties of rape, which yields oil seeds, and Leinonen believes that they can look forward to further successes on world markets.

Organic crispbread and liquorice for export

So far, the domestic market has been able to absorb virtually all that organic farmers have been able to produce and could take even more. Exporting is still in its infancy and the first faltering steps into markets abroad are only now being taken.

"The best-selling export items have been grain products," reports Pekka Terhemaa of Luomu-Liitto, the national organisation that represents organic producers. "Organic crispbread has also done well in Denmark and Germany. Especially farmers who have been using organic cultivation methods for a long time have been eager to increase their degree of processing and sell ready products. There have also been some exports of organic rapeseed oil and liquorice."

Terhemaa says there are no distinct areas of specialisation in Finnish organic farming yet, because the matter is still so new. The items that sell best in the domestic market are fresh vegetables, potatoes and grains. He believes that organic sugar could be a good seller in the future. "Since we already have organic vegetables and berries there is a strong demand for organic sugar for use in processing them."