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Agriculture and Horticulture Estonia

Agriculture and horticulture in numbers


Agriculture accounts for only a small part of gross domestic production (GDP) in Europe, and it is considered that the overall vulnerability of the European economy to changes that affect agriculture is low (3). However, agriculture is much more important in terms of area occupied (farmland and forest land cover approximately 90 % of the EU's land surface), and rural population and income (4).


One-third of the land area is agricultural land (cropland 28% and pastures 7%). In 2008 agriculture and hunting added 248.36 million EUR to the Estonian national economy, which constituted ca 1.7% of the total gross value added of all sectors. In 2008, there were 802,281 ha of utilized agricultural land in Estonia, including 74.5% under arable land, 24.5% under permanent grassland and 1% under permanent crops. 51.8% of the arable land (597,791 ha) is used for cereals production, 13.1% for industrial crops and 28.2% for green fodder (1).

In 2007, 21.1% of the holdings specialised in crop production, 30.4% in livestock farming and the majority of holdings (48.5%) was engaged in mixed production (1).

The share of the traditional industrial and agricultural sectors in the national economy is diminishing, while newer sectors such as financial services, transportation, and information technology are rapidly growing (2).

Benefits from climate change

Climate change will probably favour agriculture, especially grassland husbandry. The total growing season will lengthen and a greater number of harvests will become possible. In the case of higher temperatures and higher rainfall, the growth and development of herbaceous plants will quicken and harvesting times will shift to an earlier period. Livestock will be better provided with fodder in summer and winter (1). Productivity improvements in northern countries could reach 40-50% by the 2080s (13).

During the growing period the agricultural variety’s need for water will increase, and there will be a danger of soil drought, particularly during the period from May to July (1).

The development of agricultural varieties will become quicker and the growing period will shorten. Research has show that the optimum sowing time will shift on average to a 4–11 days earlier period and in order to get the maximum yield the whole cultivation period ought to be prolonged by 10–30 days on average (1).

With lengthening growing season it will be possible to introduce new crop species to Estonia’s agriculture. It will be possible to grow species more common in Central Europe. During the past few decades there have been more years with very good harvest, but due to the more extreme weather also the number of years with extremely scarce harvest has increased. This means that the production rate will be more unstable between the years (1).

Climatic and soil conditions vary greatly in the different regions of Estonia and that means that when the harvest is bad in one region it might be better in others. Altogether it can be said that the existence of different regions in the country will smoothen the effect of extremes. In conclusion, it is estimated that due to climate change, Estonian agriculture will be more efficient and competitive in the future (1).

Potatoes are one of the most important agricultural products in Estonia. For potatoes the maximum yield conceivable under the existing meteorological conditions, provided by high soil fertility and appropriate agricultural technologies 2050, will increase between now and 2050 by about 4-7%. The increase is greater on islands and in northern Estonia by 10-16%. In southern Estonia, meteorologically possible yields for potatoes will not change significantly. In the case of very warm and wet scenarios, a decrease in yield can be expected (2).

The potential increment in yields will be accompanied by an increase in the plants’ nutrient needs. This means that mineral requirements may be increased. In the case of soil minerals, the need for amelioration will fall, while the soils with lighter texture will need increased artificial irrigation (2).

The impact of climate change on two grass species (timothy and ryegrass) was assessed at several locations in Northern Europe (Iceland, Scandinavia, Baltic countries) in a near-future scenario (2040–2065) compared with the baseline period 1960–1990. This was done for simulations based on a large number of global climate models and the IPCC SRES A1B emission scenario. According to these results potential grass yield will increase throughout the study area, mainly as a result of increased growing temperatures: 14% for irrigated and 11% for non-irrigated conditions. Predicted yield response was largest at western locations. The growing period was predicted to start earlier in 2050 compared with the baseline period. The yield response showed a west-east geoclimatic gradient, with the largest yield responses at locations with a maritime climate in the west and the smallest at inland locations in the east. This gradient was especially evident under non-irrigated conditions due to the generally larger precipitation at the western locations (15).

Higher CO2 concentrations

In the short term, a rising concentration of CO2 can stimulate photosynthesis, leading to increases in biomass production in C3 crops such as wheat, barley, rye, potato and rice (15). The response is much smaller in C4 crops such as maize. These benefits will be particularly pronounced in northern Europe. As climate change advances, however, its negative impacts, such as more frequent winter floods, are likely to outweigh these benefits (11,12).

Vulnerabilities Europe - Climate change not main driver

Socio-economic factors and technological developments

Climate change is only one driver among many that will shape agriculture and rural areas in future decades. Socio-economic factors and technological developments will need to be considered alongside agro-climatic changes to determine future trends in the sector (4).

From research it was concluded that socio-economic assumptions have a much greater effect on the scenario results of future changes in agricultural production and land use then the climate scenarios (5).

The European population is expected to decline by about 8% over the period from 2000 to 2030 (6).

Scenarios on future changes in agriculture largely depend on assumptions about technological development for future agricultural land use in Europe (5). It has been estimated that changes in the productivity of food crops in Europe over the period 1961–1990 were strongest related to technology development and that effects of climate change were relatively small. For the period till 2080 an increase in crop productivity for Europe has been estimated between 25% and 163%, of which between 20% and 143% is due to technological development and 5-20% is due to climate change and CO2 fertilisation. The contribution of climate change just by itself is approximately a minor 1% (7).

Care should be taken, however, in drawing firm conclusions from the apparent lack of sensitivity of agricultural land use to climate change. At the regional scale there are winners and losers (in terms of yield changes), but these tend to cancel each other out when aggregated to the whole of Europe (5).

Future changes in land use

If technology continues to progress at current rates then the area of agricultural land would need to decline substantially. Such declines will not occur if there is a correspondingly large increase in the demand for agricultural goods, or if political decisions are taken either to reduce crop productivity through policies that encourage extensification or to accept widespread overproduction (5).

Cropland and grassland areas (for the production of food and fibre) may decline by as much as 50% of current areas for some scenarios. Such declines in production areas would result in large parts of Europe becoming surplus to the requirement of food and fibre production (5). Over the shorter term (up to 2030) changes in agricultural land area may be small (8).

Although it is difficult to anticipate how this land would be used in the future, it seems that continued urban expansion, recreational areas (such as for horse riding) and forest land use would all be likely to take up at least some of the surplus. Furthermore, whilst the substitution of food production by energy production was considered in these scenarios, surplus land would provide further opportunities for the cultivation of bioenergy crops (5).

Europe is a major producer of biodiesel, accounting for 90% of the total production worldwide (9). In the Biofuels Progress Report (10), it is estimated that in 2020, the total area of arable land required for biofuel production will be between 7.6 million and 18.3 million hectares, equivalent to approximately 8% and 19% respectively of total arable land in 2005.

The agricultural area of Europe has already diminished by about 13% in the 40 years since 1960 (5).

Adaptation strategies

In general, almost 2/3 of the arable land of Estonia needs artificial drainage and predicted climate change will increase the importance of proper drainage activities. In Estonia, the total drained area is currently 732,000 ha, including 650,000 ha with subsurface drainage and 82,000 ha with open ditch drainage. About 561,000 ha of forested land is drained as well. It has been estimated that the potential drained area of Estonia can reach up to 880,000 ha. This means that almost 83% of the potential drained area has already been drained (2).

The sub-surface drainage systems in Estonia have been designed to remove excess water to a level of 0.25 m from surface within 1-3 days, from 0.25 m to 0.5 m within 2-5 days. This is mainly determined by drainage spacing. If drainage systems are working properly, then an increase in precipitation of about 30% will not cause significant damages to crop growth and permeability of soils. This conclusion is not valid for peat and clay soils, where infiltration is slow and the main removal of water occurs as surface runoff (2).

While springtime may become more favorable for agriculture, the increased precipitation in autumn (from the end of August until October) will seriously affect harvesting conditions. That will occur more likely in heavy soils (clay and peat soils) as well as in fields with inadequate drainage, especially in the western part of Estonia (2).

According to the Work Bank, the following adaptation measures hold the greatest promise for Eastern European countries, independent of climate change scenarios (14):

  • Technology and management: Conservation tillage for maintaining moisture levels; reducing fossil fuel use from field operations, and reducing CO2 emissions from the soil; use of organic matter to protect field surfaces and help preserve moisture; diversification of crops to reduce vulnerability; adoption of drought‐, flood‐, heat‐, and pest resistant cultivars; modern planting and crop‐rotation practices; use of physical barriers to protect plants and soils from erosion and storm damage; integrated pest management (IPM), in conjunction with similarly knowledge‐based weed control strategies; capacity for knowledge based farming; improved grass and legume varieties for livestock; modern fire management techniques for forests.
  • Institutional change: Support for institutions offers countries win‐win opportunities for reducing vulnerability to climate risk and promoting development. Key institutions include: hydromet centers, advisory services, irrigation directorates, agricultural research services, veterinary institutions, producer associations, water‐user associations, agro processing facilities, and financial institutions.
  • Policy: Non‐distorting pricing for water and commodities; financial incentives to adopt technological innovations; access to modern inputs; reformed farm subsidies; risk insurance; tax incentives for private investments; modern land markets; and social safety nets.


The references below are cited in full in a separate map 'References'. Please click here if you are looking for the full references for Estonia.

  1. Ministry of the Environment of Estonia (2009)
  2. O’Brien (ed.) (2000)
  3. EEA (2006), in: EEA, JRC and WHO (2008)
  4. EEA, JRC and WHO (2008)
  5. Rounsevell et al. (2005)
  6. UN (2004), in: Alcamo et al. (2007)
  7. Ewert et al. (2005), in: Alcamo et al. (2007)
  8. Van Meijl et al. (2006), in: Alcamo et al. (2007)
  9. JNCC (2007), in: Anderson (ed.) (2007)
  10. European Commission (2006), in: Anderson (ed.) (2007)
  11. EEA (2004), in: Anderson (ed.) (2007)
  12. IPCC (2007), in: Anderson (ed.) (2007)
  13. Ciscar et al. (2009), in: Behrens et al. (2010)
  14. World Bank Group (2009)
  15. Hoglind et al. (2013)