It’s not just in Russia that frost has damaged crops.

Last week by chance I was in Estonia, the most northerly of the Baltic States that joined the EU in 2004. We visited a number of farms, one of them was an old state farm dating from when Estonia was part of the Soviet Union.

After the upheavals of the 1990s, the farm was effectively bought by the former employees. Since then the 4,500 ha (almost 12,000 acres) has been sold twice and is now owned by an Estonian businessman. They had 400 ha (1,000 acres) of winter oilseed rape – all of it was destroyed. The land was replanted with a combination of maize, oats and peas. Down the road, Kristan Poldmaa told us that 80% of his winter wheat had been destroyed. Farming with his father, they decided to replant on the basis that they were not clear how a government compensation scheme was going to work so rather than leave the land bare and hope for reasonable compensation, they would at least have some crop and then argue their case.


The cause of the devastation in the Russian / north eastern Europe area was a warm January that melted the crop-protecting snow. It was followed by a bitter northerly wind with severe frosts that killed the emerged plants. But it seems to have happened in pockets rather than ruining whole areas. It’s clear that Russian crops have also been badly affected.

Estonia has become a poster boy for what can be achieved by a country that has emerged from the oppressiveness of a communist regime and builds on the principles of a democratic open society. As a member of the EU since 2004, its average income per head has grown from 35% of the EU average to 65% today.

Plain sailing

But it hasn’t all been plain sailing, especially in agriculture. Though over half the size of all of Ireland at 45,000 sqkm, it has a population of only 1.3 million. Half of the land area is in forestry – with some Irish investors and with only 96,000 dairy cows, its dairy industry is small and fragmented, though the large Finish co-op Valio has a strong presence. Because of its small livestock sector, caused in part by the loss of its previously critical Russian market, wheat and barley are exported at essentially world prices, so the need for modern efficient facilities is clear if serious farming is to survive.

The economy centered in Tallinn the capital has diversified with IT and finance among the new key sectors (Skype was invented there).

The important Russian market, especially for pigmeat, has disappeared mainly because of the sanctions applied after the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014 and domestic Estonian production has reduced in the face of the loss of both the Russian market and competition from Poland.

Similarly the sugar beet industry has disappeared. Most of the standard tillage crops are grown but by Irish standards, yields are mediocre with 5t - 6t per ha being an acceptable average yield for winter wheat and 3t - 3.5t per ha for oilseed rape. Farms are large. One new specialist grain co-op we visited has 182 members with an average farm size of 560 ha (1,300 acres).

Completely free

With good land making about €8,000/ha, the land market itself is completely free and open. Some progressive farming families have grown from the sixteen ha allowed under communist rule to substantial operations today; while an Austrian pension fund has accumulated over 20,000 ha (50,000 acres). All receive the basic EU payment of €100/ha and everyone we met complained of the growing burden of regulation.

Among the regulations – the obligation to use low emission slurry equipment and the ban on ploughing permanent grassland.

Government policy is actively encouraging efficiency and modernisation by giving capital grants for machinery and infrastructure.

At the new grain co-op, we visited a new intake site and a storage and drying facility was being built from scratch at a total cost of €8.6m – €1m was being put up by the members, €1.6m by way of government grant and the balance a loan from a commercial bank.