The hunt for traditional Swedish agroforestry
Agroforestry has been practised for thousands of years by farmers throughout the world, including in Sweden after the last ice age
By Elisabeth Simelton
‘Agroforestry: that’s just something they invented for developing countries. There is no agroforestry in developed countries.’
We were in northern Viet Nam to discuss potential project sites and I was dumbfounded by the remark made by the head of the agriculture department. I knew he was wrong but couldn’t think of any good examples to prove him misinformed. Most of all, I was embarrassed to represent the World Agroforestry Centre whose role is to put trees on farms and not know the history of agroforestry. In reports I had simply quoted PKK Nair and particularly stressed the deliberate use of multipurpose trees and crops or animals.
This summer, while visiting the farm where I grew up in Sweden, the leader’s comment returned to my mind. In Scandinavia, there is deliberate use of trees on farms but—he was right—we don’t call that agroforestry. In fact, there is no Swedish word for agroforestry. Instead, each mix of annual and perennial plants has a specific name that reflects the purpose as well as landform, soil and water resources: an ecosystem.
What naturally grows where it does today is quite predicated by the glaciers that melted away some 10,000 years ago. Those enormous ice sheets had shaved mountain ridges flat or undulating and dumped rocks of various sizes. When farmers came, they let cattle graze juicy grasses among birch and aspen trees in stony pastures or the drier rough grasses on oak or juniper slopes. Shade of canopies prevented soils from drying out and supported a diverse flora, many medicinal plants and munchy strawberries. Depending on soil moisture and light, the middle bush canopy layer might be hazelnuts, raspberries or rosehips: in other words, multifunctional species. The combinations of grasses and forbs depend on the grazer: the horse eats short grass, cows rip off longer grass using their tongue, sheep weed and goats browse. Some of that stony land has still, to this day, never been ploughed. This ‘agcowforestry’ connects us with the first Swedish farmers and still exists.
The next form of Swedish agroforestry, if I may say so, was the deliberate use of the natural vegetation to survive all four seasons. An ancient cut-and-carry system was developed in response to a period of cooler climate during the Iron Age some 2500–1200 years ago. The meadow was where grass was cut, dried to hay and stored for winter feed. Cows were only allowed in to fertilise the fields after harvest. Again, this isn’t just ‘a meadow’ but a series of deliberately used trees, bushes and plants that contributed to soil formation and fodder, fuel, wood and fibre for handicrafts and tools. Depending on the natural surroundings, it may be a moist meadow or a forest meadow (‘fuktäng’, ‘skogsäng’).
Meadows were common in Scandinavia, Baltic and central eastern Europe.
Note the past tense.
For most modern Swedish farmers and bureaux of agricultural statistics, there is a distinct ‘before and after’ joining the European Union (EU).
And maybe I should stop here.
Because it’s now that Swedish agriculture becomes difficult to understand, just it does in many other so-called ‘developed’ countries. One farmers’ magazine writes that over the past 25 years the number of farms has reduced by 40 times. The previous, diverse, 50–70 hectare farms have been transformed into 500–700 hectare, specialised farms, many subsidised by the EU.
What is left of the 2 million hectares of pastures and meadows at the end of the 19th century are some 400,000 hectares of pasture and a couple of thousand hectares of natural meadows; many also subsidised by the EU. Both pastures and meadows host many Red List animals and plants.
Today, as paradoxical as it may sound to friends in developing countries, Swedish extension workers and volunteers offer training courses in pasture-and-meadow management or, as I eventually replied to the district head of agriculture in Viet Nam: ‘traditional agroforestry’.