Experiential learning in Norway

By Renee Ciulla

The leaves are changing color and dropping fast on the campus of the University of Life Sciences and the blonde-haired beauties of Scandinavia are donning stylish Norwegian winter boots and hats. The grains have been harvested from the surrounding fields, and now the first bright greens of cover crops are pushing through the deep brown soil. The last few weeks in my agroecology master’s program has focused on bringing the theories discussed in class alive through a concept my professors call “experiential learning.” Our professors emphasize themselves as co-learners and want us to place our learning into our own hands by visiting and analyzing Norwegian farms.

Action education is another term often spoken, meaning that our thoughts and actions will be utilized in an engaging situation in need of improvement.One important concept we repeatedly discuss is the relevance of viewing a farm as a complex system with several interlinking components (social, environmental, economical and agronomic). Additionally, the differences between hard and soft agroecologists have been examined since there is a need for both, but an even greater need for the two approaches to work together (soft agroecologists = rural sociologists viewing agroecosystem from farm and regional level and hard agroecologists= ecologists, agronomists and economists focusing on field level and how to maximize food production). Lastly, we have reviewed the different learning styles and dimensions identified by educational theorist David Kolb as a way to appreciate our various individual approaches to group work.

We were broken into groups of four people and assigned a Norwegian farmer in need of advice/solutions ranging from a 27-year-old startup organic vegetable and sheep farmer to a conventional dairy farmer. Part of the reasoning for including the farmer in our learning process is that several studies have pointed to the effectiveness of participatory learning (that by including the farmer in the process, they are also becoming engaged and more likely to make necessary environmental changes). We were given two opportunities to interview the farmer and tour his property before delving into our own research and contacting experts. My farmer, Ragnar Johnsen, was located 1.5 hours south of Oslo in the town of Ise near the border of Sweden. Typical of many Norwegian farmers, Johnsen is 60 years old, works an off-farm job four days a week and manages the entire farm operation on his own. Even with this incredible workload, he greeted us with the warmth of a family relative and prepared a delicious spread of fresh bread, cheese, meat, fruit and cake while we bombarded him with questions.

Ragnar has 55 acres of cropland (grows wheat, rye and oats) and 135 acres of forest (fir harvested for building construction). He began the process of organic conversion in spring 2007 and will now be required to include a cover crop of clover and fescue in his rotation. In the past he had always farmed continuously on the land (planting the same crop in the same field every year), so we identified crop rotation as one of his key sustainability issues. By examining the farm with a SWOT analysis (labeling the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats), we could see a rich picture of the farm and begin to view it as a complex system. My team developed an ideal possible scenario for Ragnar taking into consideration his desire to spend more time with his girlfriend and still maintain his off-farm employment. The system would consist of an eight year rotation with two plots separated by a hedgerow (to increase biodiversity, reduce erosion and decrease excess soil water from his heavy clay soil). The rotation includes legumes and both tap roots and fibrous root plants to improve the soil structure and provide nitrogen. Here’s what it looks like:

Year 1: Green manure (alfalfa or red clover)
Year 2: Winter wheat
Year 3: Peas
Year 4: Oats
Year 5: Green manure (red clover, spring sown)
Year 6: Rye
Year 7: Spelt
Year 8: Green manure again

In my group I was working with two French students and one Italian, providing an interesting environment for comparing cultural differences. We all come from very different agronomic experiences. In general, the Europeans are younger than the American graduate students but have a fair amount of academic training in agriculture. They begin studying their “field” in more detail at an earlier age than in the U.S. The language barrier (communication with classmates) has been much more of a challenge in this program than I anticipated, but experiencing the group dynamics is excellent practice for anyone considering international-relations work.

My group quickly put experiential learning to the test during our initial walk around the farm in Ise. For example, we learned that when Ragnar over-supplied his oats with nitrogen fertilizer (his last chance before organic certification) the grains toppled over from their own weight (they grew too fast, and their cell walls were weakened) making it much more difficult to harvest. This led me to learn more on my own about the harvesting techniques of grains and how farmers deal with the variations in grain quality on their fields (as the grains sit in water they germinate which reduces the price received by the farmer, and the grain becomes animal feed instead of fit for human consumption). Ragnar also mentioned that he was only able to plant his peas once every seven years which prompted us to investigate the reasons behind this and how certain fungi that can infect the planted seed. The main concerns Ranar expressed were attacks from wheat aphids and fungi, which prompted me to contact several specialists on campus and listen to their organic solutions (crop rotation was the best). Additionally, I was able to recommend the no-till system that the Rodale Institute has been experimenting with as well as connecting him with this valuable online source. The cover crop roller-crimper attaches to the front of a tractor, enabling farmers to roll over a cover crop and turning it into a mulch mat while at the same time planting into the soil. Several benefits of the living-mulch mat include protecting the soil, providing an extensive rhizosphere for beneficial microorganisms, conserving soil moisture, sequestering carbon and increasing the yields of crops.

In order to reach Ragnar’s farm we rented a car and realized just how expensive gas is: more than $10 a gallon! Car rental prices vary (cheapest to pre-rent from the U.S. if you’re considering traveling), and the main roads in Norway are very easy to navigate. We were able to squeeze in a little sightseeing before our farm visit and so slipped into the historic towns of Fredrickstad and Halden, located near the southern coast of Norway. Both were quaint and quiet (like everywhere in this country), but neither were as beautiful as the islands south of Sarpsborg in Sweden. It’s as easy as paying a $4 toll to cross into Sweden, and the prices are much easier on the wallet (although our innocent parking ticket in Sweden cost us $85). Many Norwegians actually drive to Sweden to buy bulk amounts of food, cigarettes, alcohol and chocolate.

Coming from the U.S., I was very involved with and inspired by the organic and local food movement, and so I naturally expected a similar situation here. Although they are almost completely self-sustainable in dairy, fish, grain and meat, the general public has been slow to accept organically certified items. This is seen largely as a result of their confidence in Norwegian-produced food – even conventionally processed items are viewed as safe enough. As an American, my first impulse was to scrutinize their beliefs but now I see a strength in their food system that we have lost in America. I often wonder if forcing the organic label and all the certification that follows will bring the problem of Big Organics to Norway and erode their locally-based system. The largest dairy corporation, Tine, drives around the country stopping at one small farm after another before delivering to centrally-located processing plants. They visit a total of 18,500 organic and conventional farmers throughout the country collecting as little as 30 liters of milk from a farm. Say goodbye to polluting factory farms with crammed cattle devoid of sunlight and grass. I was shocked to speak with one farmer with only seven cows who was supplying milk for the country’s butter, cheese and yogurt!

After the last few weeks of experiential learning, I can conclude that the science behind agriculture can be read anytime in a textbook, but the means to successfully implement those principles, and the importance of connecting them holistically, is best learned experientially. Our next component looks at food systems examining farm-to-school programs, CSAs and case studies in Norway involving communities that have been given grants from the Norwegian government to increase their consumption of organics.

Renee Ciulla has always been intrigued by farming, but became seriously dedicated to the world of organics after writing a paper on Bob Rodale in college. Since then her experiences include running her own vegetable garden business in Montana, managing a health-food store, Slow Food and "eating local" campaigns, and freelance writing. She dreams of farming and eating her way through Italy but is currently content with studying agriculture in Europe.

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