Innovating in Estonia

The dairy industry in the Baltic state Estonia may be small, but it has seen continuous growth, with 2022 marking the 22nd consecutive year of increased milk production in a country blessed with abundant natural grassland.  

“Estonia is among the best in Europe in terms of cow milk production,” Aire Pentjärv, head of the dairy animal performance testing department, of Estonian Livestock Performance Recording Ltd (EPJ – Eesti Põllumajandusloomade Jõudluskontrolli AS), told Dairy Industries International. 

Estonia produces 35.3 kg/person of cheese per year. In 2022, Estonian cheese exports worldwide earned €119.2 million in receipts in 2022, from 24.9 million kg sold, according to data from European Union (EU) statistical office Eurostat. Commercial statistical service Statista estimates domestic Estonian cheese sales will grow 10.7 per cent on average annually until 2028, with projected sales of €351.9 million that year.  

According to Statistics Estonia (Statistikaamet), 847,800 tonnes of milk were produced in Estonia during 2022, with 800,200 tonnes purchased from Estonian farmers for €371 million. There were 83,800 dairy cows in December 2022 – some are very productive: A Holstein cow from Köljala was reported to have produced 97.6 kg of milk in one day in early 2023 – the average is 25–35 kg per day 

Indeed, a unique aspect of Estonian dairy products is the type of milk used. “As of the beginning of 2023, 87 per cent of Estonian dairy cows were of the Holstein breed and 12 per cent of the Estonian Red breed.” Breeding material from different countries is used to maximise the output of both breeds in Estonia, said Pentjärv.  

This high output has tempered milk prices in this country of 1.3 million people. While the price of raw milk saw sharp increases in 2022, they peaked in December and have begun to come down. Managers at the Valio Eesti dairy group, an Estonian subsidiary of the Finnish Valio food group, and makers of over 300 dairy products, said milk prices may continue until this autumn, bringing the price per litre back to about €0.30-0.32 cents. However, a more ideal price point for farmers and consumers would be about €0.40-0.42 cents/litre, Valio’s Maido Solovjov told Estonian journalists in May, stating that while prices had impacted local consumer behaviour, the dairy production volumes had not been impacted.  

Looking ahead, “Milk production will definitely increase further, maybe not at such a fast pace, because the level is high,” Pentjärv said.  

Using the abundance 

With such abundance of milk, Estonian dairy producers have been innovating. One focus has been sustainability and green packaging, with manufacturers and producers reducing plastic and their carbon footprint. Cheese and butter manufacturer E-Piim, for instance, has set ambitious goals of achieving carbon neutrality by 2040, including a substantial 55 per cent reduction by 2030, encompassing its milk suppliers as well as its own production. Its current carbon footprint is 1.24 kg/per kg of milk, and the company’s trucks run on biomethane, for example, and it is insisting its milk suppliers collect and use waste for biomethane production, preferring suppliers who grow forage crops locally for their herds.  

Margit Laisaar, quality manager of E-Piim, told Dairy Industries International that its Paide, central Estonia-based dairy factory produced its first trial run of cheddar cheese at the end of August.  

The new factory, costing about €154 million, is to produce cheese and dairy products in three different production facilities – one produces Gouda-style and other continental Europe-inspired cheeses, one for cheddar, and one for milk powder products, such as whey protein, according to Jaanus Murakas, E-Piim chairman. The facility is set to produce 26,800 tonnes of whey powder per year, 32,600 tonnes of hard and semi-hard cheese and 11,600 tonnes of fresh pasteurised cream. The factory was partially funded by a €29 million loan from the European Investment Bank (EIB).  

About 95 per cent of the cheese produced at the new factory will be exported, although by early 2024 some output will also be available in Estonian supermarkets. The factory will reach full capacity by the year end 2023, being able to process 1,150 tonnes of milk per day. Owned by more than 100 Estonian dairy farmers, E-Piim is Estonia’s largest cheese exporter, selling to Europe, Africa, Asia and the United States.  

Expanding exports 

It is not the only Estonian dairy company looking for far flung sales. With Covid-19 disrupting transport networks and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine damaging this market (Russia has blocked exports from EU member states such as Estonia since 2014), some dairy companies have looked for markets outside Europe. Dairy producer Saaremaa Piimatööstus, a cooperative operating on the Baltic Sea island of Saaremaa, began exporting cheese to Japan in August 2023 after €2.1 million investment buttressed years of updating facilities to gear production to foreign markets.  

Meanwhile, dairy manufacturer Tere, with facilities in Viljandi and Põlva, both in southern Estonia, is known for its innovative products and sustainable packaging. Placing an emphasis on unique flavours, Tere’s Hi!Fiber peach-turmeric yogurt won the title of Estonia’s Best Dairy Product in 2022 and produces strawberry-rosehip yogurt too. In January 2022, it launched Emma branded yogurt packaged in squeezable tubes. The company also produces kohuke, a traditional Estonian chocolate glazed curd snack, in blueberry and cranberry flavours, along with kefir in cartons and in squeezable form, sold under the label Hellus, in strawberry-rhubarb-sweet potato and mango-apricot-avocado flavours. The Hellus packaging was created with Tartu, eastern Estonia-based Estiko-Plastar using a new doypack-type of packaging, a polypropylene-based stand-up bag, ensuring a longer shelf life.  

Tere has made a melted spreadable cheese product, Merevaik, Estonia’s first processed cheese, for 55 years. The product line includes flavour add-ins of roast chicken, shrimp and chanterelle mushrooms.  

Valio produces an average 700 tonnes of cheese in Estonia monthly, including hard, semi-hard and processed varieties. The company also draws on Italian expertise to produce Valio Forte and Gran Regale hard cheeses and has secured certification confirming it complies with ISO14001 International Organization for Standardization environmental procedures.  

Valio’s new autumn line-up includes a strawberry-marshmallow curd cream product, and a line of Alma Vita lactose-free yogurts, sweetened only with fruit sugar, reflecting the company’s mission to reduce sugar content and eschew additives.  

Estonia also in 2021 registered its Sõir cheese, made with caraway, whole milk, cottage cheese, and butter products, as an EU agri-food geographical indication, preventing the name being used by non-traditional producers outside Estonia, when sold in the EU. With such dairy traditions being combined with vibrant innovation Estonia’s dairy sector has a bright future ahead. 

Related content

Leave a reply

Dairy Industries International