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Green City Growers’ CEO & Founder, Jessie Banhazl, reports from the road in Gothenburg, Sweden on her Eisenhower Fellowship. Learn more about her program objectives, and check out her previous posts from Berlin and Munich
After two great weeks in Germany, I said my goodbyes and flew to Gothenburg, Sweden’s 2nd largest city. I was received warmly by Marie Lowrie from the University of Gothenburg, and Heidi Holst from the Chalmers University of Technology, who put together a fantastic 2-day program for me.
In my opinion, Gothenburg is an extremely impressive urban agriculture destination due largely to its strong municipal support system. The City of Gothenburg has its own department dedicated to training beginning farmers and providing them with leases on city-owned parcels that are outfitted with greenhouses, fencing, water, and other important features that break down the barriers to entry for aspiring farmers. This focus on peri-urban market farming has created 200 individual farm operations and utilizes over 11 square miles of land that is now dedicated to farming, just outside of the city center.
It was also immediately clear to me how important sustainability is to the country of Sweden. Supported from the government and the culture, Swedish residents are passionate about regenerative energy, waste reduction, and local agriculture. The individuals I met were even preemptively addressing issues that were not yet a problem for Sweden, such as water scarcity. This kind of forward thinking was very impressive.
Gothenburg provided just a slice of the whole picture of Sweden’s commitment to urban agriculture and sustainability. I’m so excited to get to travel to Stockholm and Mälmo next to get a more comprehensive picture.
On my first day, I had the pleasure of participating in a symposium organized by the University of Gothenburg. The program featuring myself, Martin Berg from the Urban Farming, Property Management Administration at the City of Gothenburg, and Nikklas Wennberg from Pond/Stadsjord. The entire room of 20+ individuals participated in the conversation, which was a great way to hear from multiple perspectives.
Martin discussed the city’s support for urban farming. The city provides educational resources for farmers starting out, which includes the opportunity to learn through their incubator program and then farm on city-issued “test beds” to start out their operation, moving on to a larger lease once they are comfortable with their growing methods and confident in their business model. Martin described the city’s attitude as “we want to be yes-sayers and possibility-makers”. The challenges the City of Gothenburg is up against is a lack of data or evidence of the impact of urban agriculture. They are hoping by focusing on the numbers of jobs created, pounds of produce grown locally vs. imported, and land conserved, they will be able to show the real value and impact of their support.
Nikklas operates an aquaponics farm producing catfish and greens in the City of Gothenburg. Almost 80% of all the fish consumed in Sweden is imported, and 60% of the greens are imported as well. He sees aquaponics as a valuable tool for localizing food production while creating new jobs and a more closed-loop food system. His operating produces 10 tons of fish a year and 100 kilos of greens. He has secured funding from the State along with the EU for his business. Nikklas hopes to expand his operation to increase their production to try to make a dent in the huge amount of imported food that Sweden is currently consuming.
The conversation in the room touched on some interesting points. There was a general concern about the value of fresh food and how to ensure that the small urban farming businesses were able to generate enough revenue from selling their harvest in a competitive market. A lack of farmer’s markets and other direct-to-consumer outlets funneled the farmers towards wholesalers, which makes it hard to make a profit. Everyone agreed that an environmental “price tag” for produce and other consumable products would create awareness and education as to the net value of the produce which includes environmental impact.
One challenge for the success of urban farming in Gothenburg is that while there is enthusiasm to begin farming, there is also a lack of knowledge and technical skills to do so effectively. Urban farming was also considered “cute” vs. being considered a serious way to feed the country, which many in the room believed that the more examples of urban farming that were established the less this would be an issue. Martin at one point described the city’s commitment to urban farming to “replace mass production with production by the masses”.
It was very clear the ideology around urban farming was in place in Gothenburg, and I was pleased to be able to spend my second day there seeing it in action.
I got to spend a good amount of time with Jonas and William from Kajodlingen, an urban farm on a deserted piece of industrial property out in the harbor of Gotheburg. We had dinner together along with Jonathan from Grow Gothenberg, Marie, and Heidi, and I also got the chance to visit Kajodlingen’s urban farm operation.
I met Jonas and William at a turning point. They had decided to shut down the farm and focus on ways to make soil in the city. The farm had been a “big risk”, with them investing their own funding in the operation since 2018. After only two seasons, the economics were not making sense for them- they had budgeted for workshop and event revenue but had not implemented those activities, and they were struggling with the expensive rent the property management company was charging them for the space. They had found a good model for selling their produce- CSA shares to the local office buildings. 2019 was a very windy and cold growing season for them, though, and the numbers were not adding up. With both founders having very young children, they could not continue to invest in the operation.
While it was sad to see such an interesting urban farm shut down, Jonas and William were passionate about regenerative agriculture and saw an opportunity to be a part of creating access to locally created and sustained soil within the city. While they had not fully defined their next moves, the idea of creating systems for soil regeneration was clearly a priority. I believe Kajodlingen had a chance to survive, but timing and circumstance was not in its favor. Razor-thin margins and expensive city land can create a volatile landscape in which is can be a real challenge to survive. I wish Jonas and William all the best in their next endeavor.
My first visit to a city-funded program was to the city’s own Modellodling, a pilot market farm operated by the City of Gothenburg. Run by Klara Hansson, this site is the only farm actively run by the city, and Klara is the city’s only farmer on staff. Funding for the pilot came mostly from grants from the EU focused on climate change mitigation and innovation in approaches to food production. The intention of the project is to show the productivity of a small-scale market farm (the site is about an acre) along with creating multi-function landscapes that can provide educational opportunities along with food production.
The city saw huge value in creating this site- the farm is hopefully going to provide hands-on training opportunities for beginning farmers participating in their incubator program, which they see as an issue of national importance to train new farmers as the current generation ages out of their operations. There is also a college-level course participating in maintaining the market farm from a nearby agricultural college.
One of the major issues for Modellodling has been what to do with the produce they grow. It’s currently undefined by the municipality whether the city can grow and sell its own produce. This past season, the produce was donated to local schools and nursing homes. Ideally the farm would be able to sell its produce to generate revenue to fund the farm activities and expand their education programs beyond the initial start up capital from the EU. School lunches in Sweden are free for students, so producing vegetables that are used in school lunches would create a more sustainable food system for the municipality. It’s unclear if that will be possible, though, as regulations do not currently allow the city to grow and supply its own food as it’s seen as a conflict of interest and potentially inhibiting the livelihood of existing farming operations. Klara has plans to spend this winter looking into the regulations and finding a way for the produce to be sold from the farm.
In it’s 2nd year of operation, Alzoubi Farm is a 5-acre farm run by the Alzoubi family. The farm is a city owned property that was made available through their urban farming program. Immigrants from Syria, the Alzoubi family started by farming at the city’s test beds and then moved on to a larger lease once they became acclimated to the differences in climate and growing conditions in Sweden.
While Mohammed Alzoubi is a skilled farmer from an agricultural area in Syria, the specifics to farming in Gothenburg has created some challenges that they are working through. Adapting to the colder climate and understanding what crops will be most successful has taken some trial and error. The volume of produce they are growing has been too much for the smaller vendors they’ve been working with, but not big enough to work with a supermarket or grocery chain. They have found a niche in producing herbs popular in Arabic countries that are not widely available in Sweden. They have also recently gotten the farm Krav certified (the Swedish version of organic certification), which has made their produce more desirable in the marketplace.
While the land and assistance from the city has been hugely valuable for them, they would like to see more assistance from the city in education and connections to bring their produce to market. The infrastructure provided has been sufficient, but as a skilled farmer who had previously farmed on 100 hectors of land, Mohammed knows that the tractor he is using is inefficient, and that he would benefit from more advanced equipment.
Alzoubi envisions continuing to expand to cultivate 100 hectors like they had in Syria. They had learned a ton in their two years of operation, and felt they were beginning to get the hang of the Swedish soil and market preferences.
Founded in 2016, Lilla Jordbruket is run by Olle Olsson, a passionate urban farmer committed to operating a regenerative, no-till market farm operation. He is the son of vegetable farmers in northern Sweden and has found himself back on the land to run his own farming operation. The farm has a 60-person CSA program with 2/3 of their customers located in the city center. They have been very successful with creating a social media presence and visibility for their CSA, which has allowed them to generate a list of potential customers larger than they can produce for. Olle was excited to try to create a small-scale intensive farm that was regenerative, sustainable, and highly productive. His farm has success with on-site educational events as well. While he had only cultivated a small portion of the property, his 10-acre lease had the potential to turn in to a sizable farm operation. Olle believes the CSA model is the way to go for the best business model for market farming, and he was well on his way to creating a sustainable business from his city-leased land.
The last visit of the day was on Chalmers University of Technology campus at their HSB Living Lab. This on-campus apartment building is an active research facility that focused on sustainable construction and living. The building had 30 residents including both students and researchers. The building is owned by HSB who owns a multitude of apartments in Sweden, with over 100,000 residents living in an HSB building. The experiments in energy savings, storm water management, food waste management, and other innovative approaches to sustainable living have the potential to be rolled out at all of the HSB locations. One experiment of interest to me included the building hosting a chicken coop on-site. Residents realized they were producing a lot of food waste, as well as eating a lot of eggs. By implementing the chicken coop, they were able to reduce food waste by 12% through both feeding the chickens plant matter and education around food waste in conjunction with the coop maintenance, as well as sourcing their own eggs with minimal environmental impact. Bee keeping, pollinator and rain gardens, and other sustainable agriculture elements were integrated into their research and living quarters as well. The building is a popular place to live on campus, and all residents must participate in the on-site experiments as a part of living in the building.
We also visited an on-campus biodome that is used as a conference room and work space for students studying sustainability. The dome is temporary and will move to another part of campus or elsewhere in a few years. The heat generated within the dome allows for vegetables to grow year-round, and students are encouraged to help themselves by harvesting what they’d like. Very cool!