TALLINN - A recent survey by the University of Life Sciences has indicated that as many as 25 percent of the nation's farmers may be on the verge of quitting the profession, a move that could seriously dampen the vitality of rural regions.
Government officials have said they accept the situation and the mass outflow of farmers should not seriously hurt Estonia's agricultural output.
"Fewer farmers do not affect the sustainability of farming, but vitality of country areas. In recent years the decreasing [numbers] have been 's and will be in the future 's mostly at the expense of small producers," said Ants Laansalu, public relations advisor for the Ministry of Agriculture.
"It doesn't affect productivity much. In small farms (less than 10 workers) works 47 percent of producers, who give only 14 percent of the gross agricultural product," she said.
The trend has been taking place ever since Estonia regained independence from the Soviet Union. In 1990 there were 136,800 people in the farming and hunting industry, by 2007 that number was down to 20,900.
Research shows, however, that big farmers as well as small ones plan to quit. About 25 percent of workers from bigger farming operations plan to quit, while some estimates predict that as many as 33 percent of small-farm workers will leave the job.
Before joining the EU, farmers' salaries were 40 percent lower than the national average. That gap has now closed considerably as EU structural funds are helping to modernize the industry and increase productivity.
"Machines are on top level, tractors are literally just like planes, technique of milking is pure electronics, stable managing is all in computers," said Ullas Hunt from the Central Union of Estonian Farmers.
According to Hunt, most of the farmers' land is rented 's only 25-30 percent of the land is owned by farmers. In areas near cities, this means that real estate developments threaten the land.
"If the owner wants to change the purpose of the land it's a headache for a farmer becauseâ€¦ With a field, if you want to prepare it properly, it takes five or six years work and then the thing starts to function normally," added Hunt.
Laansalu said, meanwhile, that farmers are being forced to upgrade both their equipment and their skill set if they want to stay competitive.
"The main problems are competition in the labor market and creating the same competition conditions as the so-called old European countries. It means evening subsidy levels and bringing agriculture politics up to date. Agriculture nowadays needs more than before 's [it needs] highly qualified workers who could handle more complicated machines and devices," she said.
State-subsidized farmers can achieve this with the help of the EU Unified Agricultural Politics and Development Plan of Estonian Country Life 2007-2013. Subsidies are paid for developing agricultural land and raising cultures and livestock rather than just production.