Articles by the Travelers - An Overview of Our Trip to Denmark
University of Maine and University of Vermont Extension Trip to Denmark
Organic Bread Wheat: Farms, Mills, and Bakeries
By Theresa Gleason
On Sunday, October 24, a motley crew of University of Maine and UVM agronomists, and other scientists, Maine and Vermont organic farmers, and a high energy, 23 year old professional videographer met up at a utilitarian Danish hotel in Copenhagen. Our mission: To storm through Denmark in four and a half days, visiting organic grain farms, mills and bakeries, organic grain research stations and experimental farms.
The trip was part of a collaborative grant awarded to Dr. Ellen Mallory, University of Maine and Dr. Heather Darby, University of Vermont. On this trip we hoped to see how the Danes, with their progressive environmental/agricultural policies were growing, marketing, and baking with organic grains. We left Denmark having met many farmers, bakers, and researchers possessing high integrity, passion, and a deep sense of ecology. Whatever role the individuals we met played in this system of producing high quality bread wheat, they seemed to be highly engaged in their lives, excited to talk with us, and proud of the work they are doing.
We heard several themes repeated throughout the trip. Niels Halberg, at the Foulum Research Station encapsulated what we saw of the research work in Denmark when he outlined the goal of ICROF: “To make the principles of organic agriculture become a global reference for sustainability in agriculture and food systems due to evidence based on research and [italics mine] adaptive management” (i.e. farmers and researchers working together).
If we didn’t already know it before going on the trip, we knew after the trip the importance of value-added product. The idea of value-added product wasn’t discussed, it was already assumed (although we could have lost something in translation)! At Viskingegard, Kragegarden, Aurion, Skaertoft, Bregentvedgard, and Mordrupgard, we met the folks who do it all; grow it, mill it, bake it, sell it. Each location was as unique as the individuals who own and operate the farm. Some of the farms used high tech, others used technology that’s been around since the 11th century. Some focused on heritage varieties of grain, others focused on high-yield, modern varieties. Some of the farms had a dozen employees; some had none, or one or two. Some of the farmers were extroverts, with big personalities, and some were quieter, some were artists using grain as the medium, and others were high tech wizards.
Uniqueness aside, however, the other themes and commonalities that emerged in talking with the farmers seemed to be about:
(1) The product’s special qualities (high nutrition, the importance of stone milling, freshness, the gastronomy of grain, grading systems, flavor, protein content, knowledge of good growing and harvesting practices).
(2) It was also common to talk about the transparency and integrity of the farms, and high organic standards.
(3) We noticed that most of the operations were farms that had been in the family for more than one generation, and most of the farmers had been engaged in farming for many years. The farms themselves were iconic Danish farms, with beautiful old buildings, worthy of sitting on a postcard to send home. The abundance of on-farm grain storage seemed to be part of the inheritance of large buildings, due to Denmark’s rainy climate. (4) And the farm machinery? There was much drooling! Danish research funds apparently include money that is not tied to corporations, so the universities can develop technology that is more readily accessible to smaller organic farms than is possible in the states.
(5) We observed that most of the farms had a large and beautiful space in which they could greet people, provide product samples, and sell products. We were treated warmly and generously at each farm, seated in a comfortable chair, usually around a lovely wooden table with candles lit, where we were served coffee, bread, and cheese.
(6) It became clear to us that we could use a lot of pointers about marketing. These farmers were producing high quality products, they were proud of it, and they appeared to get their message out pretty clearly.
(7) And did I talk about taste? Even though this was a quality issue, it stands on its own as a repeated theme. How does one get the best flavor from the wheat? Is it the variety? Is it the method of growing? Is it in the baking; in the combination of ingredients, and the baker’s skill and artistry in coaxing out all the unique flavors in the grains and seeds? And how about that rye? The Scandinavians are of course, renowned for their rye breads. But how little we knew! The slowly baked pumpernickel bread at Aurion was like taking a sip of fine French wine. It had a complexity and depth of flavor that I do not think I have ever tasted in bread. The French may have the world’s best red wine, but as far as I am concerned, the Danes knowledge of, and taste in bread, puts the French to shame.
(8) Land management/fertility issues seem different than ours. The areas we visited primarily had rich soil (although there are regions with sandy soil, which does not hold the nutrients). With this nice soil, they appeared able to focus more on the grains they can grow, with a four or five year rotation, which includes grains all but one year. In that one year, they grow a mixture of red clover and white clover, usually with a mixture of perennial rye grass. This does not appear applicable to grain growing in the Northeast. They also do not appear to have a fusarium issue, although they have problems with another microtoxin, which appears in storage.
The Danish government is very concerned about water quality and nitrogen pollution, due to the large number of corporate pig farms in one region of Denmark. Overall, it appeared that what drives governmental agricultural policy is their concern for the environment. Although the organic grain farmers in Denmark are rightfully concerned about conventional farm practices, it seems to me that organic agriculture will continue to gain ground since the policy appears to be based upon safe-guarding and bettering the environment. The Danish organic farmers we met tended to make pessimistic remarks about the progress of organic farming. (Currently, 10% of all Denmark’s farms are organic. The government policy is to increase that to 20% by 2020). It reminds me of when the progressive political commentator, Molly Ivins, who was from Texas, came to Vermont during the Howard Dean campaign for president. She laughed at our complaining that Dean was too conservative. Guess there is always work to do.
Our last visit of the trip was the cream on top of the bread pudding, illustrating some of what is right in Denmark. We traveled to ATP-Huset, the largest pension company in Denmark, with 3500 employees. At ATP-Huset, about 700 employees eat in the company cantine each day, for which they pay $70 month (it’s probably taken right out of their paychecks, too). We were set up to visit the baker, Helge Heilskov Kristensen, who makes the bread, and then we would have lunch in the cantine. We arrived to a very clean and bright (how Danish!) kitchen, with three white coated and aproned men with big smiles on their faces. The aroma of REALLY GOOD baking bread greeted us. On the counter were several types of Danish bread, among which was a traditional old-fashioned loaf with so many good ingredients that one piece could be a complete meal! They had placed butter, oil and salt to spread on the breads, but who needed it? Helge proceeded to show us his set up; the gleaming kitchen, the steam oven, the storeroom full of bags of organic flours. He shaped some dough into loaves and put them in the very hot and steamy oven, so that he could magically pull out the finished loaves about 15 minutes later. He showed us the starter for the naturally leavened bread, and with only a wee bit of a hint, offered to send some home with us. He answered questions, gave us bread-baking advice and encouraged us to taste, taste, taste!
Next we were escorted through the rest of the kitchen, where the chef and several employees were in charge of the cantine meal. We were shown to the buffet table in the well-designed dining room, where employees were eating. The buffet table probably had 30 selections, which were all labeled with signs noting which choices were most healthy. There were many different kinds of salads and vegetables, several main course dishes, a fish plate, and the ever-present Danish selection of breads, cheeses and cold meats. And, really, everything was light and fresh and tasty. On a cantine buffet table! Oh, yeah, and there was a sign that said 80-90% of the ingredients were ORGANIC! And, while we were sitting eating this feast, an employee walked through, pushing a baby carriage. They even have in-house child care!
So we have now returned home to our own piece of heaven. We feel affirmed in our own work. We feel inspired by the example set by the Danish people. We feel challenged to make changes both personally and politically. And I am going to learn to make a great loaf of Danish rye with that starter from Helge!
– Theresa and Ben Gleason own and operate Gleason Grains in Bridport, Vermont.