October 18, 20238 Minutes

Carbon Farming Success Stories: Sakari Niittymäki

Located southwest of Helsinki between the cities of Tampere and Turku lies Koivikon Tila, a 160-hectare farm that has been in Sakari Niittymäki’s family since the 1950s. It’s a crisp, bright spring morning, and Sakari’s children are home on a bank holiday. They play outside while he takes a moment to speak to us about farming in Finland – the harsh winters, his neighbours’ curiosity and why he believes the future of farming has a lot of potential.

Regenerative by accident?

“I actually have a degree in chemical engineering,” Sakari laughs when asked if he has a formal farming education. “But I’ve never used it. Farming runs in our family and so I’ve been doing this since 2010. My father even helps out, still. He can’t seem to settle into retirement,” he smiles. They grow an assortment of crops, mainly seeds for organic farmers, on Koivikon Tila, which is a relatively large organic farm compared to the Finnish average. “We raise winter wheat, rye, clover, flaxseed and various grass seeds,” informs Sakari. “No livestock.”

Sakari confesses that he started employing regenerative practices into his farming methods almost by accident. “There were a couple of years where we didn’t do any tilling in some of our fields and I really noticed the difference, especially when compared to our neighbour’s fields,” he remarks. The lack of soil disturbance, Sakari says, elevated the fields much higher than that of Koivikon Tila’s neighbouring fields directly adjacent, indicating better soil health.

Carbon farmer in the field
Implementing regenerative practices by accident can yield pleasant surprises with regard to soil benefits.

Why stick with regenerative farming?

“We decided that the change we saw was a significant enough reason to adopt the practice of reducing our soil disturbance in other fields. It’s only been a couple of years since we started carbon farming and already we see a change in the soil,” Sakari affirms. “The fields aren’t as worn down as they used to be, so now we try to avoid tillage and plant cover crops as much as possible. Almost every field has cover crops this year.”  Being organic farmers, Sakari and his family must now contend with weeds as their most challenging obstacle. “We can’t use any herbicides, so it can be a bit of a struggle in getting the upper hand,” he admits.

When asked what his neighbours think about his carbon farming efforts and whether they’re more sceptical or supportive, he leans toward the latter. “Our neighbours are always curious about what we’re doing. They wonder about the weeds and what will happen next, but they don’t think that what we’re doing is ridiculous or impossible. On the contrary, I’d say that they’re much more supportive than sceptical.” 

Like the rest of the farming community around the world, Finland is becoming more and more acclimated with the benefits of carbon farming through the growing amount of information being communicated in publications and online. “I got started with Agreena because of an ad I saw,” Sakari shares. “I started to dig around a bit, you know, started uploading some of my field data onto the AgreenaCarbon platform. And before I knew it, my profile was nearly complete. So here I am today and nothing has been reversed, apart from a small reduction in yield that I attribute to our organic farming methods more than anything else.”

Carbon farmer and his machinery
Sakari saw enough improvement in the soil quality to implement regenerative practices in all of his fields.

Government-funded programmes that help promote the regenerative practices associated with carbon farming have also been on the rise as of late. In 2017, for example, Baltic Sea Action Group launched Carbon Action – a long-term collaboration aimed to bring farmers, researchers and companies together to promote regenerative farming and benefit food production, the environment and the Baltic Sea. The collaboration is funded by Sitra, a government-backed organisation directly accountable to the Finnish parliamentary system. “There is more and more government support for this type of farming every day,” maintains Sakari. “We have new national and EU policies in support of carbon farming and the financial support is at an all-time high, so now is a good time to transition.”

Carbon farming challenges in Finland

But farming in Finland can also be a challenge due to the long winter months of snow and frost on the ground. “It’s always a challenge with catch and cover crops because we don’t even know what’s going on under the snow,” Sakari concedes. “On top of that, what happens here in the south can be much different than what farmers face in the country’s north. Finland is a long country, after all.” This is one of the reasons Sakari would like to see more interaction between not just Finnish farmers, but between farmers from all over Europe. “I hope to have more exchanges with Agreena programme farmers in the future to find out what best practices work for them, what crops they’re harvesting … things like that really interest me,” he reveals.

Carbon farmer standing in the field
Along with the government support and new EU policies, the financial benefits carbon farming provided made it a good time to switch to regenerative practices.

Although the Agreena programme is still quite new to Sakari, he believes that it’s definitely a step in the right direction. “With the climate crises constantly in our faces these days, it’s good to know farmers can show that they’re doing their part to help with the backing of environmental and economic support from programmes like Agreena as well as national and EU directives,” he says. When asked what he’ll do with the money he’ll earn from the programme for his efforts, Sakari shrugs. “It’s still too early to tell; we might spend it on cover crop seeds or machinery. We’ll have to wait and see.”

One thing Sakari is sure of is the future of farming in Finland for his family. “Right now we’re focused on what works in our individual fields. What might work in one field might not work in another, so I’m excited to see the outcomes,” he says. “But the future of farming has a lot of potential. We’re an industry that’s always needed, so we’re not going away anytime soon.”

October 18, 2023By Wesley Mitchell Spyke8 Minutes

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