A very bad year. How depression in Finland leds to neglected cattle

The spring of 2018 arrived late in the Finnish town of Siikajoki. Snow finally melted in late April, and it uncovered a tragedy: 95 cows lay dead in a muddy pasture. They had starved. It turned out to be a textbook case of extreme animal neglect: one explained by depression, substance abuse and severe financial difficulties. Warning signs had been ignored. But was it an individual tragedy, or part of a larger pattern? Finnish farmers’ incomes have collapsed in the past decade, and climate change is not making things easier.

For many weeks, no one noticed the carcasses. The snow cover in the village of Relletti, in the municipality of Siikajoki, was very thick throughout the beginning of 2018.

Then someone, perhaps a neighbor or a passer-by, informed the authorities that there was something odd about a field owned by Vesa Koskela.

Koskela knew that some of his herd had died. He had realized it a couple of weeks earlier, but had decided to wait a while before moving the carcasses. Towing them through a snowdrift with his ancient tractors would be too much work, he had thought. Better give it a try after the snows had melted.

Acting on the information, veterinary inspector Laura Helve paid a visit to Koskela’s farm. It had snowed again: there was half a meter of it on the ground. Helve did not notice how many dead cows there actually were. Koskela guessed it was about ten. Helve made a note of it for her report.

The vet asked Koskela to have the carcasses sent to the Honkajoki carcass processing plant in Satakunta, in western Finland. Koskela promised to do so, but didn’t.

Some of the dead were barely distinguishable in the mud: only a horn or hoof protruding from the earth marked the place where they lay

Koskela had been letting many other things fall by the wayside that winter.  His mother, Irma, remembers that as soon as the veterinary inspector left, Vesa was once again on his parents’ sofa browsing the web on his mobile phone. He lived just a few hundred meters away, but during the winter he had started coming to his parents’ place almost every day. He’d often just lay quietly in the living room.

Halfway through April the temperature started to rise above zero. The thaw formed a mist that drifted over Koskela’s farm, Kujanpää. The coming of spring revealed all the junk that was scattered about the pasture: plastic bale covers, fertilizer bags, canisters and broken machines.

And 95 dead animals in the mud.

They were Highland cattle, long-haired, hardy animals that can survive a winter with just a simple windbreak for shelter. Among the dead there were animals of all ages. Koskela had known some of them to be weak, but strong animals had died, too. Even 15-year-old Isabella Christina, a big, strong-willed cow, was gone.

Some of the dead were barely distinguishable in the mud: only a horn or hoof protruding from the mud marked the place where they lay. A few corpses were not discovered until the police took aerial photos of the field.

A three-year-old cow had died while calving.

The survivors stood silently among the dead. One of them was drinking water from a dirty ditch in which two carcasses sprawled.

It would appear that the cattle - at least most of them – died during the winter snows, froze and have only just thawed out, veterinary inspector Laura Helve wrote in her report on April 24th. Some of the carcasses are still covered by the snow (Photo 26); some are on the snow or still frozen in the ground. Some of them have dung on them. The eyes of almost every animal have been eaten away (Photos 27-29), and in some the soft tissue around the anus has also been gnawed at (Photos 30-31). These are soft tissue areas and so easy for birds and rodents to feed on. A rat was scurrying around under the stomach of one of the dead animals.

It was Helve who found the dead. She had returned to the farm, this time with the municipal veterinarian, after she had realized that Koskela had not arranged a transport for his dead animals following the previous visit. At the sight of the corpses they had called the police.

Officers arrived from Raahe, the nearest town. Later on they were joined by two more officers from the city of Oulu. A criminal investigation got under way.

Two carcasses, two heads and five legs were sent off to the Finnish Food Safety Authority to identify the cause of death. Both of the heads were found to lack fatty tissue. The bone marrow in four of the five legs had no fat content. This suggested that the animals had starved.  It had been a slow death.

Animal abuser

The first newspaper article appeared in the local newspaper Siikajokilaakso on the last day of April. It had been six days since Laura Helve had found the dead animals.

Soon the news spread. The headline in Iltalehti, a Helsinki tabloid, read: ‘Dozens of dead animals owned by local politician found’.

The reports didn’t name the farmer, but it was not hard to figure it out. Only one farm in Siikajoki has Highland cattle .

The case attracted special attention in Siikajoki. Vesa Koskela is fairly well in his town: a local councilor, second deputy chairman of the council. He represents the Centre Party of Finland, supported by 60% of the local population. Many locals had been to his farm. Just a couple of years earlier, Kujanpää had organized open days and sold meat directly to visitors. That was just the sort of locally sourced food that many people now wanted to see on their dining room table.

Now almost a hundred animals lay dead in a field.

Despite the circumstances, Koskela’s Facebook posts suggested that his life had been continuing as normal. He had posted links to news stories and magazine features with comments about agricultural policy, parenting, trade unions and immigrants. On a few occasions he had shared online aphorisms about loss and new beginnings.

And when the news of his cows finally spread,Koskela shared a link to Reunalla (On the Edge), a melancholy pop ballad by crooner Samuli Edelmann (‘Why do I feel so alone? / For me there’s no tomorrow’). There were dozens of comments, and many friends offered help. They voiced concerns that Koskela could be contemplating suicide.

Others took a more accusatory tone. Arguments broke out between Koskela’ defenders and those who had no well-wishes for an animal abuser. “Bloody ghastly bloke,” remarked someone named Seppo.

“The last couple of years have felt like a horror film”

Vesa Koskela, 49, sits fidgeting on a bench between the window and the dining table. It has been two months since his dead animals were discovered. Midsummer is around the corner.

“The last couple of years have felt like a horror film,” says Pentti Koskela, Vesa’s father, sitting opposite him. He is 80 and a former construction site manager. He looks like a stern sea captain. On the walls hang the heads and pelts of the animals he has shot. The fireplace he built himself.

Vesa’s mother, Irma, a builder herself, scuttles back and forth between the coffee machine, the cooker, the fridge and the table. A large dog scampers lovingly after her. She’s Arry, Vesa’s dog: a Chesapeake Bay Retriever.

Soon after people found out about the cows, Vesa Koskela moved in with his parents. Their house is an old school whose outer walls could do with a lick of paint. Irma Koskela once went to school in the same building.

Koskela’s own house lies across the fields by the forest. It’s now empty. It was built by his grandparents immediately after the War. He does not want to go there, and says that there is an awful mess.

Koskela again shifts on the bench. His father sits in silence, without stirring. Irma brings more coffee and starts to go over the events of the previous year. She says she was worried some sort of disaster was looming – the boy’s behavior had changed so much.

“When he’s depressed, Vesa just can’t do anything. We tried asking him when he would get around to doing this or that. ‘Yeah, soon’ he’d say. He’d be at his place in the morning; then he would come over to us, lie in bed and play with his mobile phone. He wasn’t with us. But we had no idea he wasn’t feeding the animals.”

The farm had had visitors during the winter, but no one had noticed anything amiss. Koskela was seen driving bales of feed to the field. But where the cattle needed, say, fifteen bales, he only took a few. The evenings he spent at home, drank himself senseless and listened to AC/DC.

He says he does not remember much about the winter, except for just one or two things. “The dark. Machinery breaking down. The cold. The whole time it was on my mind that the animals needed feeding. I had run out of cash and it would have taken loads of money to repair the machines. I felt godawful, powerless and anxious. Desperate.”

Now he is feeling slightly better. He says that the antidepressant Cipralex, prescribed the previous autumn, has at last started to work.

Last week the veterinary inspector made a decision: the surviving animals, some 70 cows with about ten calves would be sold off or slaughtered.

The animals in question will be sent by the authorities for slaughter or to be sold live. If the health of the animals or other factors such as no markings or registration make them unsuitable as food or to be sold live, they will be killed by the authorities and duly disposed of, the decision reads.

Koskela has sold the animals to his father to stop the authorities getting their hands on them. Koskela’s phone bleeps, announcing the arrival of a text message. The cattle identification inspector has been trying to ring again and again, but Koskela does not want to answer his calls.

Plausible excuses

By the side of the road leading to the pasture are bits of discarded plastic and broken machines. Itlooks much tidier than in the photographs Laura Helve had enclosed with her inspection report in April. The farm has been cleaned up. Around 70 cattle now stand in the field. They look healthy; they are no longer so thin that their ribs protrude.

Vesa Koskela wanders in among the cows looking for a certain animal. Its ear tag should read 249. He wants to know if it is alive or not.

According to the cattle register, number 249 is both alive and dead. Someone has made a mistake back in May, when dead animals were taken away from the farm. The error now needs to be corrected, and so Koskela is going around his hundred-hectare pasture looking for the missing cow. The search is made all the more difficult by the fact that not all the animals have ear tags, even though the law requires them to.

While he walks, Koskela explains why he does not answer the inspector’s calls:

“They are my father’s animals, and dad did not apply for subsidies, so they can’t penalize him.”

But there is another reason. Koskela says he wants to do things when he is ready and not before. The dilly-dallying on the part of the authorities has made him defiant: Why weren’t they interested in this fellow’s business back when they still could have done something to help!

He thinks the whole tragedy could have been avoided if the authorities had been a lot tougher the previous winter. Months passed between checks, and if he had failed to take the corrective action they had requested, he was always given extra time. The longer winter went on, the less likely it became that anything would be done. Koskela kept making excuses, and the authorities at least seemed to believe him.

He blames them for not being able to sell the cattle for slaughter after he had been diagnosed with depression. He had already made a mess of the registrations, and cows were missing ear tags. In summer 2017 the cattle identification inspector had ordered the whole herd not to be moved, so he was unable to sell them live or dead. The ban is based on an EU regulation. After the mad cow disease epidemic in Europe, it needed to be ensured that any meat intended for human consumption was traceable to a farm, and so harsh penalties were imposed if animals had no ear tags. The rule is interpreted very strictly in Finland, and even animals that are kept as pets have to be tagged.

Koskela keeps emphasizing that he did not want to neglect the farm. Everything was due to his illness. He felt he was at a dead end: he did not have the energy to look after the animals, and he could not legally dispose of them either. He could have applied for a special authorization to have the animals slaughtered, but apparently was not aware of this option.

When the corpses were eventually discovered, he felt a mixed sense of anxiety and relief, he says. It was especially reassuring to know that the police would now be dealing with the matter.

Dead end

Vesa Koskela drives around Relletti and the neighboring villages. He points to houses recalling the year in which each house owner killed himself.

Koskela is not the only farmer round here to have been at a dead end.

“It never occurred to me even once that I might kill myself,” he says. “Of course I was often out of it, but it never got that bad.”

As evening comes it starts to rain. This is good: the early summer has been exceptionally dry. Koskela turns around and heads back to his parents’ place. It turns out his father has answered a call from the cattle identification inspector while his son was in the field. An inspection has been agreed for the following day. They would then discover that Vesa Koskela has still not tagged all his surviving cattle. There would be a penalty to pay.

“It is my last inspection and it will probably mean a 15% cut in subsidies,” he says. “Fair enough. It’s a relief to be shot of it all.”

At the kitchen table Koskela goes back over the events of the previous winter. His mother joins the conversation. Dad keeps quiet.

Vesa’s friends later said that they had noticed from chats on social media that he had become quarrelsome and cynical.

“His mind was just somewhere else,” says Irma Koskela. “Something should have been done about it – but what?”

“Well, it was a blind alley,” says Vesa. “And all the machinery had broken down like never before!”

His mother laughs: “Old machinery always breaks down.”

“Well, yeah, but not like that.”

“These things tend to build up. And what happens then? The whole winter we were afraid something disastrous would happen.”

“The previous summer you told me to go to the doctor’s. But I still didn’t go.”

Irma Koskela sighs.

“It is not just us this has happened to.”

Although veterinary inspectors had identified serious shortcomings with respect to farms, signs of illness in the owners, and even dead animals, they might not have carried out the next check until a year had gone past

Every year in Finland around ten people are convicted of aggravated animal welfare offences. When the victim is a pet, the cases are usually characterized by intentional cruelty. The perpetrators of crimes involving farm animals, on the other hand, tend to be different. They’re passive. . Their abandoned animals suffer from the cold, hunger and thirst, or they allow dung to pile up on the ground, until the heads of goats are touching the ceiling. Every year at least a few major cases of mass neglect are discovered on farms. The owners are normally charged with aggravated animal welfare offences. (The wording for the ‘aggravated’ offence was added to the Criminal Code of Finland in 2011.) If sentence is passed, the owner is banned from keeping animals, unless there are especially pressing reasons for not imposing the penalty. In most cases, the ban is temporary, with a minimum duration of one year.

The number of convictions and bans of this kind has increased noticeably this decade, which researchers suggest is not linked to the greater prevalence of crime in general but to the fact that the judicial system has taken a firmer line on the matter. Long Play magazine looked at 24 cases where a farmer had been convicted of an aggravated animal welfare offence involving livestock. The cases were compiled from those heard in district courts throughout Finland over around a five-year period. They shared some common features. Firstly, there were many references to diagnoses of depression, memory loss and other forms of mental illness among those charged. These were mentioned in a quarter of cases. Just as frequently there was a reference to work-related fatigue, or burnout. Approximately half of those convicted had suffered from some exhaustion of some sort or memory disorder. (The actual number might be higher, as the accused’s state of health is not always recorded in the judgement).

Something else that linked these cases was a certain kind of bureaucratic cul-de-sac. When their money and strength had run out, many of the perpetrators had tried to sell the animals for slaughter, but the abattoir had refused to buy - yet the contract with the abattoir didn’t allow them to sell the animals to a different buyer. Sometimes burnt-out farmers had failed to register their animals or neglected to replace missing ear tags. The cattle identification inspector had ordered that the animals could not be moved, and the owner had been unable to dispose of them.

The third and most common factor characterizing these cases was the sluggish processes involved. Although veterinary inspectors had identified serious shortcomings with respect to farms, signs of illness in the owners, and even dead animals, a year could easily pass by before their next inspection.

In January 2017, the District Court of Pirkanmaa pronounced a couple in the municipality of Hämeenkyrö guilty of aggravated animal welfare offences. They were permanently banned from keeping animals. The offence was recorded as having taken place over a period of eight years. All the inspections carried out on the farm in that time had shown that the owners were neglecting their cattle. Nevertheless, the animals were not impounded nor was any criminal investigation begun until all those years had passed.

In May 2016, the District Court of Central Ostrobothnia passed sentence on a 71-year-old man from Kokkola, who had been committing offences for 18 months. Repeated inspections had been conducted on the man’s farm. He had been showing signs of memory loss and failed to follow any of the instructions given to address his negligent treatment of animals. The man had claimed he was an ‘animal welfare law enforcer’ himself and believed that the vets had been under the influence of drugs. When the sentence for an aggravated animal welfare offence was finally imposed, the man was already in a care home.

In her dissertation, Tarja Koskela (no relation), a lecturer in criminal law and procedure at the University of Eastern Finland, has examined the matter of animal welfare in criminal processes and public administration. She is also a founder member of Suomen Eläinoikeusjuristit ry, a Finnish association of lawyers specialized in animal rights.

Koskela says that the authorities are often too laid back. The law obliges them to inform the police if they suspect violation of the Animal Welfare Act, though in practice the situation is frequently just monitored over a lengthy period. Sometimes the vet concerned might issue the same instruction a couple of dozen times.

“Animals are allowed to go on suffering and the law is ignored,” says Koskela.

In her view the court judgements on animal welfare show that the judicial system merely sees animals from the perspective of personal property.

“Because animals are not granted rights under the law, the freedom to conduct a business and the protection of private property take precedence in some situations over issues of animal welfare,” she says.

Another conundrum is bureaucracy. Matters to do with farm animals are the responsibility of the local authorities, the Centers for Economic Development, Transport and the Environment, the Regional State Administrative Agencies and the police. There is a certain amount of overlap here, and one authority might well think that another has dealt with something. Meanwhile, the obligation of confidentiality deters vets from informing, say, a doctor of their concerns about an individual farmer.

The vets who carry out checks usually do so alone, and surveys suggest that they are faced with a good deal of threatening behavior on farms. That can stop them from enforcing the law, even if it is justified. Their reluctance to deal with animals suffering from neglect is also explained by the fact that the state does not provide anywhere to take them. Impounded animals used to be taken to prison farms, but there are only two such farms left in Finland now.

A few years ago the American public were alerted to the fact that people employed in agriculture were five times more likely to commit suicide than the rest of the population

The summer of 2018 in Finland was the warmest since records began. It was also exceptionally dry.  The grain harvest was the worst for 30 years: in the region of Southwest Finland, for example, almost 60% of it was lost. There was a lack of animal feed everywhere in the country, and farmers got it wherever they could.

2016 and 2017, on the other hand, had been disastrously wet in many places.

In an average year some one thousand farms in Finland cease to operate. As the summer of 2018 grew hotter and drier, agricultural organizations expected that number to rise dramatically.

The Finnish Farmers' Social Insurance Institution Mela in early 2017 employed staff to help stressed out farmers. A project loosely translated as ‘Let’s care about Farmers’ offers farmers financial assistance to receive, for example, therapy, and advice on money matters and the law. One of the aims of the project is to teach those who have dealings with farms to recognize the first signs of problems. This ‘early intervention’ approach has included the provision of training for bank employees, dairy workers, relief farmworkers, vets, etc.

“Bills are left unpaid and the paperwork doesn’t get done,” says project worker Eija Tammela, describing the first indications of serious burnout. “Dairy staff will notice that output is falling, and relief farmworkers will see if there are any areas of the farm that are starting to look shoddy.”

In the project, Tammela was responsible for farmers in the regions of North Ostrobothnia and Lapland. She remembers answering her phone repeatedly at the end of a particularly rainy summer in 2017, when the harvest had failed and farms were beginning to run out of money.

“At the time the callers were saying that they had to think about how they might save the farm,” says Tammela. “This year the message is different. They now say there have been just too many bad summers, the debts are piling up, and there is not enough feed for the animals to last the winter. It has to be said: it is still going to be hard bailing out these farms, and they should not get into any further debt. We need to start thinking about how we can save the farmers, rather than the farms.”

A few years ago the American public were alerted to the fact that people employed in agriculture were five times more likely to commit suicide than the rest of the population. In France the probability that a farmer will kill himself is three times that for any other professional sector.

Researchers have identified several reasons for the phenomenon. They’re familiar in Finland, too: the farmers’ debt burden has grown unreasonably, and as farms have increased in size, the feeling of local community has virtually disappeared. If money and psychological resources are at an all-time low, crop failure, illness or divorce will finish the job off.

Finnish farmers commit suicide at more or less the same rate as the rest of the population. The available statistics do not go back to the time two years ago when the problems on farms had reached crisis point.

The financial situation that farmers are facing is fast getting gloomier. According to calculations made by the Natural Resources Institute Finland, their average income for 2018 was 7,200 euros. That is almost 40% less than the previous year. The fall since 2012 is 67%. Their mean average earnings per hour is around four euros. Farmers are plunging into debt.

Some farms still make a profit, but there are fewer and fewer of them. Production loss is a common phenomenon in dairy farming, meat and grain production, the poultry industry and greenhouse horticulture. The situation on farms with livestock is particularly bad because the animals need to be looked after all year long. Farmers therefore find it difficult to seek paid employment off the farm, and, if they do, their spouses have to put in long hours with the animals.

“If the reports we have received are anything to go by, this year has seen a lot of divorce cases – which is worrying,” says Pirjo Ristola, leader of the Let’s care about Farmers project.

At the heart of the problem is the fact that farm expenditures have grown more quickly than incomes. Larger farms and mechanization have led to increased costs of inputs, such as energy and fertilizer. In the meanwhile, prices of produce have fallen, and exceptional weather conditions have led to crop failure in successive years.

The state once paid compensation to farmers for lost harvests, but the system was discontinued at the start of 2016. The assumption was that farmers would take out insurance against losses caused by poor harvests, but the timing was very bad: the farmers were seriously short of funds. Only a few insured their crops. Then, in summer 2018, the realization dawned that the terms and conditions of insurance policies for farmers in Finland did not even mention the effects of long heatwaves as a natural phenomenon for which compensation might be available.

“The situation is that there is no cash buffer any longer. Farmers suffer from terrible anxiety about bills arriving. The largest subsidies are paid in the autumn, and that has usually been spent on whatever is needed to get the production going the following year. Now the subsidy is spent on loan repayment instalments or credit limits for fertilizer,” says Eija Tammela from Mela.

“So when a tractor packs up, that means a bill for at least ten grand. There’s no end to it.”  

Scale of production

Back in the mid-1980s, the Finnish countryside was dotted with very small farms. They had a few dairy cattle, one or two sheep, a little arable land and an aging husband and wife team running the place.

In 1986, the politically unaffiliated Kalevi Hemilä was elected Director General of the Finnish National Board of Agriculture at the age of 34. His job for the following ten years would be to give the Finnish countryside a complete makeover. Finland was on its way to joining the European Union, and Hemilä suspected that the EU would insist on agriculture quickly becoming subject to market conditions. If production efficiency did not improve, farmers laboring in Finland’s demanding climate would not be able to cope with the competition.

The scale of production therefore had to increase. That meant that the lights would have to be turned out on grain-producing farms under 30 hectares in size and on dairy farms smaller than 20 hectares.

“First on the chopping block would be livestock production, then fodder, and lastly arable land,” Hemilä predicted in an interview with Helsingin Sanomat in 1990. Export subsidies would be scrapped and overproduction would end in ten years. Most importantly, the industry should not attract too many young people, he pointed out.

Finland joined the EU in 1995. In 1990 there had been 129,000 operational farms in Finland with an average size of 17 hectares. In 2005 there were just 68,000. Their average size had surpassed the 30-hectare mark.

Was that a suitable number? The following year the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry set up a working group to reflect on the future of farming. State Secretary Raimo Sailas was elected chair of the group. At the time he was known for his severe austerity policies.

The working group published its report in 2007. Entitled Maatalouspolitiikan vaihtoehdot (The Alternatives for Agricultural Policy), it stated that, although farms had grown quickly, increases in production were disappointing. The group recommended a further increase in farm size. Small farm stagnation could no longer be tolerated and more should be done to get rid of them. Only large farms could be trusted to adopt new technology quickly. Greater competition was called for as well as more investment in technology and mass production. State aid policy should be used consistently to promote the concentration of production.

With its accession to the EU, Finland’s room for manoeuvre in agricultural policy had narrowed. Major changes would now come from Brussels. However, centralizing agriculture was stillvery much a national project in Finland. The government wanted to attract investments to support larger farms, and interest subsidies, grants and state guarantees were made available. An early retirement scheme was created with the aim of convincing older farmers to give up their farms.

By 2007 there were fewer than 49,000 farms left.

Although the number of farms had fallen dramatically, the volume of agricultural production remained unchanged. The amount of cultivated land was roughly the same as it was before EU membership, and the number of cattle and pigs also stayed the same. It was just that the output was in the hands of fewer producers.

Rapid advances in technology helped farmers to cope with larger fields and increasing numbers of animals. Milk production in particular was mechanized at a tremendous rate. Industrial fertilizers and pesticides improved harvests, and loans were easy to come by.

Agricultural producer prices had been falling since Finland’s entrance into the EU, making a cut into farmers’ incomes. Costs of fertilizer and energy were rising. An increasing share of farmers’ incomes was now made up of various subsidies.

But if there was less cake to go around, there were fewer and fewer competitors to share it with. The smallest, poorest farms quit, and that made production statistics look better. Between 1995 and 2014 the average earnings of farmers increased substantially faster than those for wage labourers.

In the cities people spoke bitterly about the Mercedeses that farmers were buying with EU money.

And that is how things seemed to go on until around 2012.

Farmers have to walk behind the cattle for dozens of kilometers every day across the fields, whatever the weather is like

Vesa Koskela and his girlfriend decided to acquire some Highland cattle in 2010. They purchased 12 to start with. There was much to learn about looking after them. They were strong-willed animals, and temperatures of minus 30 degrees or more did not seem to faze them.

The following year Koskela and his partner bought more, and then more again. Year by year, the herd grew. This was partly due to the couple’s enthusiasm, but the policy on agricultural subsidies definitely played a part. Farms qualify for subsidies based on their investments and the size of the farm: hectares, number of livestock. Often the most efficient way of improving a farms’ finances is to scale up, even if it means taking on large loans. For a long time, banks have granted generous loans with flexible repayment schemes to farmers.  After all, the financer tends to make a profit in the end.

Koskela and his partner knew how to exploit the boom in locally sourced food. In 2015 they joined Reko, a farm-to-table network that was growing in popularity, and started hosting open days on their farm.

Visitors to Kujanpää remember a well-run farm with exceptionally friendly cows. Koskela was often seen bottle-feeding calves of cows that had trouble nursing. Videos posted on the farm’s Facebook page showed calves following Koskela like a line of imprinted ducklings.

Of all cattle breeds, it is Highland cattle that seem to evoke the warmest feelings in humans. They are associated with a sense of naturalness. Humans tend to disrupt their lives less than with other, more common breeds. Highland cows nurse their calves for a full year. The bulls are allowed to live until the age of three, which is unusual: unlike other breeds, they are not bred for a early slaughter, which means that their muscle mass increases relatively slowly. Moreover, grazing on pastureland year-round is seen as being climate-friendly. Pastures store carbon and nitrogen in the soil, which is good for soil health and the atmosphere.

Highland cattle are also praised for being easy to manage; they can survive almost any conditions out in the pasture. But looking after them can be physically grueling. Farmers have to walk dozens of kilometers every day, in any weather, to tend to their cows. Highland cattle are notorious escape artists, and prone to losing their ear tags as they frolic in the woods. If the owner does not constantly spend time with them, approaching timid animals and petting calves, they soon grow feral and start to avoid people.

In the early years, Koskela and his wife were lucky. There were no calving problems. When the herd grew to about two hundred animals, the problems began. Abnormal fetal positions were common, and in spring and early summer they had to help calving cows night and day.

The costs and workload increased faster than Koskela had imagined.

“You don’t dare make a single mistake – or you’re in a stew,” says Koskela.

Then there was a change to the subsidy policy. The reform of EU agricultural policy took effect at the beginning of 2015, and Finland made a national reappraisal of subsidies to farming.

The government decided to end the livestock subsidy paid for each bull past 20 months of age in the north of the country.

Highland bulls, however, are not slaughtered so young. The change meant Kujanpää would lose 16,000 euros a year.

At the same time the environmental subsidy and the LFA support for less favored agricultural areas also both decreased, leaving a 19,000-euro dent in the farm’s income annually.

“Then we had to decide: do we press on or just stop? I decided to press on: I took on more animals – a couple of dozen cows from a Highland cattle farm that was folding,” says Koskela. “Thinking back I should have realized. It’s very obvious now. The year 2015 was a time when I could have downsized to a point that would have been sustainable.”

In June 2016 the farm stopped updating its Facebook page.

The Reko sales had not paid off. The municipality of Siikajoki is Finland’s second largest producer of beef, and farms there are larger than anywhere else in the country. There were five Reko group farmers selling locally sourced meat there, and competition was fierce. Kujanpää marketed its meat in Oulu, Raahe and the municipality of Liminka, but there were not enough customers. The marketing also took up a lot of time. It really should have been one person’s full-time job, but the couple was already tied up with all the work on the farm.

In the summers of 2016 and 2017 it rained, and there was plenty of work to do. The sowing of grass for winter fodder failed and had to be done again. With every short dry spell the couple was so busy they hardly slept – and then it would rain again. The tractors got stuck in the mud and were damaged when they were hauled out again.

The decline had started, but Vesa Koskela kept going: he became involved in local politics. He was following in his father’s footsteps in this, as Pentti Koskela was on the local council in Siikajoki for many years, first for the Centre Party and then for the National Coalition Party.

Vesa Koskela chose the Centre Party. In the local elections in spring 2017 he received 48 votes and was elected. At the first meeting of the town council he still had things to say, but soon he fell silent.

“People know me: they know I like to talk and have opinions. In the end, though, I would sit in meetings in complete silence, thinking I had nothing to say. They must have noticed. I have been thinking about it. When I am quiet, things are not good. And after the meeting it was just easier to get a six-pack of beer.”

The farm finances always seemed to just get worse. Bills went unpaid, fences were not repaired and the ear-tagging did not get done.

Koskela began to jump whenever the phone rang. He can be hot-headed, and so can his closest neighbours. As the situation on the farm got worse, his relationship with his neighbors soured.

“On one occasion a neighbor’s tractor was stuck in a field for five hours. I just sat there gloating. Before, it would have been just one call and I would have gone to help.”

In May 2017 around twenty of Koskela’s bulls escaped into a neighbor’s field. The neighbor demanded thousands of euros in compensation for the damage they caused.

“That was the same week my ex left. As for the weather, it was raining very hard.”

Experts are beginning to agree that agriculture in Finland, like everywhere else, should be more resilient

The heatwave of 2017 had caused such trouble in southern Europe that the press had dubbed it Lucifer. 2018’s weather anomaly that caused another heat wave also got a nickname in Finland: käristyskupoli, “fry dome”. Extreme weather conditions in winter are also making their way to people’s vocabularies. The spell of record low temperatures in the USA at the start of 2014 was caused by the polar vortex. A similar vortex had descended upon Finland in early 2018 and caused a long, cold period that lasted well into the spring.

There are also phenomena with no folksy names, yet: rainy, windy autumns that hamper autumn planting. Warm snowless winters when diamondback moths overwinter in the north and start feeding on cabbage patches and in rapeseed fields earlier than ever before.

The climate has changed so fast in the 2010s that it poses a number of threats to food production. There are new plant diseases, pest infestations, drought, very rainy years and storms. Because the polar regions are warming up a lot faster than equatorial areas, the Finnish climate is warming at twice the average rate for the planet as a whole. Finnish farming, however, is not the worst victim, as there is no shortage of fresh water. But the further south one travels in Europe, the greater is the destruction caused by global warming.

It is for that reason that Finland will probably have to produce more food in the future, even though the conditions for production won’t be what they used to be.

Harvests ruined by extreme weather have already caused food prices on the global market to fluctuate. It has fueled conflict. In 2010 Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin imposed a one-year ban on the export of all grain, as drought and forest fires had destroyed harvests in the Black Sea region. The ban almost doubled the price of wheat and pushed up the cost of food, especially in the Middle East. More expensive food was not the only cause of the Arab spring in 2011, but it was certainly one of them.

The following year drought hit North America. Prices for corn and soy soared like never before.

Both America’s Midwest and the Black Sea region are two of the world’s breadbaskets. (Others include the southern part of South America and the Yangtze Valley in China, sometimes known as a rice bowl.) The corn, wheat, rice and soy produced in these areas largely sustain the global food system. So far they have done their job well, and for a long time it was felt that the simultaneous collapse of two such regions would be a remarkable coincidence, something that would happen no more than once in a century. So when North America and Russia were both hit by a disastrous drought almost consecutively, with only one relatively normal harvest season between them, researchers began to update their predictions concerning agriculture in line with the latest climate models. Result: a simultaneous harvest crisis in two breadbaskets is many times more likely than was imagined.

A situation like hat would probably lead to export bans, stockpiling and panic buying. The cost of food would go sky-high, and countries dependent on imports could see their economies teeter.

There are other worries. Fertilizers, for example. The manufacture of industrial phosphate fertilizers relies on supplies of apatite, reserves of which are running out. The production of industrial nitrogen fertilizers, on the other hand, requires a good deal of natural gas, which is a problem now as the cost of fossil fuels is rising.

Finland is very dependent on fertilizer imports, and a crisis could cut supplies to the country.

When the international situation grew tense after Russia occupied the Crimean Peninsula, that risk suddenly started to feel more realistic than before.

Experts are beginning to agree that agriculture in Finland, like everywhere else, should be more resilient.

In practice, that could mean, for example, diverse food production and less dependence on imported food and foreign fertilizers.

That would be a way to survive unexpected crises.

There is growing consensus that in the future the food produced in Finland will be much more organic than now. Reliance on fertilizer will decline as farming methods such as crop rotation and permanent vegetation cover grow in popularity, and domestic alternatives will eventually replace imported fodder.

There is still no universal agreement on the following, however:

How large should farms be?

And what should be grown on them?

Rural desolation

The Helsinki University Viikki campus is lush, despite the exceptionally dry summer. The lawns are, of course, irrigated. Juha Helenius, Professor of Agroecology, surveys the garden with its little seating groups from his study on the second floor.

Helenius does not think that an agreeable urban environment like this one is the ecosystem where humans exist. Instead, we’re a field species, he says. Humans obtain almost all their food from fields, just like moles or earthworms. We may think that we live in a city, but it’s an illusion. And Helenius wants to talk about fields.

“How the field works, what organisms produce it, the things it requires to function!”

Humans share the field with many companion species. Mycorrhizal fungi, for example: They change the phosphorus in the soil into a form that plants can use. Molds break down organic matter, releasing nutrients in exchange for the carbon they obtain from plants. Plants cooperate: one species can live on what another leaves in the ground.

If you ignore the complex processes that are going on in the soil, the result is excess, says Helenius. You plant one crop from one year or one decade to the next and till the land intensively every year. Nutrients are purchased from foreign fertilizer factories, and at the same time the soil gradually loses its subsurface life forms and the activity of microbes, mycorrhizae and all the other biota in the soil. The soil loses its fertility..

That is what has already happened in such regions as Southwest Finland. For decades, intensively farmed fields have donated their nutrients to plants, and the plants have been shipped to Northern Finland to be used as fodder for livestock. With the nutrients gone, farmers have turned to industrial fertilizers. Now the impoverished soil in Southwest Finland can no longer produce the lushness of days gone by, and the animal husbandry areas in the north are struggling with an excess of manure.

According to Helenius, the situation could easily be fixed. With the help of nitrogen-fixing grass and a bit of crop rotation, impoverished soil could be resuscitated in just a couple of years. But it will still be some time before Southwest Finland abandons monocrop farming entirely.

Helenius believes that individual farmers have rarely been the winners in the switch to industrial-scale production. As farms have grown, farmers have often become more vulnerable, and saddled with debt.

“It’s ‘The hundred hectares of solitude’,” says Helenius. ‘That’s a good description of the sense of rural desolation and the loneliness that farmers feel. More and more of them are doing all the jobs on the farm by themselves; their spouses go to work outside the farm, and then it’s one person wrestling enormous machines alone all day.’

Helenius would like to see an end to large farms. He envisages the Finnish countryside being populated with small and medium-sized family farms again. They would cooperate with neighboring farms and occasionally partner with with local companies to process food. Meat would be produced to an extent that benefits the nutrient cycle – in other words, fairly little.

‘It would be agriculture on a human scale, where the family farmer or a family-size food business would not be right at the bottom of the value creation chain. The dream is that the loneliness of farmers would dissipate and the work would once again be meaningful.’

Tough Business

Finnish farmers’ main interest organization takes a dim view of Professor Helenius’s ideas. Juha Marttila, President of MTK – the Central Union of Agricultural Producers and Forest Owners – does not believe that Finland will go back to the days of small farms. On the contrary: centralization will continue.

‘We’ll definitely be OK in this country with fewer farms,” sayd Marttila at MTK’s headquarters in Helsinki.

At present just under 20% of farms produce 80% of Finnish food. Hundreds of thousands of hectares of cultivated land is not being used optimally, and Marttila thinks that those farms are not needed.

“The nature of the business has changed. It is a tough business with huge risks and large loans. Technological development has been fast, and individual farmers can now cover much larger areas than before.”

Farms that now run at a loss should be put to better use. In Marttila’s view, a small number of farms could focus on producing food. The rest could receive compensation from the state for binding carbon and maintaining biodiversity. “They wouldn’t be living on subsidies, they’d receive a payment for a service that they provide to humankind,” says Marttila.

“It would do much to combat the judgmental attitudes, and farmers’ sence of guilt, that is  currently associated with farming subsidies.”


At the beginning of September Vesa Koskela is strolling through a field on Kujanpää farm. He appears happier than he was just before Midsummer. He greets the cattle, now owned by his father, calling them by their first name and chattering to them.

One of the calves was rejected by its mother after it was born. It is called Surprise and it nudges Koskela’s legs like a big dog.

“You’re going to be a lovely ol’ girl. You know, don’t you?”

Koskela obviously enjoys the company of the animals. Then again, he is with a journalist now: he should not exactly play down his love of animals. He remembers to mention than when he was a child he used to bring home birds with broken wings. He’d sit with his grandma in the kitchen cutting up potatoes into small pieces so that the cows would not choke on them. He still does not know when he has to go to court to answer the probable charge of an animal welfare offence. The investigation has barely made any progress, and the police have told him the case is not very urgent.

Koskela may be banned by the court from keeping animals. He says that makes him feel sad, but in a way he is also relieved.

It will certainly be a pity to have to sell the cows to someone else.

“Many of them I have reared since they were small calves. We’ve had ten years together. I’ll go with them to the new farm, and I might go and say hello from time to time.”

Koskela says he has started to wonder if there is a future at all for farming in Finland.

“Throughout this process I have become cynical about talk about farming being the ‘industry of the future’, and all the talk about Finland producing food for the world. I’ve been thinking that if climate change goes the way they are predicting, Finland will have to close its borders and deploy the military to keep folks out.”

“Nothing was done deliberately”

Koskela’s mother, Irma, has made coffee again. She is not sitting in her usual chair, but her husband’s.

Now Pentti Koskela is in hospital in Raahe. A couple of weeks ago he fell off the scaffolding when he was changing the windows. He fractured his spinal column between the shoulder blades.

Vesa has moved back to his own place. He has now got a housemate, Ilkka Marttinen, whom he got to know when he was suffering from depression.

Marttinen has also had enough of running a farm.

Now the men intend to start a joint forest service venture to help people manage the forests they own – logging, planning, etc.

“Summers in the fields, and winters in the forest. It’ll be nice working with someone else. Besides, Ilkka has a brand-new digger,” says Koskela.

The fate of the surviving cattle remains unclear. Koskela has been looking for an owner for them, and there may well be now a new home awaiting about half of the herd. The sale has been delayed, however, because not all the animals on the Kujanpää farm have yet been entered in the cattle register. None of the herd can be moved.

If Koskela does not have the animals registered and sold, sooner or later the authorities will slaughter them.

In any case, the farm will now be for plants only. Koskela has plans.

“I am clearing some areas for cultivation and I am going organic. Organic is the buzzword: it’s an attractive market and growers are not at the mercy of subsidies,” he says. “The main crop will be organic starch potatoes. It’s a good bet: 80% will go for export and the price is high. Then rye, oats and perhaps also vegetables for sale.”

According to the plan, the area of cultivated land will be a hundred hectares to start. When all the stones and tree stumps have been cleared, there will be 150 hectares – a pretty good size, even by Siikajoki standards. It will mean a lot of work, but at least this time there will not be any animals tying them to the place every single day of the year. And Koskela will no longer have all his eggs in one basket.

He says he has begun to dream again at night. He hasn’t dreamt for a whole year. In one recent dream he was in a maze of city streets chasing escaped cows.

“A lot of people must think I am an awful animal abuser. But nothing that I did was deliberate. I just want to say that. It was the illness. So that is what I am going to say at the hearing when they ask me whether I am guilty or not. Nothing that I did was deliberate.”

Photo: © Peakpx

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