From earth to table. Is self-sustaining with vegetables in the Faroe Islands out of style?

How a foreign student, without any prior knowledge or skills, tries to plant potatoes in a typical Faroese method in the backyard of Lindbergs hús to test if self- sustainability is a difficult undertaking in the Faroe Islands

Næmingar: 9th June 2017, Sarah Pötter
Útbúgving: West Nordic Studies, Governance and Sustainable Management

The idea of a small scale, self-sustaining project in the backyard of Lindbergs hús arose soon after my arrival in the Faroe Islands in late January 2017.

For me, who grew up in a very rural area, Cottbus to be precise, I am used to have plenty of own vegetables and fruits in the backyard, ready to be picked in raw amounts during summertime and late autumn, it was a fairly new experience moving to 18 island group of the Faroe Islands, located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

Soon after my arrival I was eager to explore my new home, Lindbergs hús, as well as the islands. The first questions that came to my mind after my first walks were:  Where do people grow their vegetables? Do they even have gardens in their backyards with fruits and vegetables?

After that, the first thought that came to my mind was: self-sustaining in terms of growing vegetables and fruit, is completely out of style in the Faroe Islands, it must be too convenient to buy everything in the store. Or the other theory I had was: it must be too difficult to plant something in this climate or the soil cannot be used for growing vegetables.

But then I wondered, how the first settlers survived in the Faroe Islands when they came here? They must have had some source of food to sustain themselves while living on the islands. You cannot live on sheep meat only.

Since I lived on the Faroe Islands for more than three months now, I learned that some things are not as they seemed to me in the beginning.

In the Faroe Islands, there are four main vegetables that are cultivated: potatoes, turnip, rhubarb, kohlrabi. Furthermore, also the herb angelica is used more often again, after it almost got forgotten in the Faroese kitchen. Due to this limited selection of cultivated vegetables, most of the other vegetables need to be imported from other places around the globe. For the ones interested in the whole report: It can be accessed HERE.

Actually, several people do grow potatoes and other vegetables in their backyards, it was just me who didn’t saw. However, I got the impression that the Faroese society, especially younger people, but maybe it is the society in general, is more comfortable to buy products in the supermarket instead of putting a bit of effort into an own garden. So, I asked myself if it is really that hard and complicated to plant something in your backyard without having any prior experience?

The actual project:

Before the actual planting started, I invited our neighbours for a get-together. I wanted to get to know the neighbours as well as to hear about their experiences with planting potatoes and what to consider before starting. Everybody out of the 6 people I invited was really helpful and I appreciated their expertise a lot. I felt well received in the community from the beginning and received help from various people, also from some people I do not even knew personally.

Well, but regarding the actual project: I did a self-experiment with planting two rows of potatoes, each row contained 15 red potatoes. I did not choose the sort intentionally, I was just lucky that a friend gave them to me. I used the flagvelta method, also called ‘the lazy man’s potato field’ method, due to its simplicity of planting potatoes, at least so I heard from Rólvur Djurhuus, who is working at the Agriculture Agency. This method- flagvelta is exclusively used in the Faroe Islands, and I think it was an interesting project to see if even a foreigner without any knowledge, like me, can use this method. For interest readers, a detailed description on how to plant potatoes in flagvelta is provided HERE.

Furthermore, I thought in the beginning that the planting process will be much more difficult and time consuming than it actually was. We, Madalena, Poul and I spent approximately 1,5 hours cutting the grass and turf pieces and planting the potatoes. As fertilizer, I used organic sheep dung that I spread on the ground in a line. To visualise the whole process please have a look the planting description HERE.

I had a lot of fun planting the potatoes and with a few friends the process is even faster. Furthermore, I had the plan from the beginning that if I will harvest potatoes in fall, I will invite our neighbours and the people that kindly helped me, to a potato dinner. I like to connect people and create a new community around self-sustainability and make it more popular also among my friends. This process, was fun for me to do. I meet new people that were really eager to help me out and give advice. I think that younger people just need a make a little effort, because if I would not have had to do a project for the Green Student- House, I would probably just have planted some herbs in a flower pot for myself.

But starting the potato project, I got so much more out of it: I first learned how to plant potatoes and started a self-sustaining project. People where overwhelmingly nice and I just need to ask them for help or advise. So, I hope that at least a few people feel inspired by the description HERE to start their own self-sustainability project and that this website can help to facilitate knowledge of how to plant potatoes and to get more younger people involved in such projects. And even if this is just a small experiment, it will contribute towards the reduction of food imports to the Faroe Islands as well as it safeguards a certain food security. And speaking for myself: it also creates a good consciousness.

Summing it up:

If I really succeeded with my self-experiment of planting potatoes in our backyard cannot be said yet. I will need to wait until harvest season in autumn to be more precise about a possible success or failure of the project, measured on basis of the amount of potatoes that I will harvest. But from what I can say already is that planting potatoes in the ‘Faroese style’ was fun and not difficult at all, even for me, being a foreigner, never having planted potatoes in flagvelta before. I came up with the conclusion that planting potatoes in your backyard is the easiest task to do, convenient and definitely possible in order to start self- sustaining. In my point of view, self- sustaining is not out of style in the Faroe Islands since the younger generation recognizes the advantages of eating healthy and knowing where their food originates.

However, I still think that more advertisement, maybe already in schools, should be made about self-sustaining projects to get the attention of the younger generation and to maybe help them on their way by. However, I told everyone I knew about my project and hope that the word will spread, making it also attractive to other people my age. But another huge advantage of planting your own potatoes or whatever vegetables, is the taste. There is a difference in taste from homegrown to products bought in the supermarket.

Just try it yourself, start your own small self-sustaining project and taste the difference! I promise you, it will be worth it! And for the ones, wanting to learn more about the history and technical details of planting potatoes in flagvelta, the whole report can be accessed HERE.

Last remarks:
During my project, I met so many friendly people that helped me on my way, and were always eager whenever I needed some advice. A big thanks to all of my helpers.

Thank you all for your help! The planting team, from right to left: Poul, Madalena and I (Sarah)

This last section is dedicated to all the people how offered me their help and assistance. In changeable order, I want to gratitude:

Poul Vestergaard, a colleague from my practice learning placement, for his expertise and enthusiasm, his help and being my taxi driving whenever I needed something for the potato project.

Maud Vang Hansen, one of my fellow students of the Master’s programme, for sponsoring me with her red potato sort. I much appreciated your kind words and help.

Gunnar Rubeksen, for generously providing me with sheep dung from our own sheep and even delivering it to the Lindbergs hús.

Madalena Magalhaes, my neighbour, for her great assistance at the day I planted the potatoes and her sheer endless good humour she was always spreading).

The neighbours from the white and the red house, for showing up on our Saturday meeting and advising me on the different ways of planting potatoes and offering me all your expertise.

Our friendly neighbour of house no. 4, who kindly provided me with a ‘slicer’ to cut the pieces of turf.

Rólvur Djurhuus, who is working at the Agriculture Agency (Búnaðarstovan), providing me with a lot of academic background on how to plant potatoes in the Faroe Islands, the history, the different styles and technical aspects of such undertaking. And since it was nearly impossible for me to find material online and in English about it, he was very kind in answering my sheer endless questions.

Martin Mohr Olsen, Research Assistant and Project Manager at the University of the Faroe Islands, who financed the needed tarpaulin

Lau Blaxekjær, Assistant Professor and Programme Director of the Master’s in ‘West Nordic Studies, Governance and Sustainable Management’ at the University of the Faroe Islands, who helped me on my academical way.