03 October 2012

Dairy Cows and Medieval Sheep, the Beauty of Alfta

The Swedish countryside is beautiful, and at the very start of Autumn, almost achingly so.  As we entered Jämtland, we drove along the sparkling Lake Oldsjön.  Still and clear, it was like a mirror that had been taken down from the wall to be cleaned.  78% of Sweden is forested, so the lakes invariably come with a reflection of trees built right in.  We began to talk about where we'd just been, Hälsingland, where a whopping 85% of land is covered in woods.  We stayed in Alfta for two days, visiting the Hälsingegården.  And while the painted farms are unique in the world, we were also able to see something there that is becoming rarer and rarer in Sweden - working farms.  Agriculture dates back to the Stone Age in Hälsingland, with proof of barley, wheat, millet and flax cultivation.  And while it has dropped off precipitously in recent decades, there is a tradition of farming that still holds strong.
"It's great that you got to see that.  It is more and more rare,"  Magnus Nilsson told us when we recounted an anecdote about visiting a dairy farm in Alfta just as a milk tank was arriving to pick up (or pump out) an order.  More surprising was that we'd just wandered into the backyard, trying to figure out where the advertised ostkiosken (cheese kiosk) was, and there was our host mother, Kersti Hisvid carrying a huge turkey!  A column of smoke rose up nearby, where they'd just flash-boiled the birds for plucking.  "We're feathering turkeys today!" Kersti declared as husband Ivar came up behind her with two more.  They didn't seem surprised at all to have run into us like this, almost twenty minute's drive from their own farm.  It is a small world, after all.  The couple they were helping out for the day - Susann and Astid Wedin - weighed the birds, 15 of them, and dealt with the milk truck's arrival.  Busy day on Jan-Hans farm.
"You can buy their milk at the grocery store here," Olav, the younger Hisved son, told us over coffee, well aware of how special that was.  He's been seeing things change throughout his life.  Some things have stayed the same, though.  "My parents do the turkeys with them every year.  Then, they all go out to a nice meal or down to the theatre in Stockholm.  It's a tradition."  The Hisveds used to have dairy cows of their own, but now just a few meat ones for themselves and neighbors, along with pigs and hens for ham and eggs.  The animals are mostly there, though, to keep the farm a farm, the fields open and the barns used.  We'd hear Ivar rouse early and go out to feed the animals in the morning, we'd put our muddy boots next to theirs when we came home. 
That's been the trend in Sweden.  Dairy to meat, both on farms and in stomachs.  Swedes have actually consumed 25% less dairy in the last two decades than the ones before and 33% more meat.  (The percentage of potato consumption has stayed the same for 30 years.  Go figure.)  Dairy had become the big cheese of farming industries in the latter part of the 1800s with more land devoted to cows than grain (and more grain devoted to cows than exportation).  The growth was steady and by the turn of the century, around 20,000 tons of butter were being exported annually.   Basically, mechanical milking machines put the farmers out of work, starting in the 1940s.  A full 60% of the agricultural workforce of Sweden was cut between 1945 and 1970.  Nowadays, the shrunken agro industry has gone back to cereals.
Olav and Per Hisved, the sons, both work for businesses in Alfta town proper.   Their parents open their doors to farmstay guests and Kersti sells truly delicious crispbread made in their centuries old bread oven.  This is the case with most family farms in Sweden.  Its owners may raise some animals or do some farming, but they make their living through other means.  It's called 'combined enterprise,' and in Hälsingland, where the farms are big and historic, this is usually accomplished through on-site cafes and B&Bs.  Even Jan-Hans, which stands out as a successful farming business,  has available rooms for rent in the summertime.  They do warn, though, that while breakfast is provided (including homemade cheese, of course) you'll have to go to the fridge and get it yourself because "this is a working farm." 
Then, you have a place like Lamm Katadrelan (Lamb Cathedral).  Also in Alfta, this farm is not only preserving a lifestyle endangered since the late 19th century, but also the animal breeds that were casualties of the same time.  Ancient breeds of cows, sheep, hens, pigs and even rabbits are kept on the farm, a number of which are highly endangered.  They were either interbred with other breeds with more uniform skins for leathers and wool - or abandoned all together for bigger breeds that could produce more milk and meat.  The Swedish Montane cows, smaller than your average cow, needs much less grain and has milk with a much higher fat content, but since you get less milk from them, they fell out of favor during the dairy boom.  There are 1.7 million pigs in Sweden, but Lamm Katadrelan has 2 of 300 landrace ones.  Their Hedemora chickens are descendants of a few renegade hens, found and saved by Viola Forsberg just when all the last ones were being crossbred with värphybrider in the 1970s.   Their lamb breeds date back to 500AD.  Traces of their wool have been found in Medieval church tissues.  This is some very cool life's work.
Of course, we didn't know any of this when we approached the farmhand, Ervin, hoping to get a glimpse of Lamm Katadrelan's painted interiors.  The house and cafe were closed for the season, but he welcomed us right in to the barn.  Inside, was another sort of historic breed altogether, a BM 230 Victor tractor from the 1950s (right before Bolinder-Munktel was bought by Volvo).  Ervin hopped right in and started it up, which it did easily and with a healthy roar.  Then, he brought us into the stables to meet Wilma.  Pretty much the antithesis to all her farm-mates, Wilma was a Haflinger, an Austrian draft horse.  She was that beautiful foreign luxury car parked in the garage.
I love looking out the window of a car and seeing unspoiled countryside, endless green and jewel-toned autumnal forests.  But rusted equipment, electric fences, barns, sheds, plastic wrapped hay bails only make me love rural landscapes more.  The smell of manure.  It's becoming more and more difficult to sustain a small farm lifestyle, all around the world.  Luckily, the people of Hälsingland have always been good at protecting and preserving what is most unique about their farmsteads.  From historic painted rooms to medieval lamb breeds, from keeping the farm in the family to making traditional bread and small batch cheese.  We were lucky to have found Alfta and meet its farmers. 

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