Finland's climate and soils make growing crops a particular challenge. The country lies between 60° and 70° north latitude-- as far north as Alaska--and has severe winters and relatively short growing seasons that are sometimes interrupted by frosts. However, because the Gulf Stream and the North Atlantic Drift Current moderate the climate, Finland contains half of the world's arable land north of 60° north latitude. Annual precipitation is usually sufficient, but it occurs almost exclusively during the winter months, making summer droughts a constant threat. In response to the climate, farmers have relied on quick-ripening and frost-resistant varieties of crops, and they have cultivated south-facing slopes as well as richer bottomlands to ensure production even in years with summer frosts. Most farmland had originally been either forest or swamp, and the soil had usually required treatment with lime and years of cultivation to neutralize excess acid and to develop fertility. Irrigation was generally not necessary, but drainage systems were often needed to remove excess water.
Until the late nineteenth century, Finland's isolation required that most farmers concentrate on producing grains to meet the country's basic food needs. In the fall, farmers planted rye; in the spring, southern and central farmers started oats, while northern farmers seeded barley. Farms also grew small quantities of potatoes, other root crops, and legumes. Nevertheless, the total area under cultivation was still small. Cattle grazed in the summer and consumed hay in the winter. Essentially self-sufficient, Finland engaged in very limited agricultural trade.
This traditional, almost autarkic, production pattern shifted sharply during the late nineteenth century, when inexpensive imported grain from Russia and the United States competed effectively with local grain. At the same time, rising domestic and foreign demand for dairy products and the availability of low-cost imported cattle feed made dairy and meat production much more profitable. These changes in market conditions induced Finland's farmers to switch from growing staple grains to producing meat and dairy products, setting a pattern that persisted into the late 1980s.
In response to the agricultural depression of the 1930s, the government encouraged domestic production by imposing tariffs on agricultural imports. This policy enjoyed some success: the total area under cultivation increased, and farm incomes fell less sharply in Finland than in most other countries. Barriers to grain imports stimulated a return to mixed farming, and by 1938 Finland's farmers were able to meet roughly 90 percent of the domestic demand for grain.
The disruptions caused by the Winter War and the Continuation War caused further food shortages, especially when Finland ceded territory, including about one-tenth of its farmland, to the Soviet Union. The experiences of the depression and the war years persuaded the Finns to secure independent food supplies to prevent shortages in future conflicts.
After the war, the first challenge was to resettle displaced farmers. Most refugee farmers were given farms that included some buildings and land that had already been in production, but some had to make do with "cold farms," that is, land not in production that usually had to be cleared or drained before crops could be sown. The government sponsored large-scale clearing and draining operations that expanded the area suitable for farming. As a result of the resettlement and land-clearing programs, the area under cultivation expanded by about 450,000 hectares, reaching about 2.4 million hectares by the early 1960s. Finland thus came to farm more land than ever before, an unusual development in a country that was simultaneously experiencing rapid industrial growth.
During this period of expansion, farmers introduced modern production practices. The widespread use of modern inputs-- chemical fertilizers and insecticides, agricultural machinery, and improved seed varieties--sharply improved crop yields. Yet the modernization process again made farm production dependent on supplies from abroad, this time on imports of petroleum and fertilizers. By 1984 domestic sources of energy covered only about 20 percent of farm needs, while in 1950 domestic sources had supplied 70 percent of them. In the aftermath of the oil price increases of the early 1970s, farmers began to return to local energy sources such as firewood. The existence of many farms that were too small to allow efficient use of tractors also limited mechanization. Another weak point was the existence of many fields with open drainage ditches needing regular maintenance; in the mid-1980s, experts estimated that half of the cropland needed improved drainage works. At that time, about 1 million hectares had underground drainage, and agricultural authorities planned to help install such works on another million hectares. Despite these shortcomings, Finland's agriculture was efficient and productive--at least when compared with farming in other European countries.
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