Solhatt organic seed producers

by admin on 08/08/2019

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Although the Norwegian government is funding the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, containing seeds from all over the world, the country itself is more or less totally dependent on importing vegetable seeds. However, two Dutch men, Jasper Kroon and Tom Boersma, founded a seed shop called Solhatt in 2011. Before describing the company, a short history of seed production and control will be presented.

Short history

At the beginning of the 1800s, the first seed shops were founded in the Netherlands and France. Increased knowledge of inheritance and systematic breeding led to that new plant varieties, which had a much higher yield than ones made by farmers, were developed. Slowly, but surely, new plant varieties were replacing the old ones. The first Norwegian seed shop was established by Johan Olsen in Oslo in 1833.

Before the seed shops were founded, farmers produced seeds themselves or they exchanged seeds with their neighbours, making their harvests adapted to local conditions, but also having a large genetic variation.

Seed controls were founded across Europe in the late 1800s in order to secure high quality seeds for farmers. There was a lot of cheating with seeds, which wouldn’t germinate, but also seeds which were mixed with seeds for other plant varieties or was of low quality in any other way.

The first seed control in Norway was founded by Bastian Larsen at the agricultural school at Haug in Vardal in 1884, but it was taken over by the Royal Norwegian Society for Development in 1889 and next by the Norwegian state in 1898. A private seed control company, called Kristiania Frøkontroll (Christiania Seed Control), was founded in 1887, while it was nationalised in 1899. and renamed to Statens Frøkontroll (Seed Control of the State).

Nowadays, seed control is done by Såvarelaboratoriet and Mattilsynet in Norway. Såvarelaboratoriet perform analysis of seeds in order to find the germination rate, the cleanliness and any infectious diseases of the seeds.

As the 1800s progressed, farmers in Norway started importing more and more vegetable seeds from the Netherlands and the UK. However, during the First World War, all imports of seeds were abruptly stopped, and the Norwegian government founded a committee for breeding seeds and the greatest production took place in the 1920s when various heirloom varieties were developed. In the 1930s, seed production was decreasing again. After the Second World War, the quality of the seeds was variable and the supply was uneven, making import of seeds more important. During the 1970s and 80s, seeds from abroad were cheaper than Norwegian ones such that farmers preferred to buy imported seeds instead.

F.C Schübeler, a professor at the Botanical garden in Christiania, published a book on seed production in Norway in 1889. Being a predecessor of Solhatt, he sent seeds to farmers who, in return, gave feedback on how good the seeds were.

The Royal Norwegian Society for Development founded a farm for testing and breeding seeds for meadows, lawns, but also seeds for root vegetables and various vegetables, at Hellerud in 1950. Due to reorganisation, the farm was closed down in 2001.

Speaking of seeds, it’s impossible to avoid mentioning the Russian and Soviet agronomist, botanist and geneticist Nikolai Vavilov, who collected seeds from many countries and who headed the Institute of Plant Industry from 1924 to 1936. In 1940, he was arrested for allegedly wrecking Soviet agriculture and he died of hunger in 1943. His co-workers at The Institute of Plant Industry preserved the seed bank through the 28-month Siege of Leningrad and in an act of incredible self-sacrifice, they refused to eat the seeds. Nine of them had died at the end of the siege in the spring of 1944.

According to Jasper Kroon, the Vavilov Institute still has seeds from the Nordic countries, but they are not well documented.

Origin of select vegetables

Having covered very briefly how seeds have been produced and controlled in the past, it’s also necessary to know where the seeds of vegetables come from. This will only cover a few of the vegetables being grown in Norway, but readers are encouraged to seek out more information elsewhere.

All the cereals and vegetables we are eating come from domesticated plant varieties because ancient peoples needed something to eat.

Peas

Cultivated peas have been found in Syria and date from about 9300 BCE.

Wild peas ripen over a long period of time, they grow near the ground and seeds arise all over the plant and peapods shatter on maturity. Ancient peoples, living in the Fertile Crescent about 11,000 years ago, domesticated wild peas by selecting those that had a soft shell and ripened during the wet season.

Carrots

Wild carrots were domesticated in present-day Iran and Afghanistan and they could be black, white, red and purple. Modern yellow or orange carrot may have been developed by selective breeding in the Netherlands in the 1600s as a tribute to the ruling House of Orange.

Originally, carrots were grown for their leaves and seeds rather than their roots. Selective breeding over centuries were required to reduce bitterness, increase sweetness and minimise the woody core.

Onions

Unfortunately, wild onion is extinct and there is no agreement of when and where onion was domesticated. Onions were grown in Ancient Egypt 5,500 years ago, in India and China 5,000 years ago and in Sumeria 4,500 years ago.

Cabbage

Cabbage still grows wild in Europe and peoples of the northern Mediterranean started domesticating it by means of selective breeding about 3000 years ago. The wide variety of cabbage seen today may have taken a few thousand years.

Rutabaga

Rutabaga arose in the 1500s when seeds from B. Napa and B. oleracea were interbred in Sweden.

The Swiss botanist Gaspard Bauhin discovered that the predecessors of cabbage, which were cultivated in the 1620s, were growing wild in the Swedish countryside.

The company

In 2011, both Tom and Jasper were working as organic gardeners in Norway when they were asked to take over a small company called Biofrø, which was importing and selling seeds for biodynamic agriculture. Having accepted the offer, they wanted to expand the company by selling to hobby gardeners. They started with selling seeds from Bingenheimer Saatgut in Germany, but they gradually expanded their product range by selling seeds from other seed shops and various garden tools and books on gardening. Next, they hired a piece of land on the farm Alm Østre, which is located in Stange. There, they grow organic vegetables practising a 5-year crop rotation. They started selling organic seeds produced in Norway from 2015.

Instead of selling hybrid F1-seeds, Tom and Jasper wanted to produce and sell seeds from heirloom vegetables. F1 hybrid seeds are produced by large companies and those who grow seeds from them have to buy seeds from them yearly. Instead, by growing heirloom varieties, the growers themselves can extract seeds and plant them the next season. Thus, Solhatt is maintaining a tradition which has been applied for tens of milllennia.

As regards pollination of the plants, seed producers need to keep plants which can pollinate each other far apart, amounting to at least 100 metres.

In 2012, when Solhatt started growing cabbage, rutabaga and peas using seeds from NordGen, none of the seeds were being used. If it hadn’t been for Solhatt, they would probably have disappeared.

Further, the large seed companies have been working to make the vegetables make more energy by means of sugar.

Speaking from experience, I can attest to that many vegetables and fruits bought from supermarkets and almost certainly made by F1 hybrids, don’t taste anything, removing the pleasure of eating.

Due to global heating, climate researchers expect more extreme weather, making it necessary to grow plants which are more resistant against drought, rain and diseases. Since the vegetables grown at Solhatt don’t get any help from pesticides and no soil treatment by machinery, they may be better than F1 hybrids at extracting nutrients from the ground and have a more robust root system.

In addition, all seeds sold by Solhatt will give new plants that resemble their parent plants and these properties will be led on to future generations.

The seeds produced by Solhatt have been selected among those plants, which have been most resistant against diseases and weeds, requiring least nutrients and giving a good and even harvest. In addition, the plants should be as nutritious as possible, taste good and flower late in the season. The last property ensures that the child plant is as big as possible before it starts flowering. Finally, the seeds should be able to be stored without degradation for some years, but they should be used within 12 years, else the germination rate will decrease.

Interbreeding of the plants have to be done over 6 to 8 generations before the harvest is more or less stable. Jasper said that most of the seeds aren’t suited for seed production and only a very few are approved for production. In addition, some plants are perennials like chives and they are grown on a field the first year, thereafter the seeds are extracted and sown in a greenhouse the next year. Then, interbreeding for 6-8 generations entails 12-16 years before, hopefully, the seeds are ready for certification and finally production. All the seeds made by Solhatt have been approved for sale by the Norwegian Food Safety Authority.

Another feature of seed production is that seeds from seed banks often aren’t documented well and the germination rate of the seeds are quite low when they are planted. The seeds have to wake up somehow and this takes several generations.

The field at Alm Østre is open land, but Solhatt also grow vegetables in greenhouses and they work in partnership with other seed producers, 7 in all. Some of them are presented here.

In autumn, it’s time for harvesting seeds. Next, the seeds have to be cleaned by various means, like using a sieve, a berry winnower and even an air separator. After the seeds have been cleaned and controlled, they are put in small paper bags and put in boxes at the premises of Solhatt, ready for sale.

Jasper and Tom want to invite cooks and anyone who is working with food to discover if there is a market for their products. As of now, only a chosen few buy vegetables form farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture, food festivals and so on. They think there is a market for 2-3 types of rutabaga and white turnip.

Let’s hope that Solhatt will expand and get many more customers. They are the only ones in Norway who produce organic vegetable seeds as a profession and they are keeping alive an age-old activity, which may die out.

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Hyllest elderflower farm

by admin on 22/06/2019

Drawing by by Olga Lobareva, bought from Shutterstock

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Elder or elderberry is a bush  with a rich variety of folklore as is shown here, here, here and here. Elders were considered the habitat of Freyja  in Norse mythology and it was protected by the Elder Mother. Actually, this inspired the great writer H.C. Andersen to write a story called The elder-tree mother. The Roman historian Tacitus wrote a book about Germanic tribes  for whom the elderberry was holy. Moreover, the Greek physician Hippocrates  and the Roman historian Pliny the elder both wrote about elderberry as a herbal medicine.

Quotation from Edda: If you have elder, honey and cabbage, the doctor will be a poor man.

The Latin name Sambucus for elderberry is purportedly derived from a Greek string instrument, which was called sambuca and was made from elder wood.

My first encounter with elderberry was at a farmers’ market in Drammen where we could sample elderflower juice, making me buy a bottle. Ever since I have bought bottles of elderflower juice occasionally since they are quite dear, but the taste is delicious. Next, having found that someone needed money for planting elderberries on a field in Bø in Telemark on the crowdfunding site culturaflokk, I donated so much that I could have a guided visit with the owner Mie Dahlmann Jensen on her farm.

We met at the chuch in Bø from where it was a short drive to a field near Moland farm where 400 elderberry saplings had been planted in 2017. Before, the field had been used for organic growing of oats and grass for 20 years and it was ideal for growing elderberries. During my visit, I could see some of the saplings, some of which had the same height as the surrounding grass due to a drought which have lasted more or less continuously since May 2018. Unfortunately, this makes it more difficult to make the elderberries growing, but Mie remains optimistic.

She told me that roe deer were free to enter the field, but they didn’t like the elders. In addition, there were brown rats nearby, but by planting garlic around the saplings, they stayed away. Really brilliant to fight them with plants and not poison!

Next, we went to Akkerhaugen where Mie has planted 160 elders in cooperation with Rinde farm. Three rows of elders were located among rows of apple trees and all cultivation was organic. Sitting in the sun, drinking elderflower juice and eating strawberries with sour cream was a very nice experience, contributing to making slow pix worthwhile and enjoyable.

The owner of Rinde farm cuts grass around the elderberries and apply fertiliser to them since they require a large amount of nitrogen in order to thrive.

Mie has her first memories from her native Denmark where she hid behind elders when she was playing hide-and-seek with other children. As an adult, she had been to farms where elderflower juice was being produced and after having moved to Norway and working at the local agricultural office, she contacted Innovation Norway and local apple farmers regarding cultivation of elders. Since everyone was positive, she founded her company Hyllest in 2013 and this year is the fifth anniversary. Hyllest is a Norwegian pun on hyll, which means elder, while hyllest means homage. That is, Hyllest is a homage to hyll.

Harvest of elderflowers is done in June and July, always manually and always early in the morning until about 10 in the morning when all dew has evaporated. In addition to domestic elderflowers, Mie also picks elderflowers from wild elders, which have “escaped” from various nurseries and gardens. Having collected elderflowers for up to a month, Mie turns them into juice at Epleblomsten, a local apple press. She has developed her own way of doing it, but she is aided by the workers at Epleblomsten with the production. Fortunately, this occurs so early that no other activity takes place at the apple press such that all attention can be turned to the elder flowers.

After having bottled the elderflower juice, it is distributed to various well-assorted shops and it is sold at farmers’ markets. A nice addition to elderflower juice is beer with a taste of elderflower since a brewery called Eiker ølfabrikk started making beer with elderflower syrup this year.

Finally, it remains to wish Mie good luck with persuading more Norwegians to start drinking elderflower juice, which apparently is little known for now.

Since Mie invited everyone to join the harvest on a Saturday morning in June, I returned this year. Having arrived before 8, the air was filled with birdsong and the pleasant smell of the elderflowers. Rows of apple trees were standing next to the elderflower bushes, but the apples had to mature for a few months more before they could be harvested.

Some of the elderflower shoots had blossomed, while the other ones were perhaps waiting for warmer weather. The shoots looked like light green pinheads, while the flowers had white and light yellow petals.

Picking the elderflowers was done by cutting the stem below the flowers by the thumbnail, then putting them in an open plastic box. Some of the flowers were growing on branches high above us, but it was easy to bend them down such that we could reach the flowers.

While we were harvesting the elderflowers, Mie walked around with a spray, applying a mixture of soap and vegetable oil on insects which formed black clusters on the branches.

Having harvested the flowers for about 1 hour, we had harvested all the flowers, which had blossomed. Then, it was time to enjoy a delicious breakfast next to the elderflower trees and drinking elderflower juice. A really pleasant experience in beautiful surroundings.

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