Tuesday, August 30, 2022

On the farm

This is the second of four posts giving an update of what’s going on in my life and mind.

Our previous book, Kornas planet, the Planet of the cows, got a very good reception. It is a story about the co-evolution of man, cows landscape, culture and society. Of course, it also discuss the industrialization of cows with all the environmental and ethical issues it has led to. Central in the book is  the small herd of cows, led by the regal Bossa, that we have in our own farm, Sunnansjö.

Bossa (in front) and Bosse, photo: Gunnar Rundgren

It was actually not part of the plan to have cows. Eight years ago, my wife, Ann-Helen, and I bought this small farm, Sunnansjö, in Sweden, some 30 km east of Uppsala. I have all my life been keen on growing vegetables and lately my interest has been more into trees and perennial plants. So the main idea was to use most of the land for such crops. But a place has its own conditions, its own genius, as expressed by Wes Jacksson. Most our lands are wet and heavy, prone to floods, not suitable for neither vegetables nor fruits.

Slowly, we began adjusting our plans to reality, to the local conditions, opportunities and limitations, I had to rethink my role from grower to ecosystem manager (after all my book Garden Earth was about planetary stewardship, so that is kind of logical). The Swedish rural landscape is very productivist where the forests are dense and totally oriented to biomass production and arable land is intensively used and mostly in monoculture crops. Semi-natural grasslands have almost disappeared, and most of the ecological boundary zones between fields, meadow, wetlands and forest have also gone (even the cities have lost the zones connecting them to the surroundings. Earlier there were market gardens, firewood and cattle markets in the outskirts of the city, there were grocery markets and harbors within the perimeters of the city and there were also chicken, pigs, dairy cows, vegetable gardens. The “countryside” was thus present in the city). Those boundary zones are often the richest and most diverse landscapes. Earlier, the landscape was much more diverse, for example, forests were not dense but open and they were also pasture, a food and fuel source, as well as providing tools and much more – including fairy tales.

The real treat of our land at Sunnansjö is that is so varied. We own a long stretch of the shore of a lake, there are rich wetlands, peat bogs, meadows, old growth forests and many fields with what we call ”field islands” in Swedish, i.e. bigger rocky patches with scattered trees in the  fields. Overall, we have a lot of boundary zones between the various biomes. Our mission now on the farm is to manage and enhance all those transition zones and to create richer ecosystems and more beauty. And for that, cattle were a rather obvious choice. The diverse landscape also provides better habitat for wildlife. There doesn’t have to be any contradiction between having cattle and most wildlife. Admittedly, there are some conflicts, e.g. with predators and parasites, but in most cases they can be managed. And there are many species that thrive in the silvopastoral landscape. There are far more problems with the cultivation of vegetables and fruits and wildlife. 

The farm has some 10 hectares of arable land, of which almost 9 is used for hay cropping or grazing. We have now 5 cows and raise their offspring for eventual slaughter as calves, steers or heifers. We sell meat in boxes of 10-15 kg directly off farm. We have also restored some 10 hectares of abandoned grasslands, mainly along the lake, restoring not only grazing but also the habitat for many birds. We practice silvo-pastoralism, both by keeping a lot of trees in the grasslands and by grazing cattle in thinned forests. 5-6 months cows are grazing, the rest of the time they eat hay. No feed is bought except mineral feed and salt. The manure is collected in winter and at least half of it is used for the crops and the rest is spread on the hay fields.

Half a hectare is used for vegetables of which asparagus is the main crop and another half hectare for fruits and berries (mainly apples) and hazelnuts. The vegetables and fruits are intercropped to some extent, especially as long as the fruit trees are small.We grow as many perennial crops as possible. One reason is that we have very heavy clay soils and the cultivation and sowing in spring is difficult. Likewise, root crops and tubers are hard to harvest in autumn and they are covered with shields of clay, which makes any kind of commercial production impossible  - we still grow them for home consumption. We also have a 200 square meter permanent tunnel where we grow plants needing higher temperatures than what we normally experience, tomatoes, chili, cucumbers etc. We sell the vegetables here at the farm and at the Reko-rings in Uppsala and Enköping. The plan is to make cider of all the apples which are not first grade.

We farm organically, I always have. Within the frame of organic, I am pragmatic when it comes to farming methods. The contrast between the conditions at Sunnansjö and the farm where I lived before, Torfolk (with sandy light soils), as well as my experiences from working with or visiting farmers in most parts of the world has made me realize the importance of adapting the methods to the local conditions. Keeping the ground covered as much as possible, recycle or add organic matter, high diversity (in time and/or space) of plants and animals are still good principles in most cases.

We also have some 30 hectares of forest. Smaller parts were recently logged when we bought the property, but the larger parts are dense old-growth forest (which in Sweden means that the dominating trees are over 120 years old) that might not ever have been clear-cut (which is the totally dominant way of “managing” forests in Sweden). Parts of the forest we have opened up for grazing, i.e. thinned to get more light down to the ground. Three hectares are gradually converted to a deciduous forest where we cut all spruce and leave birches, aspen, rowan, oak, hazelnut and other deciduous trees. In addition, we planted some beech, wild cherry and plums, crab apples, ash and more hazelnut. Some parts we manage as a continuous cover forest where trees are individually selected for harvest and sale (similar to the Lübeck model). Two bigger parts are left for the moment while we ponder over their future management. One part is a stand of pine trees in a drained swamp. We might re-wet the area, as part of a governmental scheme, to restore the swamp and stop carbon emissions. The other part, some 10 hectares, might be left for free development or will be selectively cut. Time will tell.

Energy is a weak point in the farm apart from the fact that we use our own firewood and that we use as little energy as possible (total use of diesel for tractors is a few hundred liters per year, we buy considerably more for our car). Solar panels and solar water heating will be fit to a building once we finished it and today we bought an electric tricycle. It is difficult to find the right balance in replacing fossil fuels and just use less of it, or rather, it is difficult to know where the right balance is, if even such a thing exist.

As per food we have a rather high degree of self-sufficiency. Almost all potatoes, fruit and vegetables we consume we farm ourselves (the exception is the occasional green leaf or head of cauliflower in February and March and some citrus fruit). We have meat, organs and fat from the cattle as well as game (boar, deer and moose from hunters renting the hunt from us) from the forest and fish from the lake. We process meat and vegetables through freezing (mostly meat) heat preservation, salting, drying, smoking and fermenting. Dairy and grain are the two main missing components. If things get rough we might start milking a cow, I know how to make cheese and butter. Grain is simply not feasible on our land.

The main “deficiency” on the farm is the lack of a practical social dimension. We do try to develop and participate in various cooperative project in the area and we sell directly to consumers. But the farm would need more hands and people who will further develop the place with more animal species, more lines of production, a saw mill, more wood processing etc. Ultimately, younger people taking over as we grow older. Our strong side in the social arena is our participation in the public debate, our writings and our books. Perhaps we have to be satisfied with that? Some friend told me that while I am a staunch advocate of the collective and communal, in reality I am an individualist who prefer to work alone...

Friday, August 26, 2022

News from somewhere

I have not posted much on the Garden Earth blog lately. There are several reasons for that. Being more active in my home country Sweden the last ten years means that my mind often is occupied with ”Swedish” debates. Mostly they are the same as the English, American or German debates. But the arguments are made in Swedish and the examples are often Swedish. So I write many articles and blog posts in Swedish. In addition, most of my consultancy work is also in Swedish these days which means that it is a lot more work to write articles in English based on them. 

In any case, I have now prepared four posts which form an update of the last year(s). 1) The hippos of Pablo Escobar 2) The Sunnansjö farm 3) What is on my mind and 4) What I have done outside of the farm lately.


The hippos of Pablo Escobar.

Another reason I have written little in English is that Ann-Helen (who also is my wife and I spent January to April writing a new book: The hippos of Pablo Escobar - in Swedish. 

The red thread is the interface between man, nature and culture with a special emphasis on human use of nature and how our perspectives have shifted over centuries. The story lending the title to the book is just one of many stories in it. The hippos of the Colombian drug lord is about rich people, invasive species and the conflicts around them. There are now hundreds of them (the hippos) in the Magdalena River. Most conservationists consider them problematic and invasive in Colombia. But others argue that they should remain and might even have a positive effect on the local environment and that they can fill a similar function as previously extinct species. Many locals like them and they draw hordes of tourists. 


The history of nature conservation is full of examples of interventions that were not successful ecologically or socially. The expulsion of indigenous people from nature reserves and national parks was arrogant and disastrous for the people, and in most cases also for the ecology of the area, as the people have actively managed the land. Increasingly, there are also conflicts between other local rural people and nature conservation, especially foresters, farmer, fishermen – those that actually manage the landscape for the better and the worse.

Nature protection has become a profession and an academic topic. Several global or regional treaties regulate biodiversity. This is of course good and valuable. Meanwhile, we are worried about the increasing professionalization of nature conservation and its rather narrow focus on threatened species. If people in a neighborhood protest against that a new road or more housing will destroy a wood or a wetland or just the local farm they are mostly not listened to unless they are part of the elite. But if you manage to find a threatened species the table is turned and the burden falls on the exploiters. Perhaps the focus should be on preserving and recreating vital and diverse ecosystems rather than on threatened species, even more so as much of the preservation efforts are failing?   

Some people have the idea that we should withdraw from nature and live on....air. And if we can’t do it on earth we should colonize another planet. Even if most people probably don’t agree, the narrative that we on the one hand can live without nature and on the other hand it is better for nature that we withdraw, is strong and embraced by many. But humans part of nature, we are nature. To say that we should withdraw from nature is meaningless as we would no longer be humans at all.

At the same time as the concept of Anthropocene has become mainstream it has become equally apparent that humanity is not so much in control as we thought we were. It is wrong to say that nature fights back, as it would be far too anthropomorfistic (does such a word exist? I guess you understand what I mean regardless), but certainly all those other organisms have agency one way or the other. And the Earth itself, even if she is no Goddess, is governed by processes that are outside of our control, both long term and short term. 

In the book we advocate for a re-integration of humans and the landscape and a decommodification of people and nature where the interface is governed by relationships instead of transactions. Well, those are fragments of the things we discuss in The hippos of Pablo Escobar.*


*The book is in Swedish – but if you happen to be a publisher in other languages drop me a line at gunnar at grolink.se....