Sales of most organic food products in Finland rose sharply in 2001 with the greatest increases from eggs and pasta products.
Organic milk has also seen a dramatic change in fortunes. A report in the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper claimed that demand for organic milk was so weak in 2000 that much of the organically produced milk had to be mixed in with ordinary milk to get it sold.
"Demand for organically grown food seems to grow all the time. Apparently the scare over mad cows has made people think about what they put in their mouths. There are no statistics on organic meat, but we can't get enough of it in the stores" , said Kauko Lehto, organic agriculture adviser of the Oulu Rural Development Centre.
According to Olavi Kuusela, managing director of the Finnish dairy chain Valio, most organically produced milk is sold during weekends when families do much of their shopping. During the week there is a drop in sales, but organic milk is increasingly used in the production of organic yoghurts and cheeses, he told the newspaper.
"Usually 10% is the upper limit that people are willing to pay extra for organic food. Fortunately it is possible to process the entire supply of organically produced milk into various products, now that demand has picked up. Adding organic milk to ordinary milk is not cheap, because producers get 15% more for it", Kuusela said.
Kuusela said he believed organic milk production should be concentrated in certain areas, because collecting and processing organic milk separately added to costs. Organic milk still comprises just over 1% of total dairy production in Finland.
This growing demand for organic produce has led to concerns about the availability of raw materials. Last year 330 organic farms went back to traditional agriculture because of the apparent lack of demand.
"This is the first time in the history of organic production that the number of farms involved has declined. Last year 131 new organic farms were established" , Lehto said. Northern Ostrobothnia has a special programme to promote organic food production. The goal is to increase the number of farms practising organic agriculture to 10% of all farms by 2006. There are campaigns by other rural development centres as well to promote organic farming. Currently just 6.4% of Finnish farms practice organic production, and the proportion is even smaller for cattle farms.
"The EU requirements for cowsheds practising organic farming are so stringent that a farm's fields can be classified as organic, while the cattle are not, even if they eat organic feed", said foodstuffs coordinator Sonja Manssila.
A survey conducted by the Oulu Rural Development Centre found that the main reasons for a farm to give up organic production included the bureaucracy involving inspections, the problem of weeds which could no longer be eradicated with herbicides, the quality of the crop, demand for the product, and the general psychological atmosphere surrounding the activity.
"The atmosphere varies greatly from one area to another. For instance, in Tyrnävä there are only two organic farms, while in Nivala there are 60. Organic farming is a worthwhile agricultural business for those who can master it", Lehto said.