Core Course Week

I am about to take on a very difficult endeavor and try to sum up core course week in one post. This week is an opportunity to dive deeper into core course material both in Copenhagen, and by taking a short trip elsewhere in Denmark. This really sets the core course apart from the rest of the classes, and gives students the chance to bond more closely with classmates and teachers alike.

Classroom Day 1

Monday started off in an untraditional classroom setting– the grocery store. Our class was split into several groups, each of which visited a different store in the city. Our goal was to attempt to count how many organic and non-organic products in each category of food the store carries, and also to approach several strangers to ask why they might choose organic food. Even the lowest-priced grocery stores in Denmark carry organics, and the higher-end ones are stocked with almost 70% organic products.

After lunch, we played the “Sustainable Development Game,” a board game that my professor has been developing for several years. Each person represents a fictional city, and the objective is to get three markers on each of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. This requires working together with the other players, rather than competing, and really gets you thinking about how to solve sustainability issues.

The Sustainable Development Game

Classroom Day 2

Tuesday morning, our class met inside a local movie theater, where we were gathered to watch a documentary on the big screen. The film, “Wasted!”, was created by Anthony Bourdain and takes on the topic of food waste from both a culinary and an environmental perspective. Rather than your average, devastatingly depressing documentary, this movie had a really positive tone, and focused on the really cool things that are being done all over the world to fight food waste.

In the afternoon, we split up into groups to interview various stakeholders in the area dealing with sustainable food. My group went to ØsterGRO, the first ever rooftop farm in Denmark. Food grown in the garden is sold in CSA (community supported agriculture) boxes, which are sort of like subscriptions to fresh, local produce. They also have a farm-to-table restaurant on the roof, which consists of a long wooden table inside a cozy little greenhouse. Diners sign up online and are seated at the long table with other community members, and served chef-prepared food only using local ingredients. Even in the winter, the roof was bursting with green. They even have a small pen of chickens and rabbits, for educational purposes (and for fresh eggs).

Lunch was provided back in the classroom (huge vegan sandwiches) while we swapped stories. Some of the places other groups went to include a small cricket farm, a package-free grocery store, and an educational garden. I’ll definitely be revisiting ØsterGRO when the weather warms up– it felt like finding a magical little haven in the middle of the city.

ØsterGRO

Travel Day 1

After a relaxing Wednesday off, our class boarded a bus bright and early on Thursday morning and headed to Sønderborg, which allowed us to nap for about three hours.

Map of our study tour

In Sønderborg, we enjoyed a pretty traditional buffet meal inside a conference building on the water. Two floors up, we attended a panel in a meeting room with six local leaders working to address climate and food issues in the area. One man was a conventional pig farmer in the area who provided perspective on the challenges of the industry. One company, Project Zero, works with government and industry to help the city meet carbon emission reduction goals. Another company, Positively Produce, works to educate kids and businesses on sustainability, and is developing a tool to assess the sustainability of food products in the grocery store. The last woman worked with the Sønderborg municipality as a food coordinator. It was awesome to hear from all these different perspectives and find out how the city is making unique efforts to address climate change.

On the beach in Sønderborg

We then took the world’s longest-range E-ferry to the island of Ærø. The ferry charges it’s gigantic battery once per day, using 100% renewable energy. The island is special as it produces more renewable energy than it can consume, and exports its extra energy to the rest of Denmark and Germany. We ate a delicious Mediterranean meal in the central area of the town, which looks a bit like a movie set with its perfect, candy-colored buildings. (Fun fact: more than 5,000 weddings per year take place in Ærø!) After dinner, we settled into our Hostel, an adorable house by the sea, for a relaxing evening.

Travel Day 2

I think our hostel had some of the best almond pastries in the world– I must have eaten about seven for breakfast, along with soft-boiled eggs from chickens we could see right out the window in the backyard.

Our first visit of the day was to Vesteraas farm, run by Nils Ørum and his family. This was probably my favorite visit on the whole trip– Nils is an extremely outspoken and blunt advocate for regenerative farming, and was not afraid to tell it like it is. The farm raises cows on principles of humane treatment and protection of the land, and Nils claims that his beef is some of the best tasting (and probably most expensive) in the world. The farm also has a fruit orchard and an extensive amount of land that is dedicated solely to biodiversity and conservation. Besides food products, Vesteraas offers “bed and nature” vacation stays, as well as educational tours for everyone from schoolchildren to companies.

After an extremely hyggeligt (cozy) lunch provided by Nils, we met with one of the municipality’s renewable energy coordinators, who showed us around the island’s biofuel plant and solar collectors, which use direct solar energy to heat water. We also saw where extra hot water is stored year round, which can best be described as a giant, insulated swimming pool. The island is extremely progressive when it comes to renewable energy and almost entirely self-sufficient–however, their next phase will be to try to produce rather than import materials for biofuel, and install more off-shore wind turbines.

We finished the day with a very serious academic visit to a local brewery, where we were treated to a beer tasting. I personally despise beer, but I managed to taste all 6 of them (for the culture, obviously). With the beer we also had some light crackers, which are made using the “waste” products of the beer making process– one way the brewery is working to become more sustainable.

Travel Day 3

View of the sunrise over the sea from our hostel

On our last day on Ærø, we were treated to a little bit of sun– just in time for our visit to Vitsøhus permaculture farm. The small area of land is packed with life– on just a few acres, they grow everything from leafy greens carrots to rose bushes and almond trees. Beyond just growing food, the farm aims to be an aesthetically pleasing place where people can learn and enjoy themselves. By mimicking the structure and complexity of nature, Vitsøhus is able to be extremely productive while simultaneously supporting biodiversity.

Permaculture, originally ‘Permanent Agriculture,’ […] is the creation of human systems which provide for human needs, but using many natural elements and drawing inspiration from natural ecosystems.”

Emma Chapman, Writer for Permaculture Magazine

And of course, I can’t forget the animals. The permaculture farm is home to Kashmir goats, sheep, ducks, and alpacas– those alpacas might nice and soft, but you’d better be careful not to cross them. It was a delight to see how the farm keeps flora and fauna in harmony with each other, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that the animals are so darn cute.

We enjoyed another extremely fresh lunch made by our hosts, and then it was time to say goodbye to Ærø. I was sad to leave so soon, but I definitely felt like our jam-packed days gave me a thorough overview of how such a small place is taking mighty steps to become a sustainable leader. I think that some much bigger countries could probably take some notes from the tiny Danish island (you know who).

Heading back into the Urban bustle of Copenhagen felt a bit surreal, and I felt a bit like I wasn’t the same person who left the city a few days earlier. As we settle back into the routine, I’ll keep Ærø in my mind and try to make more sustainable decisions in any way that I can.