The Pangs of Buying a Quaint Swedish Farm:
…Medieval property lines, changing economic functional use of landscapes via international trade, and competing institutional entities and their conflicting laws… It ain’t easy finding that small scale farm!
I’m getting pretty frustrated with Swedish real estate. We, like many jaded urbanites in our generation (disillusioned with our global industrial food system but actively interested in seeking out alternatives), have been hankering to buy a small, simple farm with 1) a small number of hectares to be used for agriculture and 2) a small number of hectares to be minimally ‘managed’ as forest (everyone in Sweden’s countryside needs wood to heat their houses during the bitterly cold winter. Unless one lives next to one of Sweden’s many nuclear power plants. Even then, electricity can be fairly expensive) and 3) a quaint old cottage and barn to be fixed up and repaired. For us, the differentiating lines between ‘forest’ and ‘agriculture’ wouldn’t be as functionally distinct once we began working the land. That is, we’re interested in multifunctional orchards of ‘food forests.’
To begin to see our problems, all you have to do is look at a Swedish property map (see map below). Did you notice how many of the properties are in long strips? (We’ve noticed) And we’ve also noticed that these strips of property are frequently separated from the house property entirely (i.e. the highlighted red property). So, IF we were to buy the plots of land seen below, we’d have to walk over other people’s property to get to ours (this is not an uncommon scenario in our housing search). Luckily, for those of us living in Sweden, walking over other people’s property isn’t as big of a deal as it would be in America (check out the Swedish law titled, ‘Allemansrätten’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_to_roam) but the inconvenience, of owning two separate plots often quite distant from one another, remains an annoying problem!
Property rights and politically established boundaries go waaaay back in Swedish history (well, at least to the middle ages). Three major reasons we have to deal with these long strips of land rather than other geometric shapes (like squares, or even more geophysically structured boundaries linking property to rivers and mountains) has a lot to do with 1) how the Swedish aristocratic government decided to draw village arrangements on maps, coupled with 2) their considerations over the difficulty of turning a plow, which was attached to a work horse/ox, thus making strips more appropriate than squares and 3) farm families then proceed to hand down their land to their (many) children (at least until the 19th century. Prior to the 19th century, the law designated that family members had the right to receive or refuse land first before it could be sold outside of the family). This meant they’d break up their old strips and portion them into new, more thinly sliced strips.
(fun fact: the designated space of an ‘acre’ used to mean an approximate rectangular amount of land that it took for you and a work horse/ox to plow within a day’s period of time. The measurement of an ‘acre,’ when taking into account i.e. soil quality and/or your horse’s strength, thus meant something different to people living in different places)
As you can imagine over many generations, with a finite amount of land to go around and new corporate laws in the 19th century, many Swedish farmers were unable to economically compete with such tiny slivers of land and decided to sell off their land (frequently, farmers weren’t really given much of a choice other than, go bankrupt or go away). Many of these small scale farmers either moved to America in the late 1800s/early 1900s or moved to the cities to find work (for example, Stockholm’s population doubled between 1880-1890).
Following world war two, Sweden opened the floodgates further to international trade. Many of the remaining Swedish farmers took another hit as grains, imported from countries that didn’t have to cope with the long winters or poorer soils of Sweden, flooded in and undercut Swedish grain prices. Much like farmers in U.S. during the 20th century, you either had to “get big or get out.”
To give you an idea of how this changed functional land use, if we were to compare the amount of agricultural land that remains today, there was once 3X more pasture landscape in Sweden prior to WWII. Much of this land has been converted to monocultures of forest (primarily dictated by global economics). The government and agricultural department, finding these figures disconcerting in light of future food security and agriculturally-related biodiversity issues, have engendered laws to protect agricultural land from being converted to forest land (I realize this is a very simplified history as I’m not going into detail about the changing property laws but, you get the gist of what’s going on).
Institutional Protections have (intentional or not) Altered how Real Estate is Packaged and Sold
Now, the real estate folk have told us that it’s become much more difficult to find small-scale plots that contain BOTH agriculture and forest plots (you can buy large plots, but they are huge farmlands and forests) due partly to these institutional laws being backed and enforced by entirely different state entities i.e. the forestry department and the agricultural department. Often the entities either 1) don’t always communicate with each other or, more likely, 2) have their own entirely different laws to enforce and thus differing mission statements as to how the land can, cannot and/or hypothetically ‘should’ be used.
What has occurred in real estate, over many generations in practice and top down enforcement, is that small farm property plots have been separated into either forest land and/or agricultural land and/or summer houses with dilapidated barns falling apart. One rarely finds them all sold together in a bite sized portion affordable to, say, a generation absolutely fearful of being caught in debt. (I mean let’s face it, after 2008’s economic crash most of us ‘jaded, farm-loving urbanites’ are not interesting in taking such huge financial risks like buying a massive farm. Nor are we dreaming about raising 500,000 pigs in indoor pens).
A Complex Political and Historical Ecology for Small-Scale Wannabe Farmers
Our problem, you see, is that we’re dealing with a long political and historical ecology. One that is continually unravelling before us as an aging farmer population dwindles (average in the U.S. is 57+, Britain is 59+, Sweden 69% are older than 50) and an even smaller number of people are showing any sort of desire to take over such large scale industrial farms that are financially risky and back-breaking to manage. Those with capital and political power can’t seem to fathom ever changing or altering the industrial model of food and forestry production to anything other than what they’ve known. So a younger generations (people like us), interested in smaller, less-risky, more holistic approaches to farming and forestry, don’t really feel like we have any sort of access to even begin growing and feeding future generations.
The kind of ‘dream plot of property’ we’re looking for may have been available two hundred years ago but after an age of industrialism and international financialization, those smaller farm plots have been sold off into contracts of larger farm plots, forest land has been separated and sold off to foresters and hunters, and the houses have become ‘cultural relics’ used as summer homes or vacation spots outsourced to Norwegians who can more easily outbid and afford Swedish country houses than Swedes because of their oil-fueled economy (no hard feelings to Norwegians :), They know I love them). Can you begin to understand our frustration?
We haven’t given up searching! But we’re going to need some more luck in our search 😉 (OR you could just contact your nearest politician and/or entity-with-exorbitant-amounts-of-capital and voice our concerns).