The country is largely a plain; only 10% of the country is more than 100 m above sea level. The climate, according to Koeppens classification, is cold type, with maritime influence providing wet, moderate winters and cool summers. Crop yields are often affected by weather variations; for example, in 1998 they were 20 to 30% below 1997 yields, due to unfavourable weather conditions.
Arable land and permanent crops cover 1.1 million ha; 0.3 million ha is under natural pastures; and 2.0 million ha is under forest. The main crops grown in the 1998-99 crop season were spring barley, oats, spring wheat, winter rye, potatoes, legumes, field grasses and annual fodder crops.
Imports and exports include various food products, including meat. The labour force participation ratio of women to men, according to data from the World Bank, was 1.0 in 1998, for the entire country.
The agri-food sector has been privatized since 1996, and has attracted new national and private investment, which is facilitating modernization and improved competitiveness. In 1998, Estonia introduced legislation concerning the phytosanitary sector, a direct payments scheme for cereal producers, and an investment subsidy for agricultural producers.
In the same year, accession talks began with the EU. This process is generating changes in the agricultural sector leading to harmonization of policies and practices with those of the EU. Negotiations with WTO have also meant a number of changes, which will imply less export subsidies and market interventions. Agricultural production is also influenced by demand from trading partners that are growing in importance, such as Latvia, Lithuania and Ukraine.
In 1998, the Government introduced measures to improve production efficiency, including subsidies for high quality seeds and credit subsidies. In addition to channelling the funds of a rural credit institution through commercial banks, another institution was established in 1998 for the agricultural sector, with EU financial support to provide credit guarantees for farmers in case of insufficient collateral.
Land and agricultural reforms aimed at splitting the large-scale collective and state farms in order to establish family farms. This land privatization process required the review of restitution claims, the sale of land and, in some cases, compensation through privatization bonds. The farm re-structuring has created a large number of small units with an average size of 4 ha each. This size is proving unsatisfactory and further adjustments will be required in order to reach more profitable holding sizes. There are still areas of unassigned State-controlled land, most of which has been leased to farmers; the remaining land is still available for rent. In fact, for a variety of reasons (e.g. poor quality, slow privatization, lack of purchasers) 20% of arable land is unused.
Due to the relatively high cost of fertilizers and agro-chemicals, their use in agriculture has declined. Poor maintenance of the drainage system in recent years has degraded the quality of some of the land. While drainage has now become a Government priority, alternative use of the land is under discussion. In some locations, the use of heavy machinery has been the cause of soil deterioration. The Government has had to intervene by facilitating credit to the agricultural sector, following the bankruptcy of a bank with a large involvement in the agricultural sector.
A Seed and Plant Propagating Material Act (RT I 1998,52/53,771) entered into force on 1 July 1998; it regulates inter alia the use of plant varieties, the production, testing certification, control, processing, marketing (including import and export) and distribution of seed and vegetative propagating material. For the major crops, the entire area is planted with improved seed varieties, except for potatoes, where the percentage is 75%. Production, processing and supply activities require a licence from the Plant Production Inspectorate.
A Plant Variety Rights Act (RT I 1998, 36/37, 553) entered into force in 1998. The authority in charge of the enforcement is the Plant Production Inspectorate. Seed legislation includes accession to the UPOV 1991 Convention on PBR.
The Jogeva Plant Breeding Institute (PBI) (established in 1920), deals with the breeding of cereals, potatoes, vegetables, forage grasses and legumes. It has a staff of 15 plant breeders. There is also the Polli Horticultural Institute dealing with fruit trees (apples, pears and plums).
Variety evaluation, registration and release
The Plant Production Inspectorate of the Ministry of Agriculture has overall responsibility. Official trials are conducted for two to four years according to species, mostly winter rye, winter and spring wheat, oats, spring barley, potatoes, vegetables, forage grasses and legumes. These tests are carried out in various centres across the country. The registration of new varieties is the task of the Variety Selection Committee, after tests have proven successful. The list of registered varieties is published in an official gazette. Registration for variety protection is the responsibility of the State Plant Inspectorate.
The main seed producing institutions are Jogeva PBI (cereals, forages, grasses and potatoes); Tartu Agro AS (cereals, forages, grasses); and the Jogeva Seed Centre (cereals, forage grasses, rape). They employ 15 seed experts. Generation nomenclature varies according to the crop species. For barley, oats, wheat and triticale it is Pre-basic, Basic 1, Basic 2, Certified 1, and Certified 2. For winter rye, it is Pre-basic, Basic and Certified. For potatoes, it is Pre-basic, Basic 1, Basic 2 and Certified.
Seed testing, certification and control
Estonia is affiliated to ISTA and since 1997 has participated in the OECD schemes for varietal and seed certification of Herbage and Oil seed, Cereals and Vegetables. In 1996 it applied to join the scheme for Beet. The testing procedures follow ISTA methodology. For marketing and distribution, certified seed must be accompanied by a quality certificate, issued by the Plant Material Testing Centre. The same is required for vegetative propagating material.
Seed processing, storage, marketing and distribution
The same institutions dealing with seed production carry out seed processing, storage, marketing and distribution. Total storage capacity is 6 500 tonne in concrete cold chambers.
In 1997, the value of seed produced in Estonia was estimated at 5 505 million crowns (EEK); imports originated mostly from Finland, Germany and Poland, worth EEK 3 443 million; exports went to Latvia, Ukraine and the Netherlands, and were worth EEK 5 036 million.
There are three institutions engaged in research work: the Estonian Institute of Agriculture (34 scientists) dealing with forage grasses; the Biotechnology Centre (6 scientists) dealing with potatoes; and the Jogeva PBI (22 scientists) dealing with cereals, forage grasses and potatoes. Research areas include production, processing, quality control, storage and packing. So far, biotechnology applications are limited to potatoes.
Advanced training courses in seed production and in seed marketing were delivered by Jogeva PBI in the year 1998-99 to some 314 experts.
Plant genetic resources
There is no national genebank in Estonia, but the Estonian Plant Biotechnology Research Centre, EVIKA, situated in Saku, approximately 20 km from the capital city, Tallinn, has a major in vitro collection of 350 potato cultivars, of which 40 are Estonian.
The other plant genetic resources collections are housed at Jogeva PBI (field, pasture and vegetable crops); at the Polli Experimental Station (fruit trees and berry bushes); and at the Tallinn Botanical Garden (ornamental plants). A collection of wheat mutant lines is maintained by the Institute of Experimental Biology for their use in wheat breeding.