Is good food responsible for Denmark ranking first on the U.N.’s World Happiness Report almost every year 2012? Copenhagen has more Michelin starred restaurants than any Scandinavian city, and their food culture has attracted international attention. But great food doesn’t exist without great ingredients, and while Denmark may be generating happy people, it’s agricultural industry leaves much to be desired.
“[Denmark has] been a pioneer in industrializing our food production and now we see the result. The farmers are in the pocket of the banks and the large co-operative systems,” explains Susanne Hovmand-Simonsen, fourth-generation owner of Knuthenlund farm in Stokkemarke, Denmark.
“Most consumers don’t know how their food is being made and what the consequence is on nature, the drinking water supply, the animals [and] also on their own health” says Hovmand-Simonsen, adding “consumers have lost the ability to taste the difference in the quality of food. Everything they buy in the supermarket is packed in plastic and they have given all responsibility to the large supermarket chains to choose the food they are eating. Most consumers are therefore used to a narrow selection of food varieties and most of it just industrialized produced.”
Hovmand-Simonsen is committed to “helping consumers learn to taste again and to appreciate the difference in flavors” as well as providing healthy food farmed with love. The inspiration behind her philosophy in farming came at a very young age. “When I turned 14 years old my mom became very sick because of food allergies. She went to intensive care several times and as a family we had to understand how we were producing food and what that food was doing to us. The experience totally converted the life of our family and how we looked at food … we started to become interested in organic food.”
The family’s interest turned into a daughter’s passion, one that lead to the largest conversion from conventional to organic farming in Denmark’s history. Just a year after taking over the family farm in 2006, Hovmand-Simonsen managed to convince her investors to support the conversion (the negotiations involved several heated discussions and an exhaustive 120-slide PowerPoint presentation).
Knuthenlund’s 940 hectares (2,323 acres) were converted into organic agriculture, and that was just the beginning. Susanne Hovmand-Simonsen has continuously expanded the scope of what organic farming, land management, and animal husbandry, mean to her. “After having worked with organic production for some years I realized that we needed to go even further, and that organic food could also be industrialized. I realized that we needed to implement a more holistic way of looking at our nature, the animals, the food production, in order to reach the quality both healthwise and tastewise.”
As a result, the team at Knuthenlund has not only nourished and revived the land, but they’ve also reintroduced local species to Danish consumers. “We hired a cultural sociologist to investigate what kind of wild berries and herbs could be found on Knuthenlund,” Hovmand-Simonsen explains. Introducing biodiversity into the farm has involved scientific research and consulting, but it’s an important part of the farm’s identity. “We’ve worked with researchers from various universities in order to incorporate the herbs in our production. The wild herbs are the starting point in feeding of our animals but also in our product development in our charcuterie production.” Native herbs make up part of the diet of Knuthenlund’s heirloom animals, such as the original Red Danish cow and the original black-spotted Danish landrace pig, as well as a few Danish landrace chickens.
If you’re dying to cook with Knuthenlund’s produce, you’re not alone. Eager chefs convene yearly to participate in Knuthenlund’s Native Cooking Award competition. Teams of four chefs, all from different countries, compete by creating a meal using products that have been provided by the farm and foraged on the estate. For the 2016 competition, teams from Denmark, Sweden, France, Belgium, and Norway hopped on bikes to explore the grounds and come back with ingredients to make a meal that they are accorded only a few hours to prepare and present. The public is welcome to watch as the chefs create the three course meals in identical kitchens that shun electrical appliances.
Inviting the public to participate in events and have hands-on experiences on the farm is important to Hovmand-Simonsen and her team. Guests are invited to borrow bicycles and enjoy a picnic on the grounds or to visit Knuthenlund’s farm shop where they can buy vegetables and honey as well as dairy products made by Hovmand-Simonsen’s husband, Jesper. This outreach and accessibility to the public is an important part of Knuthenlund’s engagement with the community. To Hovmand-Simonsen, it’s part of the job of being a farmer- having a positive influence on both her customers and colleagues.
“I believe we are helping consumers to learn to taste again and to appreciate the difference in flavours. For other farmers I think that we can be an inspiration to see that it is actually a possibility to choose another way of producing. Most of them don’t get other solutions than the industrialized way from their consultants” she explains. Danish farmers and consultants may not have had many solutions or models to look to before, but thanks to Susanne Hovmand-Simonsen, they’re outlook just might change.
Emily Dilling is the author of My Paris Market Cookbook: A Culinary Tour of French Flavors and Seasonal Recipes and founder of the Paris Paysanne blog. She currently lives and ferments in Pouillé, France.