The organic scene in Lithuania is still in its relative infancy compared with that of Germany or the US. Though government affiliated Organic Certification began in Lithuania in 1993 (with nine farms certified), entry into the EU in 2004 brought on a new and different set of organic regulatory laws. The Lithuanian Chamber of Agriculture has played a key role in helping farmers keep pace with these laws, but in a country whose organic industry is so young, many of the regulations are somewhat difficult to follow.
If an organic farmer wants to grow organic seed for sale, s/he must obtain a seed certification in addition to the standard organic certification. As of 2006, only about 20 farmers in the country have this certification and all but one of them grow only grain.The single grower that produces vegetable seed is contracted to Institute of Horticulture for growouts of some of their crops (carrots and onions especially), which are then sold commercially (mostly to gardeners) by the Institute. Grain accounts for 69% of the organic ag. production here (most of the rest in fodder or sugar beets), with only 0.1% in vegetables, so the country’s need for certified organic vegetable seeds for farm use is pretty small.
One of the goals of the Chamber of Agriculture is to increase the amount of organic vegetable production in Lithuania, but the market for organics is small here and there are no marketing boards to help the farmers sell their produce. Also, most farms are pretty small by production standards and the farmers can’t produce enough to satisfy a grocer’s demands, let alone meet export quantities to reach developed markets. Organic vegetable growers would then have to rely on the local markets, where consumers will pay a price premium on some products but not others (see: http://www.vic.lt/ris/index.php?id=12933&action=more.
for recent prices of organic crops in Lithuania).
According to Edita, most of the farmers in Lithuania grow organically even though they may not be certified (though the amount of certified farms is growing really quickly — 2,333 farms and 96,717 hectares (238,891 acres) certified this year compared with 1,800 farms in 2005 and about 700 in 2003. Unfortunately, because of the lack of developed markets and few certified processors, many farmers that are organic are forced to sell their harvest to conventional processors and don’t get a price premium for it. This is especially true for meat and dairy – while there are a few certified mills for grain, there are no certified meat processors, and the meat processors that are in existence do not want to bother to modify their operations for organic beef, pork, or poultry. Organic dairy products suffer from similar problems — milk can be found at many grocers for the same price as conventional, but organic cheese is very hard to come by. There are efforts being made to remedy this situation, and many organic producers are eagerly awaiting a solution.
Despite the fact that organic producers may not receive a price premium for their goods, a financial incentive remains for organic production. For many farmers, the only reason to be organic is a subsidy from the EU ($506 per hectare for grain, $687 per hectare for vegetables), which is apparently enough to deal with the hassles of certification. (look here for a brief USDA report which includes subsidy details.)
As mentioned earlier, the majority of the organic farmers here in Lithuania grow grain. Conveniently enough, hybrid grains are not very common (though hybrid rye is gaining in popularity), so farmers are able to save seed by simply saving some of their harvest each year. A few of these farmers shared some grain with us, including the Lithuanian national Dark Rye variety and some barley.
Because of the EU organic regulations (similar to those in the US but better enforced in Europe) that state that farmers must grow from organic seed if it is available, many farmers that do not save their own seed must buy from out-of-country sources. Edita and the farmers view this as a political and business decision from the EU: the farmers do not want to buy their seed from other countries, but because of the lack of certified organic seed producers in Lithuania, many of them have little choice. The farmers are aware that seed from Denmark or Germany may not be suitable for growing conditions in Lithuania, and also may have other undesirable characteristics for Lithuanian farming, but at this point they must grow from organic seed wherever they may find it.
And so: the Lithuanian organics scene is experiencing some difficulties that include the need to respond quickly to new, strict EU organic regulations, increased certification requirements for seed production, availability of commercial quantities of locally-adapted organic seed, lack of developed markets, lack of certified organic processing for organic products (i.e. grains and meat).
All of these conditions combined to create audiences that were eager to discuss organic agriculture and organic seed with us. The meetings that we attended were all with or at institutions that are working hard at developing new varieties for organic production, or working with farmers to certify for organics as well as seed production. It seems to me that everyone involved is rising to these challenges, in ways to be discussed in subsequent postings.