Between a rock and a hard place – Minister of Rural Affairs Arvo Aller is grappling with farmers' concerns for seasonal labor at the same time as his party (Conservative People's Party) looking to keep foreign labor out of Estonia. But he is sincere in wanting as many Estonians as possible working on farms. Including students.
"We have seen many times how everyone [every country] looks out for number one when things go wrong," head of the Estonian Food Industry Association Sirje Potisepp said. Is she correct in claiming that countries become indrawn in such crises?
Definitely. Every country looks to its own people. Their health and how to feed them. Every country looks inward, which is what the current crisis has demonstrated – borders were closed and we need cope among ourselves.
What will Estonian farmers see in terms of direct EU agricultural support in 2021-2027?
No one can speculate on that before the EU budget has been approved.
Our goal is to have direct support reach 100 percent of the EU average. We are on 66 percent right now, so everything between 66 and 100 percent is welcome.
There is a bit of a difference between 67 and 97 percent, for example.
It is a great difference. (Laughs)
But we are working toward hitting 100 percent and have found allies, with whom we made proposals for the new EU funding period and direct support reaching 100 percent in Warsaw on February 24.
People are working from home or are looking for work from home, meaning they have more time to cook. Is this crisis beneficial for our agriculture and food industry?
Every crisis needs to be made use of in the best possible way. I can see people picking up what they learned in the past and home cooking making a comeback. Working from home and spending time at home gives people the opportunity to use fresh Estonian produce.
You told Maaleht that food will soon become more expensive. Why is that?
In a situation where we must feed the population, use local labor that is inevitably more expensive than labor from third countries. For people to receive fair pay, there is every indication that food might become more expensive.
Estonian food becoming pricier would see demand for Polish cucumbers and Spanish tomatoes grow.
I would not be so sure of that.
The price difference will be bigger.
Poland and Spain will also have to make do with their own people, meaning that their prices will not be cheaper. I believe that imported food will also become more expensive.
You recently told "Aktuaalne kaamera" that you believe Estonians want to work in agriculture. Whence such optimism?
I'm a hardcore Estonian patriot, also as concerns agriculture and rural life, which a lot of Estonians might not be, unfortunately.
Do you mean to say that many Estonians are not Estonian patriots?
In the sense that people are willing to leave [Estonia] and move abroad. I have nothing against Estonians traveling abroad, but we definitely want everyone to return. If they come back with new experience, it will only benefit Estonia.
Okay. However, my question concerned your optimism in terms of Estonians wanting to work in agriculture.
I believe that people are willing to look to the beginning of the food chain so to speak. Recent years have been very successful economically, tumultuous even, which is when people tend to forget how food makes its way onto the table. The situation today provides the perfect opportunity to be a part of that process, a part of food production, the food chain and to contribute to the development of Estonian food.
Mr. Minister, you know how it's interesting to think about all the little bits and pieces that make up a smartphone. However, I would not know how to assemble one, and the fact that I like smartphones, does not mean I would be willing to work at an assembly plant.
Yes, I agree that smartphones are useful devices. But if you pick up an apple, you want to know how it grew to what it is. Apples are not bits and pieces. An apple starts with planting an apple tree that you can watch grow…
My in-laws have apple trees and I have an idea of what happens before a ripe apple falls off the tree.
Brilliant. This means you are prepared to participate in food production. We believe we can bring Estonian food to the Estonian consumer in the best possible way.
Yes, Minister. However, I must apologize as I am not prepared to lie down on a strawberry picking frame or milk cows. The former would be physically impossible for me, while I know nothing of the latter.
Skills can be obtained. A person does not have to be born with them.
How long does it take to study to be a milk technician?
The animal husbandry curriculum takes longer, but a milker… A person can learn what they need to know and be of use after two weeks.
Therefore, spending six months to learn how to drive a trolleybus is clearly a waste of time?
(Laughs) Those two weeks give the person the opportunity to get to know the animals and learn how to use the machinery. Having worked as a milking technician, I believe it is possible.
How many animals did you have?
We had 50 milk cows. I started out as a complete layman and knew all the tricks in two weeks and the names of all the cows after two months.
So, everything is possible?
Everything is possible. It requires the desire to be a part of that process.
Estonia had over 36,000 registered unemployed at the end of February only 97 of whom wanted to work in agriculture. That is not exactly promising.
It is not and it worries us. However, looking at recent news out of Southern Estonia, [owner of Nopri Farm] Tiit Niilo was not as worried about the prospect of finding workers. He said it is a new situation for the farm.
We are seeing 3,000 new unemployed every week as layoffs coincide with the crisis. Unemployment Insurance Fund benefits give unemployed persons the chance to alleviate reduction in income. But we should raise awareness in that it is possible to find work and worthy pay in agriculture and rural enterprise.
Worthy pay… Farmers say they pay Ukrainian seasonal workers the same salary they pay Estonians. Do you want those salaries to grow?
Not that. Every company's salary policy is up to them. The state can endorse a certain level from which it is possible to proceed.
A minimum salary in agriculture?
No. Looking at labor from Ukraine, there is no wage ceiling for seasonal workers. Companies are obligated to pay them the average salary that currently stands at €1,407 a month if they are on a 12-month contract. In a situation where producers are paying [Ukrainians] at least €1,407 a month, are Estonians truly reluctant to work for that kind of money in an Estonian company close to where they live?
That is fair pay?
No, I don't quite feel it's fair. I believe it is the salary that can be made in agriculture today.
If you have a family to feed, dwelling to maintain, children to put through school in the country, additional income is welcome. If the [mandatory] salary for workers from third countries stands at €1,407 a month, then… If they are prepared to be paid that, I believe the Estonian person is willing to come work in the countryside for such a wage.
€1,407 in Ukraine and in Estonia are two very different things.
Agreed. However, if I'm allowed to put the question to the journalist, what would be fair pay?
I have no idea. What I know is that I could not manage agricultural work.
Perhaps you couldn't, but if someone had the skills and the need, the salary level is… Perhaps it's not the third or fourth thing on their list of priorities, while it might not always be the first either.
With the restrictions on foreign labor in place, Estonia is short some 5,000 seasonal agricultural workers in 2020. Quite a few people?
If we imagine that all of them would come from among people who have lost their job in Estonia – where would they live in the country?
I couldn't tell you in terms of addresses.
That is not what I'm asking. Apartment buildings have not been constructed in rural areas for 30 years, while we also do not have as many vacant farmsteads.
I would not overemphasize housing concerns. Seasonal workers who come here also need a place to stay.
They come alone. Estonians would move with their families.
Families would require farmsteads. There will not be 5,000 people moving with families. Perhaps there could be 100 in the optimistic scenario.
Farmers need more than 100 people.
One hundred is not enough. Farmers need more. That is correct.
The former "Maale elama" (Live in the country) and the current "Kodu maale" (Home in the country) instruments – we calculated that a total of 1,200 families could move to live and work in the country. Around 5,000 people altogether. Not all of them would move to agriculture, there would also be the possibility of smart jobs, remote working…
Where to put them up? Answering that question is strategically important to ensure families a place to live, give them access to cheaper loans, jobs and the chance to work at local agricultural producers.
Are you referring to homesteads, regarding which your predecessor talked about investing €100 million in building new farms?
I believe he did not say that. Homesteads were the idea of former president Lennart Meri. But having people move to the country – that was my predecessor's initiative that should be taken forward and considered a crisis measure.
How feasible would farms with just 15-20 hectares of farm or forest land be in this day and age?
Feasibility depends on one's niche. Farmland of 15-20 hectares is not enough for growing cereals, while it would allow one to grow vegetables, go into horticulture or grow strawberries, blackberries and currants. This would add a considerable amount of Estonian food to the market while ensuring the viability of these farms. They could also have some animals, whether for their own needs or to be sold as animal products.
The Estonian Farmers Confederation puts the size of an economically feasible traditional farm at 200+ hectares and 100+ animal units.
Yes, these are average calculations. Major producers make money on volume and also employ more people, while 15-20 hectares is a realistic option for a farm used to feed a family.
"I believe they will cope," you said in regard to Estonian farmers losing access to foreign labor. How will they cope?
By motivating local labor, offering them additional opportunities. Yes, it will entail extra expenses, I agree. But still, our primary goal is to offer jobs and subsistence to Estonian people.
For example, Finland and Germany are flying in seasonal workers from Ukraine and Belarus. Why couldn't Estonia do that?
Planes are great. (Smiles) They are brought in and have to spend two weeks in isolation. I'm not convinced they will be thoroughly checked and ready to work. We have to see what will happen there, we'll wait for two weeks, which is when we can move forward with making decisions.
That is the reason why you rejected our horticulture association's proposal of doing the same in Estonia?
No, that was not the reason at the time. We did not reject it, we asked for additional explanation. Their proposal was the same – to bring seasonal workers [from Ukraine]. But Ukraine is not allowing its citizens to leave the country and we are not receiving foreigners. There was nothing to reject.
I would not be so optimistic in terms of Finland. They could run into trouble, which we will see in two weeks when the quarantine ends.
A ray of sunshine for our farmers?
Once we return to peacetime legislation, things will take their natural course. Right now, we are operating in the conditions of an emergency situation where our main purpose is to protect our people.
You do not see a discrepancy in Estonia restricting the arrival of seasonal workers on the one hand, while supporting rural development with hundreds of millions on the other?
This is where we need to be accurate. Sums allocated through the Rural Development Foundation do not constitute aid in the traditional sense or an attempt to throw money out of an airplane. Those €200 million are carefully aimed and can only be used as surety or loan that needs to be repaid.
Therefore, former minister, opposition MP Jürgen Ligi (Reform Party – ed.) is wrong when he says that the government is leaving agriculture without the people who have done the sowing, reaping and milking until now, while showering it with benefits several times more generous that what is being made available to other sectors?
Jürgen Ligi has some interesting ideas. But he is mistaken when it comes to benefits being greater by orders of magnitude. I try to see the bigger picture.
Talking about rural enterprise, we cannot just say that €200 million will be given to farmers. It is a narrow perspective many are unable to shake off. Those €200 million will go towards agriculture, food industry, fisheries, the HORECA sector, tourism, aquaculture, forestry, rural enterprise very generally… Agriculture makes up 30-35 percent there.
Since one-third of Estonian enterprise takes place in rural areas, I would still ask why we got so little from the [crisis aid] package?
You asked for an extension for foreign workers from Minister of the Interior Mart Helme (EKRE) and initially came back emptyhanded. How thoroughly did you clash over this issue with the chairman of your party?
We did discuss the matter. I'm not sure it was a clash, rather, a discussion in terms of how long [foreign workers] could stay and on what conditions.
There was deliberation [in the coalition] and the result is that seasonal workers from third countries who are already in Estonia will be allowed to keep working here until July 31.
Did you propose the July 31 deadline?
It was the date agreed on in the coalition.
But did the proposal come from you?
(Snorts) My proposal was to find a solution to the question of seasonal workers, if only until the end of the emergency situation. Our proposal was allowing foreign workers to work for as long as they are stuck here.
Meaning July 31 did not come from you?
I did not specify the date.
So, where did it come from?
By then, the lion's share of seasonal work should be done in horticulture and the need for seasonal workers reduced. That is also when we could hope to move on to the next stage and return to normal economic activity. This would also mean returning to regular laws and regulation that allow people to be brought in from third countries if the situation stabilizes.
I meant to ask whether the agricultural year will end on July 31 this year?
The agricultural year will last for as long as autumn work can still be done. We plowed well into December and even January last year.
A farmer asked me who will help them harvest cabbages that is physically demanding manual labor and for which they have been using foreign labor for years?
Had anyone told us in November that we would be wrestling with the coronavirus in February-March, preparations would have been different. Right now, we can look two weeks ahead at best, while we cannot even be sure about what will happen tomorrow…
Who will take care of harvesting? We will try to make do with our own people. We will find high school students, schoolchildren, university students – we need to take advantage of every opportunity. Everything new is well-forgotten old. While I do not mean to say we will be returning to patronage…
What you mean to say is that students who have already been forced to study remotely for three months will be harvesting potatoes at a time when they should be going back to school?
They could do that if possible. But if they want to study in September, let them study. High school students should always have the opportunity to help out in agriculture, whether it's harvesting potatoes or cabbages that's good exercise. Because we do not have physical education at school anymore, this kind of physical activity is sensible and necessary for young men.
On Saturdays and Sundays if they so wish. But they go to school from Monday to Friday.
I believe teachers would be sensible and understanding if students had to spend a week helping out [in agriculture]. Everything can be agreed. It is by no means unrealizable. Not that I'm saying children shouldn't go to school, but we need to find solutions for September. Of course, it is not the only solution.
Mr. Minister, you are very daring indeed. First, you put your hand in the pocket of the armed forces when you asked for 50 conscripts with agricultural backgrounds to be sent to help out in the country, while you have now set your sights on education to utilize high school and university students. Is this the new reality?
Our new reality is that we are in the middle of a coronavirus pandemic and have an emergency situation. Talking about education and the defense forces, we are all one system, one whole. I believe farmers would be willing to help out the defense forces in an emergency, whether by providing catering for schools or something else. We need to look at the entire picture. I see nothing wrong with high school students helping to harvest cabbages in fall.
Even when they should be in class?
Even then. High school students are prepared to study in the evening, after harvesting cabbages, or over the weekend. Things are not as drastic as all that. Let us not be afraid of students falling behind if they work at agricultural companies.
Really, Mr. Minister, it seems rural affairs are alien to me as I just don't understand your jokes.
However, isn't the real reason here the fact your party is against foreign workers, rather than the coronavirus situation?
(Pauses) It is not a question of what someone wants… If the borders are closed…
Yes, but the way the July 31 date was shoved in there constituted taking advantage of the emergency situation to realize EKRE's political agenda.
But it is the government's task to realize its political agenda. I see no discrepancy here. Whether it's July 31, August 31 or September 1 makes no difference here.
Kaimar Karu decided to argue and is now the former foreign trade and it minister. Is that how things work in politics?
I wouldn't know to define it that way. We all know that ministerial positions are not for life.
But the coalition is an arena for deliberation where three parties find consensus based on which to move forward. (Smiles)
You smile is very telling right now, enough to make me regret this is not a televised interview.
We all understand agreements are difficult to find. All [coalition] parties have their own policies, while we can move forward if we agree. Whether by lengthy disputes that stretch well into the night, but agreement will be found. So far, decisions have been consensual [in the government].
Yes, because otherwise we would be talking about a new government.
Indeed. So, agreements need to be made and consensus found.
How worried or hopeful are you, looking at the future of Ida-Viru County that is also where you are from?
One is always concerned.
Unemployment is growing the fastest there.
Growing unemployment is a sign of danger. That is why we need to find ways to offer people work elsewhere. Agriculture, for example.
Miners and power engineering specialists in agriculture – doing what?
Our main concern today is seasonal work. Many agricultural producers have taken out ads in local papers and radios to bring people to agriculture. Many have gone to do seasonal work and put food on the table for their families that way.
Perhaps the Rural Development Foundation should be involved in bringing job-seekers closer to life in the country?
Relevant campaigns are in the pipeline. We will first map out producers' needs. Through the horticultural association, we have contacted embassies who can direct their citizens that have no work in Estonia to horticulture or to do seasonal work until July 31. Raising awareness and building up the reputation of agriculture are the next topics.
Move to the countryside?
Have a home in the country. Moving there alone is not enough. Once you have a home, you will develop a social circle, a closer relationship with nature.
Home in the country… Post offices have closed, so have shops, while schools have been moved further away and the family doctor is not always available…
We can all paint a desolate picture.
You know there are villages and regions in Estonia where all of that applies?
There are. Post offices are a problem and our party's minister is working on saving them from being closed.
Many have already been closed.
Then they need to be reopened in some form. That is the next step.
What to do about shops?
We need to find ways of giving them certainty people will buy from them.
But there are no people to do the shopping. While we might get four or five people to move their families to Jäärja Village in Saarde Municipality near the Latvian border, that is not enough to open a shop there.
Agreed. A shop that only caters to four families cannot meet a trader's expectations.
We definitely need to fix roads, pave them. Roads are the number one problem in rural areas. Cars are a necessity in the country and ensuring people can travel in comfort is one way to bring them to rural areas. Being able to drive on a blacktop road without having to worry about washing your car every time you want to go the theater would be only natural.
To what extent will the new shale oil plant help Ida-Viru County?
It will help a great deal. It lends the current [oil shale] sector certainty, allows it to remain competitive and is a good way to retain jobs.
So, you will not be sending people into agriculture?
Quite. We will find other solutions in agriculture and rural enterprise by then.
Will foreign labor from third countries return to Estonian agriculture?
In recent form – no. But they will come as the law permits it.
However, companies will have gotten used to relying on Estonian labor by then. And Estonians will see that it is good to work close to home and stay employed in agriculture.
Why use foreign labor at all then?
(Pauses) That is a good question. Maybe we won't need them once the emergency situation ends.
Editor: Marcus Turovskli