By Mike Perdue
Editor's note: Mike Perdue is from near Griswold, Iowa, where he still maintains an interest in a 240-acre crop and hay farm. Pursuing a business venture abroad led Mike to Riga, Latvia where he currently lives. In addition to his business interests, Mike has written several articles dealing with foreign travels as well as the countryside of Latvia and the surrounding countries. A passion for sharing stories of agriculture and its practitioners worldwide (from Central Asia, the Caucasus and East Europe) led him to submit this harvest time snapshot from the Baltic Sea region of Europe. What he found may surprise you. A small country along the Baltic Sea, Latvia was part of the former Soviet Union, prior to the downfall of communism in Eastern Europe 24 years ago. Here's Mike's latest article he's sharing with readers of Wallaces Farmer magazine.—by Rod Swoboda, editor
Rain again. Not a welcome sight as we drove southwest from the capital Riga, to the village of Kronauce and the family owned farmland of Mr. Kristaps Bruss. Here in the far northern small grain belt of the Republic of Latvia this growing season has been nothing but challenges. Beginning in January, lack of snow cover led to a high number of acres succumbing to winterkill, and consequently left many farmers scrambling to find spring wheat seed just to get a crop in the ground. Then cool, dry weather lingered into June before some heat and much-needed moisture finally arrived in July.
Latvia borders the Baltic Sea on the west and shares borders with Estonia, Lithuania, Belarus and also Russia. The country reemerged in a second attempt at independence in 1991 after the breakup of the Soviet Union. It was during the Soviet period in which farms were forcibly collectivized and perceived wealthy farm owners sometimes persecuted, deported and stripped of ownership. These collectivized farms were known as a "kolkhoz" with top down management that was not necessarily effective at attaining optimal production.
Privatization of farms, modernization have made a big difference
Rapid privatization took place following independence and steady modernization has allowed Latvian farmers to catch up with their western European neighbors in output. Farmers from the U.S. would feel right at home in the midst of the modern agriculture boom taking place here and the surrounding states.
As our car approached the designated meeting place, the sun was shining and the combines running. This gorgeous stretch of farmland known as "Strazdi" or Blackbird Farm encompasses some 1,145 hectares or 2,750 acres. Spring wheat was being harvested by two of the farm's Claas combines, one sporting a header of 30 feet and the other nearly 35, the third Claas machine being in for repairs. This particular field had been overseeded with spring wheat after winter freezes had left many fields with only 10% of spring growth. Canola suffered nearly the same fate with Bruss's farms losing two-thirds of the crop to cold, though as he explained, this was an extremely unusual occurrence.
Latvian farmers can sell grain to EU Common Market
One bright spot was the malting barley harvest, a record of nearly 150 bushels per acre. This crop comprises 10% of Bruss's acreage, grown for seed for "LATRAPS", Latvia's oldest and largest agronomic cooperative. Bruss and other area farmers were instrumental in its founding as a competitive outlet for their grain upon entering the European Union common market. As of this writing, "LATRAPS" had just shipped its largest-ever cargo of wheat, 74,606 metric tons from the deep water port of Ventspils, an enormous advantage for Latvian farmers.
The Bruss family also has another farm consisting of 595 hectares or 1,428 acres, this one known as "Silares." The crop ground altogether is a 50/50 mix of owned and rented ground, a spectacular achievement given that the initial plot was a mere 20 hectares repatriated to his grandmother Ingrida in 1992. Grandfather Aivars was in a management position of an area kolkhoz at the time of independence and thus came the opportunity to purchase additional lands with Bruss's holdings growing ever since. At this time the Bruss's have no animals though Kristaps stated that could change as they were mulling the idea of gaining ownership of a former kolkhoz which had perhaps 200 to 300 cows.
They use fungicides, herbicides and insecticides when needed
For now however, the focus is crops, the combined acreage sown being 25% winter canola, 10% spring (malting) barley, 7% peas, 4% spring wheat, and the remaining 54% drilled winter wheat. Wheat is sown in a field for two to three years before a canola crop is grown; all wheat acreage is plowed postharvest while a disc is used primarily on canola stubble. With such an intensive schedule of continuous wheat, usually two applications of fungicide are used, as well as herbicide and insecticide when needed.
While approximately 10% to 20% of wheat seed sales are direct to farmers this is a difficult market to predict how much and which varieties will be needed. As of 2015 the EU will implement a payment for every hectare sown with certified seed thus potentially affecting the percent of direct sales upward. An across-the-farm average of 92 bushels per acre is achieved in spite of soil types that range from low pH to high pH, a feature of Latvia where coniferous forests make up nearly half of all acreage.
There are no GMO crops being grown in Latvia
When asked about the future of genetically modified, or GMO, crops in Latvia, Bruss gave a cautiously pragmatic answer. He felt no strong opinions pro or con, but felt that Latvia should not create a blanket ban on future use of GMO technology. Bruss feels that for now, the need isn't imperative.
Much of Latvia is bog and nearly 50% is covered in forest, in fact wood products are a leading export. Forest regeneration is a top priority and prime farmlands scarce. In Bruss's region of Zemgale, land fetches between 3,000 to 4,200 E$ (Euro dollars) per hectare and rents average 110 to 130 E$ per hectare, relatively inexpensive by recent Midwest U.S. standards.
Machinery in the Bruss farming operation includes three Claas combines, one older John Deere combine; nine tractors including seven John Deere, a telescopic loader and a New Holland excavator plus other grain handling equipment.
These farmers have grain drying facilities to dry their crops
Drying facilities are in place and were used to dry the wheat at the time of this visit. Conditions have improved rapidly in the past week, and harvest is nearing an end. Fall tillage is in high gear. Any farms that baled straw stubble are moving it into large pyramid shaped outdoor stacks for inclusion into a feed program or for bedding.
Kristaps and his brother Arvids share management decisionmaking with their father, Valters. Arvids is in charge of parts and repairs, while Kristaps handles the agronomic aspects. In total, the Bruss's farming operation uses as many as 17 to 20 employees depending on the season.
Compared to a small nation like Latvia, America's Midwest is huge
Looking ahead, Kristaps showed us an old manor house they were renovating for use as a small guesthouse and brewery to be opened sometime by 2015. In this beautiful spot not far from the border with Lithuania, the Bruss farm is a model of modern agriculture in this (to many American readers) little-known area of Europe. As we parted company Bruss told me he had visited the Midwest in 2013, including a visit to the Claas Lexion manufacturing facility in Omaha. When I asked how he liked the area he laughed as he said, "It is too big!"
Indeed, compared to Latvia where a cross-country journey takes a maximum of three-four hours, the middle of America does seem vast. In any case, the Bruss family can be proud of their farm and their achievements. Latvia is a beautiful country and shows its best in the farmlands and forests.
My thanks to Kristaps for granting us the opportunity to give readers a look into the fascinating world of agriculture, Latvian style!