Farm of Happiness is an organic dairy farm where both Finnish and Russian traditions thrive. Located on the site of an old Finnish farm originally established in the 1900s, today, it’s run collectively by Marina Altsagarova, her two sisters, and her parents who first took it over in 1991.
Having restored the farm site to its original glory, Marina along with her father and sisters, and their families, now run an organic dairy with goats and Ayrshire cows that graze on semi-wild grasslands. To keep their production organic, the farmers minimize their use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides. They have also taken a great interest in conservation, and are dedicated to keeping the farm as close to its original state as possible— which, for them, includes practicing the same methods that were used in the early 1900s.
“It’s actually not hard to be organic, you just need to spend less on artificial fertilizers, insecticides and other important chemicals,” says Marina. “If you do so, you start to consider, ‘How did farms work without it in the past?’ This is a question we ask ourselves all the time, and this is the state of mind we apply.”
Another factor influencing the farmers’ choice to use sustainable agricultural practices is their awareness of the negative impact agriculture can have on the environment. Especially in their region where there are already several environmental pressures threatening the closest waterway, Vuoksi River. These pressures include a large paper mill, several granite quarries, and forestry production. This is in addition toagricultural activity in the region, for which the farmers are dedicated to doing their part.
“We need to make eutrophication and other agriculture-related problems as minimal as possible and, in many cases, this can be achieved by using traditional and modern methods of organic farming,” says Marina.
Farm of Happiness
Location: Prudy Village, Svetogorsk district, Vyborgskiy region, Russia
Type of farm: Organic dairy farm(17 ha)
Main production: Cow and goatdairyproducts
Key practices: Year-round plant cover, protecting soil structure from compaction, catch crops, enriching soil with organic matter, buffer zones, water management, nutrient balance and balancedfertilization, correct timing and conditions for fertilizer application, carefulmanure application, manure in plant production, nutrientcycling.
Restoring semi-wild pastures with composted manure
Given the farm’s population of free-range cows, sheep and goats, which graze on vast areas of grasslands, managing nutrients responsibly is a high priority at the Farm of Happiness.
“This is costly indeed, and if you have many animals that are in the pastures part-time, but also spend a lot of time in the cowsheds, you definitely have a huge amount of nutrients to address,” says Marina. “We do what we can, and this is actually part of the practice of organic farming.”
The farmers take care to control and isolate liquid discharges from all farm buildings. They have also chosen not to keep any technical farm buildings near the adjacent lake in order to prevent uncontrolled agricultural discharges to the water bodies. A lot of time is spent managing the coastline together with other villagers.
“These simple solutions make the whole ecosystem around us more sustainable.”
Manure and bedding from the farm is used to produce compost which is then spread on the fields instead of commercially produced artificial fertilizers. Fertilizing the grasslands with the compost facilitates slower but steady growth.
The farmers also rotate the usage of the pastures by their free-range cows and goats to help preserve the wildlife associated with the grasslands. The grasslands are managed to keep them semi-natural and maintain forest edges.
“These simple solutions make the whole ecosystem around us more sustainable,” says Marina.
Hosting curious visitors through agricultural tourism
With the Farm of Happiness located so close to the Russian-Finnish border, the farmers have enjoyed many curious visitors over the years from both sides of the border. So many, in fact, that they have made agricultural tourism part of their business model.
“At first, it was unexpected, but then we realized that the business of inviting people to spend time at the traditional farm is profitable,” says Marina.
The farmers arrange farm visits which include volunteering activities where visitors canstay in a cabin for several days, interact with farm animals, and try working on the farm. They especially attract volunteers during the haymaking season, who participate in the tradition of cutting grass by hand using scythes. During farm visits, Marina and her family take the opportunity to pass along knowledge about the important role of organic farming in maintaining the ancient rural landscape of the Vuoksi river valley region.
“Before the pandemic, we also attracted Finnish tourists and would demonstrate how the old and restored farm is doing now,” says Marina. “I hope they will return once the borders are open again.”
The farmers keep up relationships with other small farmers in the area, who also live on old Finnish farms, and exchange knowledge of sustainable farming practices.
“We collaborate with them and the rest of the community to promote the importance of organic farming,” says Marina. “This dialogue is important for the development and restoration of family-run and medium-sized farms in the region.”
Growing support for small organic farms
As a result of their efforts, Marina and her family have experienced an upswing in the popularity of their farm products, which includes cheese, milk, sour cream and cottage cheese sold in glass jars that are washed and reused. They promote their products on their social networking page at vkontakte.ru where they have attracted 3,700 members and potential customers. Products are sold on online farming stores and the farm also sells directly to regular customers who like the idea of sustainable agricultural development.
“I would say that the main outcome since implementing these solutions is the financial outcome and relative success,” says Marina. “People are interested in purchasing milk products from small organic farms in addition to food from the supermarkets, and thus, they always try to buy products from sustainable farms.”
National winner of the Baltic Sea Farmer of the Year Award 2021
In recognition the efforts made at the Farm of Happiness to reduce nutrient runoff, Marina and Valeriy have been awarded with the national Baltic Sea Farmer of the Year Award for Russia.
“This is all very unexpected,” says Marina. “While there are many uncertainties, we will continue to develop rural and agricultural tourism, and will keep producing,” says Marina on their future plans. “We are a dairy farm, and work must go on. We hope to gain knowledge from the experiences of the other national winners, and hope that the award will be used for some of the solutions they practice.”
What advice do you have for other farmers?
“Think of the landscape around you and what you are starting with,” advises Marina. “If you start a new farm on previously managed and then abandoned areas, it is a good idea to be organic right from the start, especially if you are going to keep animals. You have good grasslands around that just need to be managed and probably cleared from some trees and shrubs.Such an ecosystem does not require a huge amount fertilizers, and you’ll definitely get it by composting. Facilitating such production cycles is traditional on the one hand, and popular, and thus modern, today.”
“The farmworks to decrease the use of the artificial fertilizers and pesticides to the minimum possible levels to keep the production organic. The farm controls the composting of the manure, and applies minimum needed levels, and also applies crop rotation practices.Anna is widely involved in the restoration of semi-natural grasslands around Prudy to keep the pastures and meetstandards as a producer of free-range milk. No farm technical buildings are located near the river and the lake to prevent uncontrolled agricultural discharges to these water bodies. The whole family is interested in nature conservation, and strives to keep the farm in the same state and apply the same practices as thosethatwereactually in use in the early 1900s.”
Q: What do you consider to be the biggest challenges or threats facing farmers today and in the future?
A: There are many ways to improve the environmental friendliness of a farm and to make it productive, but often various guidelines oppose each other. It is not easy to be a modern organic farm, so there should be more experience exchanges, at least within our region.
Q: What are the greatest benefits/opportunities in farming today and in the future?
A: To be a farmer is to rely on yourself, and we are proud that we make food for ourselves and for the people. We are 100% confidentabout the quality of our production and this is what makes us happy.
Q: What kind of support and encouragement do farmers in your region need to adopt and maintain more sustainable practices?
A:More knowledge and governmental support and recognition. For example, for us, it would be important to receivemorerecognitionas agricultural producers and establish clear rules on the market. Also, there should be some sort ofmechanism for professional training for organic farmers, so theycanlearnhow to keep being modern yet nature friendly.