A dog’s head pops above the tall, windswept grass the moment after Maria Eriksson blows her whistle. With an eruption of motion, the dog sprints across the pasture, looping around the sheep grazing in the distance. Maria’s whistle cries out again, a long blow followed by two sharp retorts, and suddenly the sheep are in a tight group ambling toward us. By the time they reach us their flanks are heaving, and the dog, task complete, leaps into a deep, brackish puddle to cool off.
We’re standing in the rough, seaside pasture that belongs to Maria and her husband Torbjörn, who together own Ammor Gård, a sheep farm, shop and farm stay on the Swedish island of Gotland. We’ve been brought together by their friends, My Wrethagen and Linus Ström, who own their own farm stay and restaurant, called Hotel Stelor, nearby. The sheep aren’t just the couple’s livelihood, they’re also an important aspect establishing a new tradition of farm-to-table cooking on the island, as well as part of a new business venture for Wrethagen and Ström—Gotland’s first farmer-focused wholesale distribution company.
Gotland, a 1,229-square-mile island that lies in the Baltic Sea not far from Stockholm, is a popular summer destination both for Swedes and tourists from northern Europe and the Baltics. According to data from 2016, roughly 60,000 people live on Gotland year-round, while around 2.2 million traveled to and from the island in that same year alone. Tourism drives Gotland’s economy, to which hospitality and restaurants are integral—perhaps even more so since the number of visitors coming to the island have dropped during the coronavirus pandemic.
There are at least 1,400 farms on the island, meaning there should be no shortage of food to source locally. The problem, though, is that while farmers on Gotland produce high-quality meat, dairy and produce, very little of it ends up on the plates of visitors. This is partially because it’s hard to obtain—as it is for many islands, whether they be in the Caribbean or Baltic seas—but more so because Gotland (and Sweden in general) simply doesn’t have the kind of farm-to-table food culture that is so prevalent across the US.
“We have distribution here on Gotland, but it’s very traditional,” says Wrethagen. “You phone someone who sits in an office and they put the numbers into the computer. No people in the chain know what the produce looks like. They don’t taste it, smell it. Even if it was a good-quality product at the beginning, it has always been in storage for four or five days.”
Restaurants that want ingredients from local farmers either have to pick it up themselves—which they usually don’t have time to do during the peak of tourism season—or the farmers have to make deliveries, which is both time- and cost-prohibitive.
Making things even more complicated, there’s little economic incentive for restaurants to go the extra mile to obtain local ingredients, nor is there a widespread understanding of just how much better those ingredients can be. That’s a particular shame considering what Gotland’s terroir has to offer. The island’s interior has a rich soil, and its northern geographical location means that during the summer it experiences the long stretches of sunlight colloquially known as the “midnight sun.” Those two factors combined with the mild climate translate into a lengthy growing season that produces a bounty of flavorful produce, including a type of dark blue berry called blåhallon (or salmbär in the Gotland dialect), ramsons (a type of European wild garlic) and truffles, as well as wheat, legumes and asparagus.
This is where Wrethagen and Ström come in. They’ve partnered with Andreas Lindberg, a friend and former culinary school classmate of Ström who started and runs a distribution company called Bondens Skafferi. Wrethagen says that, unlike other distributors, Bondens Skafferi more clearly identifies from which producers ingredients come and is more dedicated to making sure that products are fresh, seasonal and high quality.
Kristoffer and Hanna Dagerås. Photo courtesy of Gåsemora Gårdskrog
Establishing a better wholesale distribution system isn’t just good for business though, it’s also integral to establishing a farm-to-table food culture on the island itself.
“If you look at Gotland as a destination, it’s really summer-oriented, and it’s always been that way,” says Erik Öhrn, project manager and leader at Sustainable Speis, an EU-funded project that strives to make Gotland into a more sustainable, year-round tourism destination. (Wrethagen is also employed by Sustainable Speis, where she is head of communications.) Öhrn says that the burst of tourism the island experiences during the summer has helped to create a system where there isn’t much need to innovate or to reconsider business practices.
“It really takes engagement to make it work,” says Öhrn. “If you are a restaurateur and you want to work locally, when you get the pressure on you it’s quite the volume, and it’s easy just to get someone to bring out the [ingredients] so that you can open.”
Hanna Dagerås agrees with this. She and her husband Kristoffer run Gåsemora Gårdskrog, a renowned restaurant on Fårö, a small island that sits just off the northeastern tip of Gotland. Gåsemora is known for its local, seasonal cuisine, and the couple circumvented the issue of volume by having 30 seats, a set menu and only one service per night. But, even with those limitations, it’s still time consuming to buy local ingredients.
“The bigger you are, the bigger the problems are,” Hanna says. “Kristoffer and I buy quite a lot directly from the farmers and we spend a lot of time talking to different farmers, and mostly we pick the vegetables up when we are on our way to Gåsemora. And, of course, it takes a lot of time.”
There are advantages, though, for restaurants like Gåsemora Gårdskrog and Hotel Stelor that embrace farm-to-table sourcing.
“I can’t sell all the lamb I produce on this farm,” says sheep farmer Torbjörn. Thanks to different prices being offered for meat from animals of different ages, it’s also not economically viable to sell meat from an animal that’s more than one year old. But by selling directly to a chef like Ström at Hotel Stelor, who might prefer meat from an animal that’s older, Torbjörn can find a market for a product he’d otherwise take a loss on, and Wrethagen and Ström can purchase meat for their farm stay they couldn’t buy otherwise and for less than it would cost even if it were available from the regular wholesaler.
Introducing a farmer-focused purveyor system can also benefit produce farmers. While the majority of tourists visit the island in July and August, Gotland, thanks to its climate and geographical location in the northern hemisphere, experiences its peak growing season in September and October. Farms are at their most productive right at the point when tourism begins to peter out, and Wrethagen says that currently farmers are tied to selling their produce to middlemen owned by a single company. Bondens Skafferi would disrupt that monopoly.
Real change will require more than simply introducing a new middleman, though. It means changing the ways that restaurants on Gotland buy and serve food, as well as educating both chefs and diners about the benefits of buying from local farmers. Gotland is primed for this change though, and with this new distribution system, the birth of farm-to-table cooking on Sweden’s largest island seems to be on the horizon.