Meet the Farmer

Helsinki Mills invites you to follow the story of gluten-free oats at Hölsö Farm in Ylistaro.
April, 2020

Did you eat porridge for breakfast? Did you add oat bran to a smoothie for more fibre? Do you like oat rolls? We Finns are familiar with oats, and they are such a big part of our day-to-day life that we don’t often think about where the oats come from.

Nevertheless, a lot of planning, effort and careful work goes into each bowl of porridge. Farmers work hard out in the fields so that we can put food on our plates.

Today’s farmers are required to be constantly diligent, always learning, and always developing. Farming is on the frontline in the fight against climate change.  Farming is also impacted by commerce, farming subsidies, and environmental legislation. Farmers are like guards as we build a Finnish food system to withstand an uncertain future.

Would you like to learn more about life on the farm in Ylistaro? The series follows everyday life on the gluten-free oat farm in spring, summer, and autumn, and takes a look at the work that needs to be done on the farm as well as how oats are grown. At the same time, we’ll find out how gluten-free oats make their way from the field to our bowl of porridge.

Mikko Hölsö and his family will be our guide. Welcome along!

Mikko Hölsö (47) runs an approximately 85-hectare farm in Ylistaro. He is somewhat of a jack-of-all-trades. Not only is he a farmer, but he is also a warrant officer and head of the Ilmajoen Lääkintävarikko depot. His military rank is Captain and he trained as an artisan.

For most people, a day job and running a farm might be enough, but not for Mikko. In addition to everything else, he also has 8 personal world championship gold medals in biathlon under his belt, along with 8 gold medals in relay, and a total of 29 world championship medals. He also finds time for forestry and hunting, which he does with his Finnish spitz,  Jetsu. The duo hunt for grouse, small predators, and elk.

Mikko’s wife Kati (46) and the couple’s children Severi (20) and Henriikka (18) also live on the farm. Mikko and Kati took over the farm from Mikko’s parents.

“When I was a child, my parents farmed the main farm and raised pigs along with crops,” Mikko explains.

“Since I was a small boy, I’ve been interested in the “real work” on the farm, and spent the majority of my free time helping my father in the fields and with the pigs. It was 2002 when the farm passed down to the next generation. As a result, the family moved here to my home farm.

In addition to pigs, Mikko also has experience with chickens, as he ordered 50 chickens from Harjavalta when he was 11 years old. The young chicken farmer’s career lasted around three years, after which time he returned his focus to pigs, and raised 25 pigs each summer. He stopped keeping animals when he went away to study at the age of 17.

The Hölsös’ farm area currently spans approximately 85 hectares, of which just over 20 hectares is leased. The surface area of the original farm grew when the farm passed to the next generation, as Mikko and Kati also purchased the fields from Kati’s parents’ farm. The Hölsös’ farm is a gluten-free crop farm, which means that no crops containing gluten, such as barley, rye or wheat, can be farmed there.

“Our farm specialises in producing gluten-free oats, which take up around 60 hectares of farm area. The rest of the fields will be used to grow peas this year, which will replace the oilseed rape that we farmed previously.

The farm is already waiting to find out when spring work can begin. In the next episode, we’ll take a look at spring sowing.

MAY, 2020
Successful spring sowing requires experience, skills and know-how, and good weather

Between April and May, the Hölsö farm worked around the clock as spring sowing began with peas and continued immediately thereafter with oats. This year, there was more time for spring sowing because coronavirus cancelled farmer Mikko Hölsö’s defence forces training and business trips relating to his day job. An exceptional spring offered Mikko the opportunity to head out into the field whenever he felt like it and when the weather was favourable. His son Severi’s leave from the army also fell conveniently on the sowing week and the entire family lent a hand in the spring sowing work.

Mikko’s father and father-in-law also joined in to help. The division of labour was clear: the farmer himself would take care of sowing, and his son Severi would take turns tilling the fields together with the older men. Wife Kati and daughter Henriikka kept the equipment clean and made sure that all the men working in the fields were well-fed.

A total of 22 hectares of peas were sown, along with 62 hectares of oats. “There is still just under a hectare’s worth of field for game to prepare, but the sowing work itself can be carried out in a week,” says Mikko.

How does a farmer know when it’s time to begin sowing?

Home gardeners know when to begin planting trees, shrubs, and perennials after the frost thaws. Does the same apply to farmers, and how does a farmer know when it’s time to begin sowing?

Mikko believes that the most important thing is for farmers to walk their fields and keep track of how spring is affecting the condition of the ground for sowing. If the field is too wet or icy, it’s best to be patient and wait for the right time. “When the field is ready to sow, we actively follow all weather forecasts. I make decisions on when to start and end work based on the weather forecasts. If, for example, the weather forecast shows an approaching rain front, I will stop work for that day and continue in fairer weather,” says Mikko.

Weather all-year round has an effect on the success of sowing and the field’s condition for sowing. If harvesting and autumn work in the fields were carried out in wet conditions, it will leave marks in the field for years. The ground becomes compact and the surface of the field will be uneven. “It is ideal if autumn work can be carried out in relatively dry conditions. After autumn work, a moderate amount of autumn rain should evenly water the fields, and then the winter frost naturally “crumbles” the soil so that it is easier to work in the spring,” explains Mikko.

An even layer of snow cover during the winter is good because it insulates the fields’ frost layer evenly, and an even frost layer also thaws evenly with rain and warm weather in the spring. “A winter with hardly any snow, combined with a relatively cold and dry April, causes lots of uneven drying in the fields. Large gaps dry and become ready for sowing too early, while the northern fields in the shadow of the forests were still full of frost when we were sowing,” says Mikko.

The weather, on the other hand, was almost perfect for sowing. “Fair weather without heat and high winds, which would have dried out the field, is the best possible weather for the seed to sprout in. Rain after sowing also helps the seed to sprout, as long as there is enough warmth,” explains Mikko.

Heavy rain, on the other hand, would be a problem. When rain has lashed a clay field, when the clay dries it turns so hard that the new germinating crop can barely break through the cover.

This spring’s sowing process began last summer

There are a surprising number of things that need to be done before actual sowing can begin. Everything begins with planning, which started during the previous growing season. Planning makes use of experiences and notes from previous years.

Previous observations are used to make decisions on the seeds to be sown, fertilisers, plant protection and plots of land, as well as which parts of the field will be cultivated. The planning is impacted by the terms of the environmental commitment as well as the results of soil fertility studies, which determine the levels of fertiliser for various plots of land in the field. After these decisions, the supplies for the following year are obtained using advance sales.

Before fieldwork begins, the equipment to be used must be serviced. Mikko carries out some of the work himself, but outsources some work to a garage in his village. “It’s well worth servicing machinery outside of growing season, when the garage isn’t so busy and prices may well be lower,” Mikko says.

The Hölsö farm uses four tractors for sowing, and they are used for several different work phases. When equipped with the right tools, a tractor can be a very versatile workmate for a farmer:

  • the front loader and back plate can be used to level out water furrows left from the previous year’s sowing, and to remove any large rocks from the field
  • a harrow is used to even the surface of the field
  • a drag harrow is used to till the field into sowing condition
  • a front loader and rock picker or stoner are used to collect the rocks in the field
  • a front loader and big bag lifters are used to lift sacks of manure and seeds onto the seeder
  • the seeder is used to sow the seeds and spread the manure over the field
  • a roller is used to break up the largest clods of earth and to pack down the surface of the field.

The Hölsö farm is now anxiously waiting for spring to progress and hoping for favourable weather – a lovely, warm early summer without any baking heat, and some gentle showers.

We will meet Mikko again in June, when we will take a look at how the oats are growing and find out what special measures must be taken to farm gluten-free oats, and how farmers can affect food purity and safety

June, 2020
Gluten-free oat farming requires commitment and expertise from farmers

Mikko Hölsö’s farm in Ylistaro farms gluten-free oats. Although farming gluten-free oats sets certain requirements for the farm and various work phases, and demands commitment and expertise from the farmer, its popularity has steadily increased in recent years.

A crop requiring more effort also brings better income for the farm: the price of gluten-free oats on the market is around 40 per cent higher than foodstuff-grade oats, and a quality surcharge may also be added on top.

The farming contract for gluten-free oats states that no crops containing gluten are farmed, processed in a dryer, or stored on the farm. The combine harvester must also be reserved purely for gluten-free crops.

Gluten-free oat farms only farm oats and some other gluten-free preceding crops in rotation, such as pulses or oleiferous plants. This year on the Hölsö farm, peas were also sown alongside oats. Wheat, barley, and rye all contain gluten and have no place on a gluten-free oat farm.

 

A varietally pure seed aids weeding work

A farm that farms gluten-free oats will invest as much as possible in a pure sowing seed so that no foreign species are introduced to the field. Varietal purity can be checked on the seed’s assurance certificate.

The Hölsö farm uses only certified seeds or its own seeds proven to be pure. If there were any foreign species among the seeds, it would mean plenty of weeding for the farmer.

”Plant populations are in any case checked for foreign species around four times during the growing season between stem growth and threshing.  The checks are carried out by walking systematically through the field in rows around 15 metres wide and then weeding any foreign species, along with their roots, into a plastic bag,” says Mikko.

Gluten-free oats are gluten-free from field to fork

The varietal purity and thereby food safety of a grain is of the utmost importance to the consumer. A product sold as gluten-free must be gluten-free. If any other crops besides gluten-free oats were processed on the farm, all of the harvesting equipment and dryer would have to be thoroughly cleaned between uses. The Hölsö farm has its own designated equipment for processing gluten-free oats, so this phase does not require any special effort – regular equipment cleaning is enough.

“After threshing, the grain is dried in its own dryer, and after that the grain is moved to a metal storage silo. There are several storage silos and they are all sealed,” says Mikko.

Precise bookkeeping is practiced for every batch of dried grain, and representative advance samples are taken. Advance samples are sent to Helsinki Mills for analysis, and only grain that has passed the advance test may then be delivered to the mill.

“Transport takes place using well-known transport companies’ vehicles, which are specialised in grain transport and we trust in the cleanliness of their equipment,” says Mikko.

The following quality requirements are set for Helsinki Mills’ food-grade oats:

  • the grain must be dried sufficiently so that it has a maximum moisture content of 14 per cent
  • the grain must be sufficiently heavy so that its hectolitre weight is a minimum of 56 kilograms
  • the grain must be sufficiently large; grains are sieved through a 2-millimetre sieve. Small grains are not used in food production.
  • the grain must be ripe with a healthy colour and free from unwanted smells and mould
  • the grain must be varietally pure with no foreign species
  • the grain must not mix with allergens such as soy, nuts, lupins, or celeriac during farming, drying, storage or transport.

 

In addition, good agricultural practices must be following when farming, and only products that are approved for use on foodstuffs may be used for fertilising and plant production. The grain must meet national and EU legislation for foodstuffs.

June-JULY, 2020
A dry spring and early summer parched the oat fields – now the farmers are hoping for rain

In June, Hölsö farm carries out plant protection spraying and checks the fields for foreign crop species. And hopes for precious rain!

Although holidaymakers are delighted with the red-hot maps on the weather forecasts, oat farmers are desperately hoping for rain. Unlike other crops, oat in particular thrives in cool and rainy weather, when it produces fantastic harvests in comparison to dry growing seasons. An exceptionally warm and dry early summer has also parched the fields at Hölsö farm. The growing season has been everything we didn’t want: a cold and dry May followed by a hot, dry June. “We have only had 5 millilitres of rain since May, and that’s far too little,” laments farmer Mikko Hölsö.

 

Early expectations for the growing season were high due to the success of the previous year. Now the mood has changed, and farmers are hoping for enough rain even to grant them an average harvest. “A fantastic harvest is completely out of the question now, but if weather takes a wetter turn soon, there is still hope for an average harvest,” says Mikko.

The dry weather is most challenging for hard, clay land, which contained the least moisture even during the sowing season. If there is no rain all summer, the crops will ripen before their time and the harvest will be small in quantity. The grain will also remain small due to the dryness, and in the worst case it will no longer meet the size threshold for food-grade oats. “Even if it does rain, it will only affect the size of the grain now and not the quantity, because the crop decides on the number of grains during the early germination phase,” explains Mikko.

Dry weather often brings with it other problems, such as pest insects. Luckily, oat has rather few pest insects compared to oilseed rape and turnip rape. “Aphids are the most common issue during germination, when they spread barley yellow dwarf virus, which is the most common crop virus in Finland. Aphids are repelled using appropriate and tested pesticides,” says Mikko.

Pesticides are products that are approved for foodstuff production, such as various plant protection substances, which act as “vitamins and medicines” for crops.  The pesticide content in ripe crops and finished grain products is carefully monitored. In Finland, the finished products are safe and free from excess residual pesticides.

Plant protection sprays are plant “vitamins” that help the crops to better withstand difficult conditions.

It is rare for oat fields to be artificially watered in Finland. Seedbed preparation, sowing depth, and pre-sowing fertiliser all play a decisive role in the plant’s water and nutrient intake. Mikko also favours the use of leaf fertiliser, which is spread using a plant protection sprayer and helps crops to absorb water and nutrients from the soil.  

A thriving and healthy plant population best utilises the nutrients in the soil and is also a much better carbon sequester than an unhealthy population. That’s why growth regulator is also sprayed on the fields to shorten and strengthen the plant stem and to strengthen the root system. This helps the crop to stay upright and makes it easier to harvest.

If the stem is very long, it will become lodged more easily. Lodged crops become susceptible to mould and do not meet quality requirements for food crops.

“If the autumn is too rainy, lodged crops do not dry for threshing and, in the worst case, the crop will begin to sprout and will therefore fail to meet quality requirements,” explains Mikko.

“All of the products we use are carefully tested and approved by authorities. We follow manufacturers’ dosages and instructions when using products,” says Mikko.

It is also important to prevent and treat weeds, as weeds:

  • lower the quantity, quality, and sales price of a crop harvest
  • cause the crop to have side tastes, and can be poisonous
  • act as host plants for many pest insects and plant diseases
  • make it more difficult to harvest the crops.

In addition to weeds, another concern in gluten-free oat fields is foreign crop species that could make their way into the field. Farmers survey the fields several times each summer to weed out any foreign crop species.

Gluten-free farming requires lots of hard work, but ensures that we produce pure, gluten-free oat grains for Helsinki Mills. People who follow a gluten-free diet for their health are sure to appreciate that our oat products are gluten-free from field to fork.

September, 2020
After an eventful summer and autumn, threshing at Hölsö farm has finally come to an end.

In July, farmer Mikko Hölsö was concerned and predicted a record-low harvest, but the weather turned out to be favourable and the end result was better than expected. “In early July, the situation seemed catastrophic, but the rain and warm autumn weather came to the rescue and salvaged what could be saved,” says Mikko. “The quality of the grain was good on average, and the yield was 30 per cent of a regular growing season harvest.”

Grain grew and ripened unevenly

May and June were very dry, and farmers were desperate for rain. When it finally rained in July, the crops began to sprout tillers; or grow new shoots. The new stems ripened and were ready for threshing around a month later than the main harvest, which was already ready for threshing in August. The Hölsö farm also waited for new growth to be ready before threshing began.

The threshing weather was very favourable, as there were only a few brief periods of rain. Storm Aila, which ripped across Finland in mid-September, was in a league of its own, however. “The storm took out the crops that were ready for threshing at the same rate that we plant seeds in the field in the spring,” says Mikko.

How does a farmer know when it is time for threshing?

“Every cultivated crop species has a theoretical growth period in days, which is based on heat accumulation during the growth period.  It is of course only a theory, and this year showed once again that there is no clear answer to the question,” explains Mikko. In practice, farmers estimate the ripeness of crops by feel and eye. “Once the grains and stem have turned light yellow, and the moisture content of the grain is below 20 per cent, it is time to thresh,” says Mikko, and adds: “Sometimes the crop stem is still green, but the grain has already ripened. This is usually a sign that the soil has more energy than the crop can make use of.”

At Hölsö farm, threshing began on 2 September and ended on 25 September. Threshing lasted a total of three weeks. There are not many hours in the day for efficient threshing. “Efficient working time for threshing shortens considerably the further along you are in the threshing process, as in the morning you need to wait for dew to evaporate, and in the evening, the moisture sets in mainly when the sun goes down.”

The journey of oat grains from field to mill requires precision work and is subject to many regulations

Threshing is carried out using a New Holland TC combine harvester equipped with a 17-foot cutter bar. The combine harvester must always be adjusted for the crops before threshing begins. The combine harvester is also serviced and some bearings are greased every 10 hours while others are greased every 50 hours. First the combine harvester’s threshing drum and concave clearance are adjusted, as well as the speed at which the threshing drum rotates. When the crop moves between the threshing drum and the concave, the grain is separated from the chaff.

Next, the speed of the fan is adjusted. The fan’s task is to separate the grains from the chaff using sieves. The sieves are the last to be adjusted and their adjustments are checked in the field if necessary, as their adjustments are affected by the moisture, weight, and size of the grain, among other things.

The threshed grain is emptied into a tractor trailer, of which two were used – each with a volume of 230 hectolitres. From the field, the grain is taken to the dryer, which is a 350-hectolitre Arska manufactured in 2012. In the dryer, the grain is dried until its moisture level is around 12-13%, as the mill has set a maximum moisture limit of 14 per cent. After drying, the grain is moved to the metal storage silos inside the dryer.

Grain traceability requires all work phases to be precisely recorded

All events relating to the drying process are recorded: the day on which the crop was threshed, the threshed plot of land, the wet and dry weight of the grain, moisture percentage and weight, time spent drying and cooling the grain, and the storage silo. This means that every dried batch of grain can be traced back to the field.

This information is also used in the sowing plans for the following growing season. During the grain transportation phase, a comprehensive sample batch is taken and brought to Helsinki Mills for analysis. After preliminary samples are approved, the farmer works with Helsinki Mills to plan a more precise delivery schedule. Specialist transport company services are used for transporting gluten-free goods.

Finally, the field is cultivated and left dormant over the winter

Before winter dormancy, the fields are cultivated so that they can collect as much energy as possible for the next growing season. When threshing, observations are made which form the basis for the necessary plant protection measures that are carried out on plots of land. Lime is spread over some plots of land to improve the soil.

Finally, autumn tilling is carried out by ploughing and cultivating the fields. Cultivation means light tilling on the field, where soil is moved as little as possible and the topsoil is covered with plant waste. Light tilling saves the farmer time and energy in the form of fuel. The field also benefits as the structure and humus content of the soil improves, and erosion problems are reduced. Light tilling retains the wormholes and root channels in the field, which keep the field loose and breathable. After this, the field can rest and collect energy until the following spring.

Also used as a source: Maatilan Pellervo (https://www.pellervo.fi/maatila/3_02/kevytmuok.htm)

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