4.1. Solutions and Means for Achieving Higher Crop Yields
The workshop participants identified unfavorable growing conditions related to northern conditions as important drivers for low yields. On the other hand, they can also be attributed to non-optimal management-related issues, such as soil compaction resulting from driving heavy machinery on wet soils [23
] or low fertilization levels reducing yields [24
]. Fertilization affects the yields remarkably in conditions such as those in Finland (and North Savo), where the production is limited by the availability of nutrients during intensive growing phases of a short growing season [25
Similarly, short growing seasons and the occurrence of late and early frosts were seen as limiting the production opportunities in boreal regions in a survey study of agrometeorological and agronomy experts in 26 European countries [4
]. Increasing climate variability [26
] is also increasingly affecting crop production [9
]. Improved management options that increase yields and reduce their variability are important for improving the resilience of farms to climate change [27
]. The workshop participants saw soil improvements, such as drainage, liming and new tillage systems, as important means for achieving yield improvements. In a survey-based study by [4
], tillage management in boreal regions was also viewed as important from the point of view of erosion management because precipitation is projected to increase in Finland [3
]. Autonomous adaptation by changing the sowing times was not mentioned in either of the workshops, even though this has been observed in Finland [28
Applying grass mixtures, oversowing and crop rotations were seen as important practices by the workshop participants. Oversowing is a practice where a farmer sows additional seeds in a grassland field over subsequent years after its establishment. Oversowing is often used by forage grass producers in the region in the hope of increased plant density of swards. This is often needed due to winter damage to grasslands. However, research to prove the benefits of oversowing on a field scale in Finland is lacking, and on a smaller research plot scale, the benefits of oversowing have been relatively marginal (recent study [29
], data not published). Using grass mixtures to achieve higher yields has been shown to work in low N input systems [30
]. However, there is no research data from the North Savo region to show how the diversification of mixtures from a common two-species mixture of timothy and meadow fescue affects yield levels in the region when normal farming practices with relatively high nitrogen input are also applied. Current evidence says that high nitrogen input is detrimental to plants such as clovers in the grass sward [32
] due to the intense growth of timothy and other species, which are highly competitive at high nitrogen fertilization levels. Thus, maintaining clovers or other N-fixing species is likely to require a relatively low nitrogen input. However, the reality on the farm scale also requires spreading all stored manure from the in-house period during the growth period. This may restrict the use of low-intensity grass mixtures, at least on farms with a high animal density [15
Crop rotations that include perennial plants, such as forage grasses, are important for increasing the yield potential via improved soil structure [33
]. More diverse crop rotations were mentioned in both the 2014 and 2016 workshops as a means to avoid or to eliminate soil compaction in the region. This view is at least partly supported by recent literature. According to Peltonen-Sainio et al. (2017) [34
], who interviewed 16 farmers in Finland, there was a noted desire for more diverse rotation types, originating from adverse experiences with cereal monocultures and soil degradation. The soil compaction problems in the North Savo region have been found on dairy farms as well, despite grassland–cereal rotations dominating the land use on dairy farms. In the 2014 workshop, high axle loads were seen as an important reason behind the soil compaction problems, not only crop monocultures. This was noted also in an earlier study conducted in Finnish conditions [23
Overall, it can be concluded that the importance of grass mixtures and oversowing to crop yields is relatively little evidenced in the peer-reviewed literature, while farmers consider them important if they aim for higher grass yields. The peer-reviewed literature largely agrees with the farmers and other workshop participants on the importance of the soil structure maintained by diverse crop rotations and avoiding high axle loads of farm machinery.
4.2. Policies Hampering Yield Improvements
The workshop participants indicated that agricultural and agri-environmental policies provide incentives which are not compatible with higher yields. Risk-free payments, which are conditional on limitations on N and P fertilization, as well as premium payments for high nature value set-aside areas, are seen as effective measures for keeping fertilization levels somewhat lower than they would be otherwise (i.e., if based on market prices of crops and fertilizers). These statements are somewhat supported by results of recent agricultural economics research. On the farm level, it is consistent with microeconomic theory to assume that risk-averse farmers are tempted to take risk-free payments which are conditional on nutrient use limitations, as long as these do not reduce fertilization and crop yield levels very significantly. This has been recently shown in a microeconomics-based study, which included a model parameterized for Finland [22
]: a market solution, with no currently existing agri-environmental payments or nutrient limitations, would imply higher fertilization levels. However, crop yields of cereals under the ‘market solution’, i.e., with no agri-environmental payments, would be only a little higher than the average cereals yields observed during the last 20 years, when agri-environmental payments have been in place. Thus, in the case of cereals, the agri-environmental scheme may not to be the primary reason for low crop yields.
Some more yield effects, at the farm level, could be realized through a more dynamic agri-environmental scheme. For example, the reduced yields and higher share of land allocated to set-aside areas may reduce the use of other inputs, such as liming and crop protection. Furthermore, the risk-free payments and premium payments for set-aside areas would offer the same or a better income (depending on crop prices) even with reduced inputs. Reduced liming would limit soil pH gradually and thus also crop yield levels [22
]. A recent microeconomic dynamic optimization-based analysis [20
] also shows the dependency of crop yields and use of liming and fungicides (affecting crop yields) in the North Savo region over a 30-year time period. Low crop prices demotivate farmers to use inputs and this affects crop yields, if not much in the short run, significantly in the longer run. Thus, it can be concluded that the concerns of the workshop participants about the disincentive effects of CAP decoupled payments and agri-environmental payments are consistent with microeconomic theory and some recent research results.
Nevertheless, it is difficult to estimate whether the agricultural and agri-environmental policy schemes are the primary reasons for low crop yields, or for relatively large yield gaps in Finland [6
]. The farm-level effects of these policies also depend significantly on both the biophysical and socioeconomic farm characteristics [22
Assessment of economic and environmental effects of agri-environmental policy scheme in Finland 2007–2013 [35
] found a decreased production intensity due to the agri-environmental policy. It was found that the policy scheme most likely had positive environmental effects (e.g., reduced fertilization), implying that, without the agri-environmental scheme, there are higher nutrient balances and nutrient leaching into watercourses in intensive production areas. In fact, the agri-environmental scheme in 2007–2013 was designed to prevent local hotspots of nutrient surpluses and nutrient leaching through the fertilization limits imposed and risk-free support payments in compensation for the cost of implementing the FAEP measures. Hence, the agri-environmental policy scheme incentivizes extensive production. However, it was also found that the cereal production area would be 15% smaller without the agri-environmental scheme [35
]. This means that the risk-free payments incentivize lower levels of fertilization and slightly lower crop yields of cereals cultivated on larger areas. This finding confirms the land use effect of the agri-environmental scheme, which was suspected by farmers in the 2014 workshop, especially. Comments given in the 2014 workshop indicated farmers’ observations that some farmers do not care much about the level of crop yields but cultivate extensively because of risk-free farm subsidies, instead of using more inputs which may or may not pay off in terms of crop yields and economic returns due to uncertain weather conditions and market prices.
The workshop participants also indicated, especially in the 2014 workshop, that grasslands, not only cereals, are clearly more extensively cultivated because of policy incentives than they would be otherwise. This was considered to be caused by farm subsidies decoupled from production, though with an obligation that all farmland must be kept in good agricultural condition. In fact, grasslands can be low-cost options for keeping land in good agricultural condition.
Some workshop participants stated that both policy incentives and crop yield risk management jointly lead to extensive forage production, low yields and high costs per ton of crop harvest. In other words, agricultural and agri-environmental policies promote extensive forage production, which also serves as a yield risk management strategy. Allocating more land for silage grass than needed (in years of average grass yields) is one way to hedge against low grass yields (e.g., due to drought risk). This practice of keeping the grassland area larger than needed in average years is a typical crop risk management strategy on dairy farms, in addition to keeping some buffer stocks of silage [36
]. However, reaching higher average grass forage yields could also reduce risks [36
]: 15% higher crop yields (under A1B climate in the mid-21st century) would reduce the risk of insufficient silage considerably if the land use remained unchanged. With 15% higher grass yields, a farmer may reduce the land area allocated for silage grass significantly without increasing the risk of insufficient silage for cattle feed. Hence, higher crop yields would cut overall farm costs. However, responses from the 2014 workshop suggest that the decoupled farm subsidies and the agri-environmental policies provide incentives for staying within the nutrient use limits and allocating more land for grass silage. This result was also confirmed by [35
], since it reported 14% lower grassland areas in the counterfactual scenario, with no agri-environmental scheme, than in the baseline for the whole country.
Another risk management measure, discussed mainly in the 2014 workshop, was to re-evaluate fertilization needs during the growing season. If the first silage grass cut in June is of good quality and quantity, then a farmer may reduce fertilization of the second and possible third cuts, since he or she is already very likely to have sufficient grass silage needed for feeding the cattle during the in-house period. Nevertheless, having an alternative feasible way to use excess silage, e.g., for biogas production, would also make achieving high yield levels a reasonable goal. When farmers do not have a use for the excess grass silage, they would nevertheless accept lower grass forage yields than attainable yields, at least during years when average yields can be easily attained. Hence, the views expressed in the 2014 workshop are logical: policy conditions which incentivize keeping a maximal farmland area available in active production promote farming practices that do not aim for high crop yields.
Overall, the views of farmers and their close stakeholders concerning extensive land use and lower crop yields due to agricultural and agri-environmental policies are largely compatible with the recent agricultural economics research. However, some farmers’ views, especially in the workshop held in November 2014, considered policies the main obstacles to higher crop yields; this may be unwarranted, since there are also several other factors affecting low crop yields, not least reduced crop prices [20
], which have decreased in real terms since 2000 [12
Policy incentives for extensive production were considered to lead to adverse yields and economic effects in the long run, since, as stated by farmers, large harvested grassland areas often located far from the farm center lead to high costs linked to short timeframes for harvesting and other aspects. Production costs of grass silage are, however, likely to be lowest when harvesting high grass yields close to the farm [36