The number of agricultural producers has fallen abruptly in the past 20 years, with major producers owning most of farmland by today. Similar trends characterize the whole of Europe, but the process can be slowed down, a study by Estonian University of Life Sciences researchers finds.
If in 2001, the average land use was 16 hectares per producer, the figure had grown to 60 hectares by 2016. "Major agricultural enterprises are no doubt more effective, but we need to look at the big picture and what happens to rural life when land ends up in the hands of major players. It might benefit the producers today, while it might not be cheaper for Estonia in the long run," said Evelin Jürgenson, docent of land organization at the Estonian University of Life Sciences.
Jürgenson gave the example of Scotland. The local environment favored land consolidation for a long time. By today, life has virtually ceased in rural areas and the state is trying to restart it using investments.
The same trend can be seen more or less everywhere in the European Union. However, compared to member states in the west, changes happened suddenly and quickly after the land reform in Estonia. If at first, the reform did produce more agricultural producers, the process was soon reversed.
Estonia is no exception. "Former Soviet republics are in a similar situation. We can see more small farms and small production in Western Europe, Germany, for example. Consolidation is slower because there is no more land on the market," Jürgenson said.
There are other options for slowing down the process. The simplest way is regulating the maximum size of land ownership. For example, a person cannot own more than 500 hectares of land in Lithuania. The limit is 300 hectares in Hungary. "This prevents land consolidation. While there is a difference between land owned and land used, they are connected. If I use more land, it gives me more income I can use to buy more," the docent explained.
Land acquisition more often happens through relevant institutions in Western Europe that are not necessarily public. They can decide whether sale of agricultural land is sensible in a given area from the point of view of rural life and forward offers of sale to local producers.
Jürgenson said there is little desire to talk about the topic or restrictions in Estonia. "We maintain relatively liberal economic attitudes – bigger is better and more effective. At the same time, people are blind to what will happen in the social dimension," she suggested.
There is greater preparedness for a corresponding debate on the EU level. "The Riigikogu Social Affairs Committee admitted that land consolidation and land grabs are a problem and need to be addressed. If it used to be said that land questions are up to member states, union-wide regulations are being considered today," Jürgenson added.
The article by Evelin Jürgenson and Marii Rasva was originally published in the journal Land.
Editor: Marcus Turovski