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Flax cultivation at the Estonian Agricultural Museum

The Museum

The Estonian Agricultural Museum is located in the historic Ülenurme Manor estate near Tartu. The museum, founded in 1968, uses exhibition spaces in old stables as well as livestock buildings to introduce visitors to the history and development of Estonian agriculture and rural life as well as changes in agricultural machinery from early 20th century through the Soviet era, including some astonishing self-built tractors and tools. As of 2017, the Estonian Agricultural Museum is part of Rural Museums Foundation alongside Farm Museum of C. R. Jakobson and Tori Stud Farm.


Our plot at the Estonian Agricultural Museum consists of approximately 0.6 hectares of land. However, not all of it is in use and this year 0.4 hectares are kept fallow. The soil quality in this area is highly uneven, with some sections overrun by Atriplex patula, a challenging weed to eradicate. The soil type is identified as LP (Stagnic Luvisol), which is a clay-sand composition. We use the Museum field to grow different crop used in education programs. One of the most important plants is of course “Sangaste” winter rye, but there are also different local potato varieties, carrots, swedes, and beetroot. Part of the field is taken up by a flower meadow.

Seeds 2022

In 2022 the seeds sown in Estonian Agricultural Museum were bought by Mari-Triin Kirs, a master’s student from Estonian Academy of Arts to grow fibre flax for her research project on simplicity, austerity, and knowledge in connection with textile. She wanted to buy 1.5 kg to sow about 100 m², but apparently fibre flax seeds were in high demand last year – the company sent her 1 kg. We sowed it on a 70 m² plot on the 11th of May 2022.

We used the fibre flax variety “Nathalie”. Mari-Triin ordered seeds from the Netherlands (Van de Bilt Seeds and Flax BV). We used “Nathalie” for the first time in 2022. It was mainly a question of what was available. We have used the variety “Lisette” before (also ordered from the Netherlands) but this year it was not available. We decided to order new seeds and the ones sent by the company were “Nathalie”.

There were local fibre flax varieties developed in Estonia in the 1930s, but the Gene Bank at METK (The Centre of Estonian Rural Research and Knowledge) did not have any seeds to give to the growers last year. We also could not find any other fibre flax varieties from closer to Estonia.

“Nathalie” flax seeds. Photo by Lisette Laanoja.

As Mari-Triin Kirs teaches textile art at the Textile department of Pallas University of Applied Sciences in Tartu, we sowed flax seeds in collaboration with textile students from the university. The aim was for students who use textiles in their everyday studies to get a firsthand experience with an historically important fibre plant. They helped with sowing in the spring and harvesting in the fall.

Sowing in 2022. Photo by Lisette Laanoja.

Seeds 2023

For 2023, we used two different varieties: “Nathalie” and “Jõgeva”. The “Nathalie” seed pods were harvested in autumn 2022 and the seeds kept for sowing in spring 2023. We had enough for sowing a 120 m² plot. But we also wanted to try a local variety: Estonian fibre flax seed “Jõgeva” (15 grams, sown on 1 m²) from a local gene bank. This variety was developed in 1939 by the oil plant department of the Jõgeva Crop Research Institute, but is no longer grown commercially.

The harvested "Nathalie" seeds, which were then sown with the “Jõgeva” seeds in 2023. Photo by Lisette Laanoja.

The decision to use these specific varieties was primarily influenced by availability. With an abundance of “Nathalie” seeds from the previous year's harvest, we decided to sow them once again and see how well they grow. As for “Jõgeva” flax, we were able to acquire seeds from METK kept in the local Gene Bank, which had been unavailable in 2022. The intention is to compare the performance and characteristics of “Jõgeva” with “Nathalie” upon harvest.

We also continue involving students from the Textile department of the Pallas University in their agricultural activities. These students participate in the sowing process, allowing them to gain first-hand experience and observe the growth of flax from seed to plant. This collaboration provides textile students with valuable insights into the cultivation and processing of fibre crops.

An interesting piece of folklore suggests that flax and potatoes should be sown when bird cherry (Prunus padus) is in bloom. In 2023, the timing was ideal, as bird cherry blossomed in mid-May, and we sowed flax on the 18th of May, aligning with this traditional advice.

Sowing flax on the 18th of May with students from the Textile department of Pallas University


Current status of flax cultivation

This spring the weather has been cold and very dry. According to Estonian Environment Agency weather records, average rainfall in May in Estonia is usually 42 mm, in 2023 it was only 12 mm. Latest spring frosts occurred on the 2nd of June. It damaged some plants in the garden, but flax was not affected.

Indrik Unt, our museum educator and the man who also takes care of our garden hoped, that once it rained in the beginning of June the flax seeds that had not sprouted due to dry weather will finally start to grow. So far, the flax field is looking rather patchy. He was right! By the 12th of June there were a lot more small flax plants, but the drought continues and may still damage the crop.

Flax on the 6th of June.

Due to extremely dry conditions, the flax seeds sprouted at different times and now the height of the plants is uneven. On the 21st of June, some plants are around 30 cm long, however most are 6-12 cm. Another reason for this might be that the seeds were sown by hand and raked into the soil, so the seeds probably ended up at different depths and started to develop at different times. To combat lack of rainfall, our gardener ended up watering the field, which helped with sprouting a little, but it is not a long-term solution.

We will see how the drought affects the harvest in the long run.

Flax on the 21st of June.

Text by Mari-Liis Tammiste (Collection manager-researcher) with the help of Indrik Unt (museum educator)


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