Nordic Stories is about showcasing Lithuanians working in diverse sectors and fields. What they have in common is their interest in or inspiration from Nordic ideas or values. We are sharing stories of people who, with the support of the Nordic Council of Ministers Office in Lithuania, were able to get new ideas, gain knowledge and grow the impact of their work.
In this story Vitalija Fokienė shares her experience of traveling to Finland and Sweden with the Ministry of Agriculture to learn more about climate change, sustainability, and effective communication between farmers, scientists and ministries. Two years later, these trips are still a source of daily inspiration for her work.
“If we think about sustainability or climate change, what can Sweden, Denmark or Lithuania do alone? Not enough. We share the sea and air and changes in temperatures and disasters are not stopped by borders. To address these big issues, we need a common effort, common goal and common understanding. If we want to work on broader issues like sustainability, bioeconomy, and climate change, we have to cooperate. We should know what others are doing, their problems and successes. That way we can help each other.”
Vitalija Fokienė has been working with EU issues related to agricultural policy at the Ministry of Agriculture for almost 10 years. Around 2016 she and her colleagues were noticing many challenges in Europe related to climate change and sustainability. Having extensive knowledge about the Baltic Sea Region, she had noticed that her colleagues in Sweden and Finland were much further ahead when it came to addressing these issues.
“We wanted to understand how the communication between authorities and farmers was in other countries, how they promoted new initiatives. We were also interested in what financial instruments other countries have. In Lithuania, farmers usually say ‘If we had enough money, we would do it the way you want’, so the finances are clearly important. Another element was how scientists were included in the conversation. When it comes to sustainability and climate change, the scientists produce a lot of knowledge. We think that there should be communication and collaboration between farmers and scientists as well.”
It’s important to strengthen knowledge and capacity when working with issues that are becoming increasingly important on EU level. The initiatives will eventually have to be implemented on national level. Proactively seeking out new knowledge or ideas might be more work to begin with, but in the end it makes implementation easier and puts you in a stronger position.
“When we receive papers from the European Commission and OECD we can see what kind of priorities are being emphasised. We wanted to have a project that could help us strengthen our staff in the fields of sustainability and climate change but also give us ideas for how to effectively communicate with farmers. At the ministry we work with papers, rules, and regulations, but the farmers actually do the work and have a real impact on sustainability. We have to encourage them to do business in a sustainable way, because those actions are what really matters.”
Vitalija and her colleagues decided to visit Finland in August and Sweden in September of 2017. They wanted to be able to visit fields and see the farms in action. With the help from their colleagues in Finland and Sweden they got in contact with farmers and initiatives working with innovation, communication and sustainability in agriculture.
“In Finland we saw great examples of how different actors cooperate, for example initiatives between the association of farmers and scientists. They had different projects where they work with students, businesses and farmers. The students are involved in these projects from the first year and get to work on solutions for the farmers or businesses in the countryside or urban areas, for example related to flooding. They prepare solutions and then go to the real partners to test it out. After the testing they go back and adjust their solutions. This kind of collaboration was really a ‘wow’ moment for me.”
They also visited farmers and saw examples of the many kinds of businesses you can have on a farm. In Finland they visited a farmer who had agricultural business, but also courses for people wanting to spend more time in nature, residencies for artists from the cities and they also sold produce and opened up the farm to the local community.
“There are many possibilities on one farm and it was very beneficial to see how people think differently. They collaborate with scientists, who provides recommendations, which the farmer can test in practice. The scientists come to the farm to see what works, how it works. So it was very valuable to go and experience it in real life, not just read about it in a report.”
As part of their preparation Vitalija and the team had prepared a set of questions they asked all the partners they were visiting. The three main themes were bioeconomy, sustainability and climate change. The questions were very basic ones like ‘What does sustainability mean?’ and ‘What does it mean in the institution you work for and for you personally?’. They also asked about how sustainability was reflected in people’s everyday lives and in society.
“We wanted to see the understanding and meaning of these concepts from both the level of normal people to the institutional level. Our questions regarding climate change were related to the causes of climate change and whether the threat was real and human made. ‘What sign do you notice that shows that the climate is changing? Is it up to us to stop negative trends? If yes, what should be the main focus?’ It’s a little strange looking at these questions now, they may sound a little bit old-fashioned. If I had to write these questions today, they would be different, but in 2017 that was what we were wondering about.”
The questions worked really well. By asking the same questions in different institutions in Sweden and Finland they got an overall view of the situation. They were able to see the issues from many different lenses and levels.
“We wanted to know what ordinary people do in their daily life, what kind of projects are available. In Turku we discussed how they reduce food waste in schools. They have an app so children can send a message if they are not going to have lunch at school that day. Then the kitchen staff knows how many to prepare food for. That’s a real life example of how to deal with food waste.”
In Sweden they visited several rural communities. They met farmers who showed how they work in practice and how they use finances from rural development programs on their farms. They saw how the farmers had installed solar batteries on the barns, what kind of machinery they used, and how they harvest.
“We saw the real life, the approach and real steps of these people. In agriculture often the goal is to make everything very intensive, but that is often not sustainable. We got to visit these environmental projects, where people do agricultural business, but in a sustainable way. It’s great to see that it’s possible, because in Lithuania farmers often say that it’s impossible. If Nordic countries can do it, probably in Lithuania we can do the same.”
There were many great examples and insights that Vitalija could bring home to Lithuania. One thing is talking to farmers about reports and strategies, another thing is having seen practical examples and being able to give real suggestions. This also gave Vitalija new insights about how to approach the communication with the farmers.
“The best examples of effective communication was farmer to farmer. When one farmer tells another farmer about something he tried that worked, it’s a lot easier to engage the other farmer. It’s the same when it comes to scientists. When scientists go to the farmers and listen to them, it works much better. Don’t talk about farmers, talk to the farmers, that’s our motto. It’s the main thing we learned from this project. Listen and try to be in their place. Understanding of the real situation and way of thinking is important.”
For Vitalija and her colleagues from different divisions the impact of the project has been immense. The knowledge and examples put them in a much stronger position when planning for the next couple of years and defining national positions.
“There are really no days when I don’t think about this project. When you are writing, imagining, and preparing a project it can be really hard to see the potential benefits, what could come out of it. Sometimes you feel the benefits during the project, but sometimes only afterwards. For this particular case there were times already during the project when we said ‘wow’, which really opened our eyes and our brains. We also still feel the benefits today.”
Now when they are reading papers and positions of ministries in other countries, they can better understand what is behind those positions. They understand the background and context of how something was done or implemented in for example Sweden or Finland. It gives them a much better chance to understand whether that initiative or policy might work in the Lithuanian context. For this reason and many others the experience exceeded their expectations. Vitalija encourages others to make use of this kind of funding opportunity.
“My advice to others who are considering applying is to just start. Starting can be hard, but after you get started it gets a lot easier. Sometimes you need to have courage and just try. While applying I remember talking to others about our ideas and thinking that it was nonsense, maybe we will not get any answers from our partners. You need to understand how this project will help in your daily life. Sometimes you read papers, and you are stuck, you don’t have ideas. This project is an opportunity to get unstuck, to get out of this box.”
Vitalija Fokienė and her colleagues from different divisions at the Ministry of Agriculture made use of the Public Administration Mobility Program. This is a program for funding study trips to the Baltic and Nordic countries to share experiences, knowledge and good practices. Are you and your department looking for inspiration? Apply for the mobility program here!