Sunday, 16 August 2009

Arctic Strawberry Farming

A slightly unconventional way to spend time in Arctic Norway: working on an organic strawberry farm.
Nordvoll farm lies just north of the town of Tromso. It has been passed through generations of Lockertsens and is now run by Roger, a tremendous character who is a linguistics professor in his spare time. Norwegian law requires people to look after good farming land as there is only a narrow fertile strip around the coast. When he inherited the farm, Roger decided to do it the old way, practised by his grandparents, fertilising the soil with seaweed found just 50 yards from the house and using mostly handtools to look after his crops.

The final product is organic strawberries ripened by 24 hours of sunlight, undoubtedly the sweetest berries known to man.

Also growing on the farm are carrots, potatoes, herbs, rocket, radishes, lettuce... and weeds, lots of them to be plucked by hand. The produce goes to restaurants in Tromso, the farmers market in the late summer and people come to pick their own. It hurts to watch people taking them away.

There is also a lot of free food in the area and it's possible to be very self-sufficient. At low tide mussels can be picked from right outside the house. Roger is a bit of a cook so this wasn't bad living for a pair of farm labourers.

The farn also grew Swedes. This ones called Nikklas. He's a traditional blacksmith and if you give him a month he could make you a spoon out of soil.

Cepps and chantarelles added to the feasting.

Roger cooking cloudberries in 'Famous Grouse' - an untraditional dish.

Of course, we can't go without mentioning that Norwegians eat a lot of good fish. When we arrived for the first time in Tromso this boat was selling fresh, WILD salmon! I don't think we could say we've ever eaten wild Atlantic salmon before. The migration of salmon up rivers all over northern Europe used to provide food for millions. The alteration of rivers by man, the building of dams and pollution has left most people never having seen a wild salmon. And now the UK and Norway have put salmon farms right on their migration routes. Farmed salmon have to be fed many times more kgs of fish protein (caught from the sea) than you actually get from one of these stressed farmed fish. Every year fish escape from farms (as much as half a million a year just in Scotland) and adversely affect wild stocks. And farmed fish transfer sea lice and possibly disease to wild ones. But the european producers have to try and compete with Chile(!!) which farms Atlantic salmon in huge numbers with very low standards and sends them back to Europe because we've ruined their habitat so much we can't catch any any more!! Do you see the stupidity in this yet?? Good, don't buy them.

We tried to catch our own fish but the tide wasn't quite right or the weather was too good or something.

Thankfully one of the neighbours was a little better at it. Fish was served every day: saithe, cod, wolf-fish, salmon, pollock, fish liver with onions. Salted cod is a Norwegian staple, often in a bacalao. We also had lytefisk, dried cod which has been rehydrated in an alkaline mix to make it a litte bit jellyish and to combat the salt flavour. This comes served with either bacon or brown cheese (whey from the process of making goat's cheese allowed to caramelise with added milk). The description might not sound it, but delicious it is.

All this fish has to be served with spuds and there are plenty of them at Nordvoll. We spent a lot of time with sharp implements in this field.

Now although everyone has an obligation to look after their productive farm land in Norway, very few people actually farm it. Local, well grown, fresh fruit and veg sells very quickly, for high prices.

It's common for people owning agricultural land to either get a horse (these are the neighbour's) to graze the land or simply allow it to grow and get someone with a tractor to make hay for them (laying big white 'tractor eggs' everywhere). Because most people owning such land do so for holiday homes, and if they can they will gladly build more holiday homes to sell for a lot more money than hay.

We were a little surprised to have over two weeks of blazing sunshine and not a drop of rain at 70 degrees north. This is Nikkas trying not get sunburnt on a coral beach on Summer Island on our day off.

And the sea was a lot warmer than the UK. I now see what the Gulf Stream is all about.

Back at the farm our task was to paint the barn while the weather was good. Everyone's barn is bright red here, making the towns look pretty picturesque, even if we did look like scally decorators.

With the strawberries all ripening and up to 20 kilos a day leaving the farm, protection from the gulls and crows was put in place.

Midnight again. It's easy to lose track of time when it never gets dark and we'd usually just finished eating around this time.

Occasionally we took a midnight walk up to the moors, where lemmings were running about and Lapland buntings, Arctic skuas, whimbrel and Temminck's stints were nesting.

Here you can see the famous Hurtigruten coastal steamer passing south into Tromso late at night. It's actually an enormous ferry (looks small here because it's very far away....), which travels all the way from Bergen to Kirkness on the Russian border, taking 6 days to get there. If we're still in Norway after 15th September it gets cheaper and we might step aboard.

Some of the scenery close to the farm was spectacular: sea and the odd beach rising straight up to snow-capped mountains.

We took the bikes to the fishing village of Oldevik. It wasn't flat.

And the locals were just taking their barrows down to the dock as the fish was being landed.

In contrast, Tromso is a pretty vibrant town full of interesting characters......aren't city folk strange?


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  2. Hi There, just seen your page beautiful! Me and my boyfriend are desperately trying to find a Norway farm to work for either seasonal or for few weeks? please if you know someone or a website when we could find something let me know