Summer dairy farming at seter and støl
Many small farms in Norway have access to an abundance of outlying grazing land. For hundreds, if not thousands, of years, livestock have harvested the grass in outlying pastures and uplands in a shared Nordic culture of transhumance (the seasonal movement of livestock to summer pastures). Traditionally, the rich summer pasturelands have produced especially good milk, from which high-quality butter and cheese could also be made. Although the number of summer dairy farms (called “seter” or “støl” in Norwegian) has fallen dramatically, several initiatives have been implemented in an attempt to ensure that the tradition is carried on. Summer farming remains an important agricultural practice but is also a vital element in local and regional culture and identity. The summer farm’s function as a meeting place means a lot to many people, including those who work there and those who come to visit.
Written by Norsk seterkultur. Last updated 20. March 2023. Do you want to reuse the content? The contents are licensed for unlimited reuse
About the tradition and knowledge
The main principle of summer dairy farming is that the herd is moved to outlying pastures some distance from the home farm in the summer in order to exploit the abundance of grazing of outlying lands for milk production. In this way, the farm’s home fields can be used for other types of agricultural production, such as grain, potatoes and winter feed for the livestock. The period when the animals are at their summer grazing is called the “setertid” and lasts from early summer, often June, until early autumn, August or September, when the grazing becomes poorer and the herd is brought back to the home farm for the winter.
This seasonal farming practice is highly diverse and consists of summer dairy farms (seter or støl) operated either individually or by several farmers jointly. Some of the summer farms are also clustered together in what might be considered hamlets (setergrend). Summer farms may be found both in the mountains and the forests. Most of the summer farms still in operation belong to a more centrally located farm, while others are rented from farmers who no longer practice transhumance. Some are operated by museums or similar institutions.
Nowadays, the county of Oppland, particularly the area around Valdres, is the heartland of summer farming, although there are plenty of summer farms still operating in parts of Hedmark and South Trøndelag as well. Uniquely in Norway, the practice of summer farming is alive and well in many fjord and coastal communities, not just in what we refer to as upland villages.
In the past, it was reckoned that the cows produced 2/3 of their annual milk output during the summer grazing period. In a land where winters are long, it was crucial to convert that milk into products such as butter and cheese that could be stored and used through the cold season. Grazing of outlying lands is still extremely important as the basis for milk production during the summer months, even though the raw milk is now often collected by TINE (a cooperative owned by the dairy farmers) in large road tankers and driven to centrally located dairies for processing. Around 10 per cent of the farmers who practise summer farming produce various dairy products on site for sale direct to consumers.
The summer farms provide shelter for both people and animals. Traditionally, a summer farm would consist of a farmhouse (seterhus), where the workers lived, a cow byre, hayloft and a variety of other buildings used for different purposes. An important place was the milk store, where milk products were soured and stored. This could be a room in the farmhouse itself or a separate building. At many summer farms, the old buildings have been preserved, while at others new buildings have been constructed – either with modern solutions installed or kept in the traditional style.
Special tools used for milk production can often be found at summer farms. These are hand-crafted out of wood and can be very old. The dairymaid knew how important the wood and the souring cultures were for the final outcome. Every tool was used for a specific purpose: butter casks were just for butter, pultost (a kind of soft cheese made of soured milk) tubs were just for pultost, while the moulds intended for making sweet cheese were never used for soured cheese types. The dairymaid also knew that the wooden shelves the cheese was stored on were crucial. One of the best gifts a young dairymaid could receive when she wanted to build a new house with a cheese store was a well-used cheese shelf coated in a good ripening culture. Other typical tools to be found at summer farms include a separator and churn, cauldrons, flat griddles, waffle irons and fritter moulds. These old tools are still in use and the cheese cultures still alive at those summer dairy farms which continue to process their own milk.
Other expressions of the tradition include cow calls and songs, as well as melodies played on cow or ram's horns or the ancient wooden horn (lur), storytelling and rituals. Some dairymaids will announce their arrival at the summer farm to the magical folk (huldra) who are said to inhabit the place. These elf-like creatures will then leave the farm, but will remain in the neighbourhood and punish anyone who is cruel to the animals.
The summer farm is located in open country but is bounded by a fence that separates the summer meadow from the surrounding terrain. The livestock normally graze the outlying pasture during the day. After evening milking, the animals may either be kept in the cow byre until the next morning's milking, or be let loose to graze at will. Though most of today’s summer dairy farms have milking machines, a few still milk the cows by hand. The summer meadow grass is either cut for hay or grazed.
The practice of grazing and mowing over a long period of time has produced a particularly rich biodiversity, which is characteristic for the landscape in which summer pasturing takes place. Today, several of the mowing and grazing species to be found in summer meadows are red-listed, and continued operation of the summer farms is vital for the preservation of the cultivated landscape and its biodiversity.
Highly skilled practitioners
The most important competence regarding summer dairy farming lies with the dairymaid who has spent many summers working there. The dairymaids know how the animals behave and are good at caring for both the animals and the milk they produce. Those who process the milk themselves must also have in-depth knowledge of food hygiene and the production of milk-based products with long traditions that have been handed down through many generations. It is also important to keep the fences in good condition and repair the farm buildings. Such competence sits largely in the hands.
Knowledge of summer dairy farming is passed down from one generation to the next, often from an older to a younger person. Traditionally, the older dairymaids taught the younger ones, who often began staying at the summer farm when they were still children. However, in more recent times, this has started to go in both directions – across generations and families. Today, much of the knowledge transfer takes place in the form of educational courses at the summer farms, which are attended by people with a variety of backgrounds and skills.
Summer farming has been, and remains, an integral part of Norwegian agricultural practice, primarily in relation to the production of milk from cows and goats. Summer farming is an ancient pastoral custom, perhaps as old as farming itself in Norway. Archaeological finds in mountain valleys deep in the Sogn district provide evidence of summer farming as long ago as the late Iron Age, c. 600 CE. When the practice actually began has not been documented, but rock art in the form of cut and ring marks, as well as pollen analyses carried out at summer farms in several places across the country, testify to millennia of livestock grazing. The operation of summer dairy farms was regulated in the laws formulated in the 12th century. Farmers who failed to move their animals to summer pastures could be punished.
Plan for preservation
Summer farming in the Nordic region, as elsewhere in Europe, has declined significantly. Nevertheless, we remain a core area for this shared European form of pastoralism. In the 1850s, there were as many as 100,000 summer farms in operation. By 1939, that number had dropped to around 27,000. In 2022, there were some 750 summer dairy farms in operation in Norway, with far fewer in Sweden.
Active summer grazing keeps the landscape and its biodiversity in good condition, which is quickly lost when the practice is discontinued. Summer farming is kept alive primarily by small and medium-sized milk producers, whose herds probably average around 15 milch cows. In Oppland, the “heartland” of summer farmingsummer farming, herds average 15–16 cows, with an average milk quota of 70–80 tonnes. Such farms must be financially viable to continue operating.
In Norway, financial incentives, such as government grants for summer dairy farming and regional environmental programmes, are important and help to boost activity at such farms and check their decline in number. These initiatives must be further strengthened. Better arrangements are also needed to support the market for summer farm produce.
In Sweden, the summer dairy farmers themselves, researchers and the authorities have long been concerned about and have discussed the preservation of summer farming. In 1995, Sweden introduced a grant scheme to safeguard the continuation of grazing on summer pastures. Other subsidies address specific targets, such as the practice of scythe-mowing, the breeding of historic livestock species and the preservation of traditional cow calls. In 2006, a biodiversity programme was initiated with the aim of preserving holistic customs and practices, and traditional knowledge – including summer farming – in the spirit of the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD). Traditional summer farm foodstuffs are preserved by Sweden's Resource Centre for Artisanal Food.
Norsk Seterkultur, an association of Norwegian summer dairy farmers, has succeeded in establishing a labelling scheme for summer farm-produced butter (setersmør). The labelling of other summer farm produce is also relevant, and this is being done to increase market awareness of these products’ heritage. Norsk Seterkultur, Norsk Gardsost and individual summer farms also hold courses in the operation of such farms and the processing of milk products. Norsk Seterkultur is currently building a national network of summer farms that are open to visitors.
The Norwegian government’s policy platform (2021-2025) includes the sub-goal: “Ensure greater sustainability in agriculture through increased use of outlying pastureland, transhumance, adaptation to climate change, a focus on the soil and the establishment of a national centre for mountain farming.” In this context, several public agencies have examined the financial and legal initiatives that impact transhumance. Norsk Seterkultur has taken part in this process.
In 2018, Norsk Seterkultur, along with its Swedish counterpart, Förbundet Svensk Fäbodkultur och Utmarksbruk, embarked on the process of nominating the region's shared culture of summer farming for inscription in UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of the World.
By means of several surveys carried out in Norway, the factors relating to summer farming considered most important by the practitioners of summer dairy farming themselves have been mapped and identified, as have the greatest challenges to the culture’s continued existence. Conferences and field studies have also been carried out in Norway and Sweden, to provide greater insights into what characterises summer farming in both countries.
Through the nomination process, the two organisations have agreed to collaborate in several areas. Among other things, they will:
• Establish working groups to develop and preserve summer farming and organise annual theme-based meetings.
• Work with farmers’ organisations and government bodies to improve the financial viability of traditional summer farming.
• Jointly organise summer farm festivals and participate jointly in related exhibitions, such as the World Cheese Championship in Norway in 2023 and Grüne Woche in Berlin Germany.
• Share experiences between summer farmers and other countries where nomadic pastoralism is practised.
• Coordinate the provision of educational courses on, for example, artisanal food production, music, historic building maintenance and new technologies for communication and the herding of animals at summer pasture.
• Work with researchers to increase our knowledge and understanding of summer farming.
• Share and communicate good examples of recruitment to the practice of summer farming.
• Boost awareness of summer farming among children and young people, in partnership with museums, residential outdoor activity centres for schoolchildren and summer farms that specialise in receiving visitors.
• Work with local history societies and museums to inform the public of the traditions and culture associated with summer farming.
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