The Great Pumpkins

Sweden’s climate isn’t ideal for pumpkins, but this organic farm beats the odds.

Irene Virag September 1, 2011

Sea-girt and windswept, Öland Island sits off the southeast coast of Sweden in the Baltic Sea. The sun lights the night and the water warms the land into autumn. The wind blows away insects. It is a good place for growing things—like giant pumpkins.

The island is known as a vacation spot. White sand beaches, ancient castles, Viking rune stones, and the ruins of old windmills beckon tourists. There are bicycle and birding trails. Visitors walk in the footsteps of the famous Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, who hiked through the limestone steppes of Stora Alvaret, a World Heritage site where 32 varieties of orchids grow.

But for more than 6,000 years, this narrow strip known as "the island of wind and sun" has also beckoned farmers—men like Stefan Gossling, a native of Germany, who heard the call, and in heeding it realized a dream of a healthier way to live. He found the working organic farm for sale on the internet, and as he recalls, "I saw the pictures and fell in love. I wanted my daughter to have a calm place to live." And like so many others who are finding their way back to the land and taking up farming, Gossling is a self-proclaimed idealist who believes in organics.

The 80-acre tract that stirred Gossling's heart is named Solberga Gård—a.k.a. Sunny Hill Farm. First farmed in the early 1600s, it has been buffeted by fire and hard times. But the land has endured.

Today, the farm is visited by as many as 40,000 people a year—about 7,000 of whom come the last weekend of September for an annual harvest festival that features the Swedish Pumpkin Championships.

Pamplona may have the running of the bulls and Boston its marathon, but Solberga Gård has pumpkins. Extremely large pumpkins.

Not that Sweden has the best climate in the world for raising giant pumpkins. That distinction belongs to the United States, where many of the world-class mammoths hail from the northern regions around New England, and the Great Lakes. And southern Canada also weighs in. The world record is 1,810.5 pounds, set in Wisconsin in 2010. There are hundreds of pumpkin varieties, and about 40 of them are grown at Solberga Gård. But a prize-winning specimen starts with the right kind of seed, and there are specialists who supply giant vegetable strains for everything from parsnips to pumpkins. Gossling singles out 'Dill's Atlantic Giant', which is known as the granddaddy of classic behemoths, as one of the best varieties.

Because of Sweden's cool climate and long summer days, seed for giant and regular-sized pumpkins as well as dozens of winter squash varieties is sown around the end of April. The everyday pie-fillers are sown and grown outside, while the giants get jump-started in large pots in a cool greenhouse. When seedlings are about 3 weeks old, they are planted outside, but only on a warm day. No less than full sun will do, because lots of sun equals better taste. These growing practices apply to most of the places across the globe where pumpkins grow.

As is often the case with potential champions, the heavyweights are coddled. Young plants are protected from a chance late frost with nonwoven row cloth, which lets light in but keeps cold out. To encourage pollination, the cloth is removed when flowers appear. And before long, the flowers turn into pumpkins great and small, ready for soups, pies—and the scale.

The farm is a sustainable operation, and its livestock makes a valuable contribution. Manure is essential to soil preparation, since mammoth squash require deep, rich soil and plenty of moisture, which is provided by an irrigation system. The Swedish summer sun shines for as much as 18 hours a day. And the farm's organic tradition is stronger than ever, thanks to Gossling, who is finishing his second season as the man behind Solberga Gård.

By his own description, Gossling is "the green guy" at Lund University who teaches courses about such things as the impact of air travel on climate change and how corporate social responsibility and tourism affect the environment. "When I was a boy, we had a plot of land in Germany. I grew carrots and potatoes. My father was very fond of the different types of apples, cherries, and plums we grew. If anybody asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I'd say, 'a farmer.' " Now he spends as much time as possible at Solberga with his wife, Meike Rinsche, a schoolteacher, and their 6-year-old daughter, Linnea, who—yes—is named after the botanist's favorite flower, Linnaea borealis, commonly known as twinflower.

Linnea is especially fond of the farm's three horses, but other farm animals include pigs, sheep, and three cats. The farm is renowned, however, for its vegetables. Asparagus is a big crop at Solberga Gård, and the fields are filled with garlic, potatoes, six varieties of tomatoes, melons, squash, raspberries, corn, beans, onions, cucumbers, beets, peas, celery, red and green lettuce, artichokes, and Swiss chard, to name a few. And Gossling brought peanuts from Barbados. And, of course, pumpkins—40 varieties in all.

Like most organic gardeners, Gossling rotates crops around his six 1-acre fields.

"We shift the crops every year, except for asparagus, which stands in the same field over a 15-year period. We use our own compost and manure from a neighbor. We have little problem with insects, because it is windy and dry."

All the weeding is done by hand and there is a supporting cast of workers, but this season tourists were invited to pitch in as part of Solberga Gård's down-to-earth attraction. The farm includes a top-rated restaurant that features its own vegetables in soups and salads as well as a tasty lamb sausage. And farm-produced products such as salami and honey are sold in a newly refurbished shop. There's also a hotel and two summer houses available to rent.

All the food and facilities at Solberga Gård follow the precepts of KRAV, an organization that certifies and monitors organic enterprises in Sweden. The farm was certified in 1988, and Gossling wants to build on that. Immediate plans include a line of organic apple juices from the heirloom varieties Gossling planted when he took over, organic jams in unusual combinations like peaches and tomatoes, and an organic microbrewery. And he's persuading chefs from all over Oland to tend their own plots on the farm and grow their own vegetables.

"I have a long-standing ambition," he says, "to have the entire island certified as being green. It would be the first region in Sweden to be certified as organic."

On an island of wind and sun, that's an idea worth cultivating.

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