Food production on local resources: herding sheep to mountain pastures
Written by Edona Arnesen, Head of Produce at Dagens
Norwegian tradition and a family farm
As old a tradition as animal husbandry in Norway, is the practice of bringing animals higher up in the landscape for summer grazing. The highland and mountain pastures turn green later than down at the farms, which makes the animals able to utilize the local and natural resources to their full potential. After grazing the spring and early summer grass at home pastures, they are moved higher up to let the pastures replenish and grow for winter fodder. While the animals are grazing elsewhere, the farmers harvest and dry or press the grass for winter— making sure that they can feed their herds on local resources also through the cold season. Not only is this a practice to secure food safety, but a practice to tend to the land around us as stewards of our cultural landscapes. These carry so many diverse and important life forms exactly because of the symbiosis between grazing animals and the plants, insects and bacteria present there. This build resilience into the system.
In the middle of June, I joined what is popularly called the “sheep release” (saueslipp in Norwegian) at Rørtveit Gard. The farm is located in a steep valley in western Telemark, overlooking majestic mountains and green fields down below. Gunleik and Kathrine are the young farmer couple who are in the midst of building up their business on their own terms — with a great focus on tradition, sustainable practices and heritage species.
In addition to a small herd of milking cows (Telemarksfe and Sidet Trønder) and some meat cattle, they have around 240 sheep and lamb. These are a mix of Norwegian white sheep (NKS) and the heritage species gammelnorsk spælsau. Most of the sheep lambed this spring, and have between 1 and 3 lambs always close by their side. We were a group of nine people and a dog herding them all up and into the mountains. That was 6 hours of being alert, agile and slightly stressed, in addition to a lot of work the previous days to prep the sheep for being safely away from home during summer.
Many thoughts populated my mind during the two days I joined the farm, but one thing kept coming back to me. How is it possible that we (as in consumers, people in general) keep complaining about food prices being too high, when this is how much work that goes into the food we eat? How is it possible that farmers get paid nickels and dimes for their meat, when the price consumers see when shopping is something totally different? There is of course work done on several stages after the animals leave the farm, before it ends up in some shop. The people doing these jobs also needs to be paid. But the gap between farmers’ pay and what you and I pay in the supermarket is too big to go unnoticed. If we want people to keep producing food in Norway at all, we have to make sure there is any point for them to do so. Because it’s not as romantic a fairytale as we would like to imagine.
It is my belief that if we all knew more about what actually goes into raising and caring for an animal — not to say a herd of animals — we would happily pay whatever the fair price of meat actually is. If we had all joined just one day in a milking barn, or helped move sheep from one pasture to another, or picked and cleaned eggs from free-roaming hens, we would know a world more about what it entails. Not to say more about how easy our life is in terms of stocking our fridge and keeping our families fed. The food still has to be produced, and it is people who are doing that, with a lot of care and effort.
You do however have a choice when it comes to the type of system you want to support into being reality. Instead of leaving it up to the food system moguls of supermarket chains and big wholesalers to decide the price of your food, and thus the payment to farmers, you can buy it directly. Buy directly from your local food producers, let them tell you what the price should be (they are in my experience always well thought-through and fair) and let them teach you why. Your own health and happiness is one important reason (antibiotic resistant bacteria and harmful pesticides are two key terms here), the health of our ecosystems is another, and the health and economic security of your community is a third. There is a reason why communities have always flourished around rivers and lakes. It’s because water was needed for agriculture and animals, and because food production has always been the prerequisite for the development of humankind.
Storytelling from a first-time herder
Two days of hard work was needed to get the sheep safely to their summer pastures. On Friday we gathered all the sheep and lamb from the different fields they were grazing around the farm. They were all joined in the sheep barn to be weighed, tagged with GPS and given bells. This took several (very warm) hours, and required ear plugs for the patient workers, as the sheep were a loud crowd. In the evening they were brought up to the farm’s highland site in batches, to stay overnight before our long walk the next day.
Early Saturday morning, at 05:45 to be exact, four of us started milking the dairy cows. We had to start early to prepare for the big day. After a quick breakfast and lunch packing, we drove up to the waiting sheep and started walking at 8. We were nine people and one fantastic shepherd dog, Rocky. Gunleik’s parents joined, having done this walk for many years, together with two local boys, myself and two others volunteering on the farm for a month.
We opened the gate and let the sheep loose, while Gunleik’s father Henry walked in front with a bucket of fodder. Rocky the dog made sure no sheep escaped and we all spread out to flank the herd. We walked and ran up steep and stony hills and through dense forest. Every eye was sharpened to make sure we didn’t leave any sheep behind as they stopped to feast on the young plants along the way. As a first time herder I was more stressed and anxious than probably needed. The sheep do after all want to be together. At least in theory…
Around two o’clock in the afternoon we reached our destination and let the sheep settle down in the thriving mountain fields next to an inland water. Tired and happy, the herders sat down to share the last pieces of chocolate and some congratulating words for a successful day. Back at the farm the cows needed another round of milking before we could catch a shower and sit down for a late dinner and watch the evening landscape.
Thank you Rørtveit Gard, I look forward to coming back in September to get the sheep home.