Why this Organic Farmer from Denmark goes Against the Grain

As a reporter, you need to keep your eyes and your mind open, because sometimes you stumble upon another story that is just as interesting as the original topic you started working on and begs to be told. 

This is one of those stories. 

I was travelling with Matt, a UNC-TV videographer, two other journalists and several other people from the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, the North Carolina Sweet Potato Council and the American Sweet Potato Marketing Institute. We visited several countries in Europe for our original story, which covers how popular North Carolina’s sweet potatoes are becoming in Europe and how the state’s sweet potato industry’s export business is growing because of it. (Watch for this story in fall 2017.

North Carolina accounts for 72 percent of the nation’s sweet potato exports. That's $332 million in farm receipts. UNC-TV will air several programs around the industry in the coming months. 

But then we met Jan Algreen. 

He owns Soris Farm, located about 100 miles outside of Copenhagen, Denmark. His grandfather started the farm back in the 1930s. Jan is the third generation of his family to run the farm, and his daughter will soon be joining him. 

Soris Farm grows carrots, potatoes, cabbage, cereal grains and other vegetables on about 200 acres. His land and the processing equipment made up what was considered a large farm in Denmark many years ago. 

But, just as in the United States, agriculture has changed a lot. Large farms, not small family farms, dominate the landscape now. Farmers often sign contracts to grow food for specific companies. That’s why Jan joined with other farms to form a co-op arrangement several years ago. 

The co-op allows the group of farmers to package vegetables and offer new products. The combined group also has more marketing power as well as buying power for farm supplies. 

Jan and the other members of the co-op also decided to farm organically. That means no chemicals are used as weed killers or fertilizers. In fact, Jan doesn’t even use the latest large farm equipment because he considers it too heavy and it compacts the soil. Jan says the tightly packed soil makes it more difficult to irrigate as well as let oxygen pass through. Water and air help the natural microbes and insects that live in soil and help plants to thrive. 

I admire his conviction that organic farming is the way to go. It doesn't hurt that the cost of organic products is dropping. 

But then, as we’re talking about organics, Jan pulls a cloth bag out of a drawer. 

“This is the other reason I do what I do,” he says. 

From inside the bag, Jan takes out a quartz arrowhead, a quartz knife, a large antler with a hole in the top, an iron axe blade, a large stone axe head and a bone. 

“Whenever it rains a lot, items always come out of the ground,” he explains. My grandfather and my father found these in the valley.” 

Early people who lived in the area around 12,000 B.C. used the quartz arrowhead. The quartz knife was newer, around 8,000 B.C. The Vikings made the stone axe and the iron axe around 800 A.D. They also believe that the Vikings made the giant hook out of a reindeer antler to sew fishing nets. 

“It’s important to know the past and who used the tools; it's fascinating,” explained Jan. “But what really strikes me is that people have been living here and depending on this land for millennia. People have cared for the land and the land has taken care of them. I really think society is forgetting that. We need the land and the land needs us. It’s a give and take. It’s a relationship. We have to take care of our land if we are going to survive.” 

I was holding the axe handle as Jan said that. Suddenly my imagination carried me back in time. I pictured a Viking man about my age, clothed in leather and animal fur, long hair and beard, chopping wood to keep himself and his family warm. I looked out the window to the fields, the large stones that formed a wall around the field as well as the stacked firewood. 

I could picture it all in my mind. 

I went back to covering the original sweet potato story a short while later after our group left the farm. But I’ll never forget those artifacts and the inspiring image of a simpler time. 

—Frank Graff 

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on Sci Tech Now North Carolina, a weekly science series that airs Tuesdays on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog!

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