29 October, 2010

Bread wheat in Denmark, days 4 and 5

backdate: 28-29 October

The night in Kolding was a good break, offering just enough time to use a gym and forage up some kebab before everything closed at ten. In the morning, it was back to Sjaelland, to visit Bregentvedgaard.

Windy in the field, it was in the shelter of Bregentvedgaard's barns that we at last saw the grain itself. At several mills, we'd heard excited talk of some unique grains - distributed and built up by a network including Aurion, Anders Borgen, and farmer Per Grupe. There was a unique tall "midsummer" rye, which despite low yields resisted disease and lodging and had small kernels with excellent flavor. Farmer Carsten Hvelplund also showed us a wheat cultivar from southern Sweden. Each of these grains had a story, and it was these cultivars that held the most interest to them in terms of specialty grains to join emmer, spelt, and barley among their rotations. The following morning, at Per Grupe's farm, we got to taste that midsummer rye sprouted.

The Friday grand finale of our trip was a corporate cafeteria - or, as they say here, kantin - in Hillerød, on the capital's outskirts. For this kantin, utilized by roughly 700 of the 3500 employees at Danish pension firm ATP, a team of chefs create a lunch menu and thrice-weekly take home dinner options using 60-90% certified organic - and mostly local - ingredients.

Using flour from Skærtoft Mølle and others, and largely inspired by Jøm Larsen of Aurion and the head chef of Copenhagen's world-renowned restaurant Noma, bakers Helge, Peter, and Jamie create artisan breads. Over a truly delicious lunch, we discussed the way chefs, creating a wider and shifting variety of menu item on a daily basis, may have more latitude than even artisan bakers when it comes to using local flours (which typically have more variation in quality than flours produced in prime wheat-growing regions).

Northern New England Local Bread Wheat - Denmark exchange participants

In sum, we discovered that while Denmark's organic bread wheat producers face slightly different agronomic and disease pressure challenges, they are perhaps not as far ahead of New England as we'd thought. There were plenty of things we didn't expect to learn, which we did, and other questions that remain unanswered, but after thirteen stops in four-and-a-half days, it was a relief to drop off the rental cars, and go our separate ways, settling in to Copenhagen for the night.


farmer Carsten Hvelplund shows this year's crop of Ullands wheat
photo courtesy Ellen Mallory

Bread wheat in Denmark, day 3

backdate: 27 October

On day 3, Skærtoft Mølle provided another sort of exemplar, this time of the value of competencies and connections in other fields. Its husband-and-wife proprietors began farming in the 1980s; along the way he picked up an MBA and is now involved in a business school, while she is a television and magazine journalist. In their absence, their daughter Marie, who holds an agronomy degree, presented us the company's history over - once again - coffee and bread. Unlike some producers, who have difficulty even approaching retail chains about their product, the Skærtoft trio approached a Danish chain with only a product concept and reached an agreement for its launch. Like another we visited, they had also published their own bread book.

Skærtoft's connections, and their attention to graphic design in the packaging - in search of a look that was neither "brown paper with a white label" nor boldly-colored idealized depiction of an organic farming more myth than reality - earned them a Danish design award. It was one thing to hear this, and quite another to see the name "Skærtoft Mølle", among a dozen larger corporations, on a banner hanging from the Dansk Design Center in Copenhagen. (If you're at all interested in product design and marketing, i highly recommend checking out the Skærtoft website.)

Despite their vast differences in character, one thing all these mills shared was an emphatic belief that stone mills create superior flour. Low speed and thus cooler temperature, they told us, preserves nutrients and flavor in the flour. At Aurion, Jøm told us that when measured, his wheat flour had twice the vitamin E content of conventionally milled wheat flours. This focus on stone and cold spoke volumes to our New England millers, who likened the concept to the health value of cold-pressed oils, an as-yet-untapped way of differentiating their product from roller-mill flours. 

Bread wheat in Denmark, day 2

backdate: 26 October

Agronomist Anders Borgen was instrumental in creating our itinerary, and thanks to a change of plans we got to spend some time with him after our morning visit to Foulum research center. In a backyard garden plot saturated with common bunt (Tilletia tritici) inoculum, Anders is selecting about 200 heirloom wheat varieties for disease resistance.

Because of bunt infection patterns, he tells us, commercial varieties must have "vertical resistance", that is, qualitative resistance based on a single gene (either they die or they don't, and only those that don't are considered fit for cultivation) - as opposed to horizontal resistance, a multiple-gene-controlled, quantitative response to infection. While horizontal resistance means plants will tolerate infection (not die), vertical resistance is easily toppled by pathogen mutations (i.e. more sensitive to natural selection), so Anders strives to select varieties which have both, creating "pyramidal resistance". If bunt can't kill plant, it can't select for susceptibility. Not sure if that explanation makes sense - but it's as simple as i can offer, and writing it clarified plant pathology concepts i didn't quite grasp as an undergrad.

It's rare to meet a man who takes such pleasure in his work as Anders. Which is to say that while explaining the breeding and selection projects, and later indoors excitedly showing us blue and purple wheat and unusual varieties of malting barley, he spoke with a sort of glee, laughing like a kid when he was excited about something.

That kind of passion has a quieter, but no less thorough manifestation in Jøm Larsen, director of Aurion bakery and mill. Our most northerly stop, in Hjørring, Aurion spoke to original 'back to the land' values. Milling biodynamic- and organic-certified grain since 1980, Jøm's work is driven by a passion for the living grain, and an ethic of fair, stable prices to producers (higher in low markets, though lower in high ones). It would be naive to say that Aurion's values trumped market savvy, for like the rest it had a well-developed niche and line of value-added products, in this case chocolate. The breads, though, spoke for themselves.

Since car trouble struck our caravan, we'd arrived in Hjørring late, and it was well into the evening when our talk and tour were finished. Jøm ushered us back to the meeting room with its long table, and passed around several breads - there was a rye risen for two days and baked at low temperature over night, among others, by far the best breads we tasted in Denmark. Then his wife Inger surprised us with two casseroles, an egg-and-celeriac dish and a root vegetable bake. It was modest fare, stretched among nearly two dozen, but we shared it all around and were enveloped in a welcoming warmth. It was very late when we arrived once again at Kalø.

Bread wheat in Denmark, day 1

backdate: 25 October

No matter how much practice i get explaining this to people, it's still a challenge to state simply. A group of researchers, farmers, millers, and bakers go to Denmark to observe the organic bread wheat production system, and i'm their videographer. What that implies, besides a free plane ticket to København, is five days of touring. The first two were pretty grueling, but by day four the schedule has relaxed and, with seven stops behind us there's time to look back and begin sorting out what we've learned. 


From København we headed first to Viskingegård, where what began as a conventional pig farm has recently blossomed into an organic grain operation. (If you ever wondered where Danish ham comes from,  Sjælland in eastern Denmark is a center of "factory" pig production.) Milling at Viskingegård seems well-funded by owner Nils Mejnertson's other business ventures; the three-story mill, though home-built and pieced together with what he'd learned from others, was fully automated. 

Agricultural land in Denmark, we learned, is both valuable and difficult to obtain. In part because of restrictions on manure, pig farmers buy land as soon as it's available; they need larger tracts on which to spread their nitrogen-rich manure slurry to remain within legal per-hectare annual N limits. Under Danish and EU organic standards, farmers are allowed to import manure slurry from conventional pig production - but the farmers we talked to explained that many organic producers have agreed to phase out the use of 'conventional' manure. While this may present them with challenges, depriving "pig factories" of easy outlets for manure may force changes in their operations.

Across Storebæltsbroen (the Great Belt Bridge connecting Sjælland and Funen) we headed to the village of Ringe. There, hand-operated Kragegaarden mill offered a sharp contrast to automated Viskingegård. The machinery filling one low-ceilinged room of Kristian Anderson's small-scale operation was crafted largely of wood, loaded and unloaded by hand in small batches.

At Kragegaarden; photo courtesy Ellen Mallory

After a late supper in Odense it was a long drive north to Kalø. Forty minutes northeast of Århus, we were housed in student dormitories along with a handful of international students learning Danish. I'd write more about the school, which trains youth for organic farming certification - but you can learn just as much by visiting Kalø online.

27 October, 2010

The "Wheaties" do Denmark.... a prologue

There's been strangely little chance to collect my thoughts on these long days of riding from farm to farm and filming the learning process. I find myself struggling for a decent title to describe the week, something more fluid than "Travelling the Danish bread wheat system with researchers, farmers, and millers from New England". The above title is what i've got. And that's all you'll get - for now, at least. I'll be trying to synthesize the experience at our thirteen stops into a quick written overview, in part a practical exercise to get my head around the task of editing over ten hours of video that resembles "found footage" more than it makes a coherent narrative. But until i watch some of that footage, the experience remains a mental soup, a hodgepodge of characters, impressions, agronomic details, and places whizzing past at 110km/h - and all the still photos are on other people's digital cameras.

So this is what i can write for now, from a hotel in Gentofte. Meanwhile, if you can think of a better title, i'm all ears.

The next few posts describe our travels through Denmark, and you can also watched the finished "Local Bread Wheat in Denmark" videos

26 October, 2010

Quick update from Århus, Denmark

Arrived, couchsurfed/slept, spent all night in a dance bar, slept, met up with the Local Bread Wheat project group, and now i've traveled from København to Århus in one whirlwind day of organic farm and grain mill visits and long hours in the backseat of a cramped Fiat. Finally added pictures to the last few posts, but it's looking like a journal of the coming week's travel throughout all of Denmark will have to wait until trip's end.