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...


  1. Seems like a wonderful plot of earth. Hopefully the end produce to be for human edible consumption is enriched as well (in terms of biosecurity) as David Oks describes the modern diet (post late-19th ct) in his article:


    To use one quote, "as the Boston dentist Gustave Wiksell noted in 1902, “before American-process flour was shipped to Sweden, two generations ago, two dentists were enough for the whole city of Stockholm…now they are as thick as in an American city.”"

  2. It is indeed a wonderful plot on earth. thanks for the link it was interesting and relevant

  3. bless Gunnar, myself I have been a migrant worker in the far north of NZ for 3 years and sailed every harbour soon I will return to Waiheke to my farm, have been going back each month to restore it, be well my old mate