PRESENTING CARBON ACTION FARMS: TUORLA FARM
Presenting Carbon Action farms is a podcast series that introduces Carbon Action farmers and their farms. In the series, you get to meet the farmers, learn about the activities on the farm, and understand the farmers’ ideas behind their work. Welcome to our farm tours!
ABOUT THE FARM:
The second farm in our series is Tuorla Farm, which is part of the Livia institute in Piikkiö. Tuomo Virta manages the farm, while Jenna Ekman leads the Tuorla agricultural team. Students also work on the farm.
Tuorla is a conventional farm with crop production, pigs, and suckler cows. The farm has 191.5 ha of arable land, of which 40 ha is leased.
The farm has a biogas reactor that produces gas, heat, and biodiesel. The crop rotation is very diverse because all kinds of plants are grown on the farm to allow the students to learn to grow different crops.
We’ve arrived in Tuorla on a sunny morning to record the first part of our Carbolla on asiaa -podcast series. Excitement is fluttering in the air. Students of the Metropolia University of Applied Sciences Aurora Solala and Kaarlo Kulmanen are setting up mics and testing sound. In front of me I see the cattle of Tuorla Farm and behind them the Baltic Sea. It is a perfect day for a visit to the wonderful Tuorla Manor!
STUDENTS WORKING ON THE FARM
Tuorla differs from most Carbon Action farms in that it is an educational farm where students learn how to cultivate the land and to work on a farm. It is not the only school participating in the project, as two other schools are involved as well.
The lands of Tuorla Manor have been cultivated since the 16th century, and since the 19th century, they have been cultivated for educational purposes. Originally termed a horti- and agricultural school, Tuorla now provides natural resource education, as this area of education has since become known as. The 700 to 800 students at Tuorla complete their studies on topics such as horticulture, agriculture, and environment.
Students spend the entire period between their first and second year of study working on the farm. They work mostly during office hours.
“Sometimes, when the weather is right, I pick up from where the students have left off in the evening”, Tuomo says. “Sprayings should also be done in the mornings before the students arrive.”
GOOD FARMING PRACTICES
The farm is located right by the shores of the Baltic Sea, which is why environmental issues are a priority and they are considered in all activities.
“Yes, I talk to students about the environmental issues of cultivation all the time in the tractor cabin, whether they care about it or not”, Tuomo laughs.
“We think about the environment in everything we do. That’s why it’s very important to be involved in projects like Carbon Action. It shows students that things can be done in many ways”, Jenna says.
“We have the advantage of being able to grow crops without having to worry about debts, which is not the case for most farmers. We can try things out without fear of failure”, Tuomo says and continues “in fact, we have a duty to teach these good practices and show what can be done in arable farming.” Jenna nods in agreement.
The agricultural team in Tuorla, which is led by Jenna, is a diverse group. The team plans the fieldwork ahead and chooses all the new things that could be tried out. Better ideas emerge through cooperation – an observation we’ve made many times in other farmers’ networks too.
“Sharing ideas within the team is fantastic. We might, for example, say, ‘why haven’t we tried collector plants?’, and then we try them out”, Tuomo laughs.
“For some students, diverging from traditional monoculture can be a strange experience. This is usually the case if the student comes from an environment where it has always been done”, Jenna says, but adds with a smile “Everyone adjusts during the studies. Most students are well-informed and innovative and have a positive attitude toward environmental protection.”
BIOGAS FOR HEATING AND FIELD
In addition to a diverse arable production, there are suckler cows and pigs on the farm. The manure is used, along with green pulp, in a biogas plant for heat and electricity production. The digestate from the biogas plant is separated, and the fractions are used as fertilizer. The goal is to create a closed circuit in this sense.
No other recycled fertilizers are used on the farm, but fractions from the biogas plant are carefully utilized. In addition, synthetic fertilizer is used where necessary.
Due to the farm’s location by the water, nutrient recycling is particularly important, and every effort is being made to prevent nutrient run-offs. In addition to the biogas plant putting excess nutrient to good use, cattle are grazing on the waterfront, which not only prevents erosion but also increases biodiversity. Tuorla is also looking forward to participating in various projects that develop new water protection measures − the latest being the planting of sea buckthorns in erosion-prone coastal areas; a project that is carried out in cooperation with the University of Turku.
MAKING AND DEVELOPING AGROFORESTRY
Sea buckthorns naturally lead to another topic, namely agroforestry. Tuorla participates in the Finnish agroforestry network run by BSAG. The network organized two events in 2019, one of which was held at Tuorla. The event introduced participants to agroforestry in Great Britain and to Tuorla’s own orchard, where you can rent your own apple tree or highbush blueberry.
“Renting highbush blueberry is insanely popular. This year, you could rent the bushes online for the first time, and they were all gone in two hours!” Jenna marvels with delight. “We want to promote this kind of activity at Tuorla as much as possible in the future, even up to further processing.”
THE DEEP-ROOTED TEST BLOCK
The Carbon Action test plot with deep-rooted collector crops is in very poor condition. Tuomo and Jenna laugh as they talk about it.
“We’ve chosen a block in very bad shape for this. We’ve ruined it over the years by driving on it no matter what the weather is like since it was sacrificed for student screening exams. Exams must be carried out, even if the field structure really cannot take it”, says Tuomo.
I witnessed the condition the block was in myself back in the summer of 2019, and it was really bad. This is only the second consecutive season Tuorla is growing deep-rooted grasses on the plot, yet its state has visibly improved. It will be interesting to see what kind of results these five years of carbon farming will bring.
Now three different grass seed mixtures grow on the block, and the effects on carbon storage are studied.
CARBON FARMING, HOW AND WHY?
Carbon farming is beneficial in many ways as it improves soil health and thereby affects the farm’s economic viability. It also benefits the environment; especially as extreme weather conditions increase.
“The past winter was like a washing machine – the water was just pouring down day after day. Turns out that the fields covered with vegetation survived the wetness better than the plowed ones”, says Tuomo. We were amused by the lively analogy of the washing machine and think it will certainly live on, as it illustrates the harsh conditions that fields faced last winter in most of Finland.
However, plowing cannot be completely out ruled, because students still have to learn how to go about it. So, what kind of tools will be introduced in the future?
“We strive to maintain as much vegetation as possible. Winter grains are added, and now we already have Italian ryegrass as a collector in all the grain plots. Of course, grass plays an important part too”, Tuomo lists.
Students observe their own blocks during the summer, and at the same time learn which cultivation practices produce yields and which do not. The growth is monitored from the tractor and on-site by examining the soil and vegetation.
When asked what a farmer should do if he or she wants to take up carbon farming, Tuomo is prepared with an answer:
“You can start by grabbing a shovel.”
And that’s how it is. A shovel can be conveniently carried in the tractor. By stopping to dig pits often enough, one can learn a lot about soil health. When asked what else could be done besides digging holes and planting collector plants, Jenna offers an answer about pollinators:
“One thing would be to get beehives for your blocks.”
Good idea! In addition to beehives, one could leave meadowy areas for pollinators in the middle of the fields and leave suitable areas for them around the edges of the fields.
It is time to end this fruitful conversation. I would happily let my own child study at Livia. Tuorla Farm is a farm of the future!
Join the Carbon Action Club and stay up to date on the latest developments in carbon farming! The newsletter comes out every other month and contains information on soil health. READ MORE HERE IN FINNISH
Interview, images, and text by Sanna Söderlund, Head of training – Co-operation with farmers, Baltic Sea Action Group.
Podcast interviews by Eliisa Malin, Baltic Sea Action Group.