Swedish Berry Pickers in Lapland Lappland Sweden
Ban smiles at me as he lights another cigarette. This is his seventh summer in Sweden’s Lapland and he is here despite the Swedish Embassy in Thailand making it much harder to get hold of a VISA this year. Only Thais’ with close family living in Sweden, or those sponsored by a company will be out in the forests and mountains picking wild berries this year.
Last year Ban and his wife went home with enough money to live on for six months, buy a two year old pick up truck and help some of their poorer neighbours pay their debts. His wife is always with him and often picks more berries than he does. Sene is a demure 38 year old when she arrives, dressed like a bank employee.
Two days later she is dressed in her camouflaged clothing and peaked cap, barking instructions to Ban and his two brothers who are with them this year. When we are in the forest, I cannot help but think of the several Asiatic war films I have seen over the years. She cuts a formidable figure and would not look out of place with a pistol and grenade strapped to her belt.
They are all staying with Ban’s sister Lin. Lin moved to Lapland six years ago with her two daughters when she married Björn, her Swedish husband. At 20 years her senior, it is easy to judge Björn and the clichéd sex tourist appearance of the marriage, but spend some time with this family and you see there is a happiness in all their lives that would simply not exist if they had not met.
Björn is sitting in his kitchen with one of his adopted daughters on his lap. Heni was only five years old when she arrived in Sweden. Six years on she is fluent in Swedish, English and of course Thai. It’s clear who the boss is in this relationship. The retired stepfather is her personal taxi, financier and protector. Björn had lived alone most of his adult life, save the few years he moved back with his mother when she was ill. An instant ready made family changed his life overnight. He is a happy man.
I say my goodbyes to Björn and Heni and I help Ban load the two twenty year old Volvo estate cars he and the other Thais bought three years ago. With the cars full of containers, buckets, food and water and after a thirty minute drive into the forest, we are at one of their favourite spots. The idea today is to check where the berries are growing and pick a few to test the ripeness and quality.
Maps are marked as to where the highest yields will be and when the time is right, picking days will not be not wasted searching barren areas. Their only concern is that they beat the bears and the Ukrainians to the best crops.
The first berries to ripen are cloudberries. These must be picked by hand and only grow in marshy land which makes them the most valuable. This year doesn’t look so good, the snow melted late in the year and there has been a lot of water around which has washed away a lot of the plant buds, but we find some ground with hundreds of cloudberries waiting to ripen.
Last year was the same. The Thais picked as many cloudberries as they could, froze them all and then sold the berries defrosted three weeks later when the price had nearly doubled. It takes a while for the lack or abundance of berries to filter through to the buyers and the prices always begin low.
As soon as the buyers feel that they will struggle to meet demand, the prices begin to rise. A buyer’s job is a simple one. They sit in local halls, caravans and hotels with a weighing machine, weigh the berries and pay the pickers in cash. Every day or two throughout the summer, refrigerated trucks drive around the area meeting up with the buyers to collect the berries.
We walk half a kilometre further into the forest and are now searching for blueberries, the second wave of berries and the most sought after globally, not least because this berry was declared a super food some years ago. Chances are the little box of frozen blueberries you buy in your supermarket were picked by Ban and his wife, but you will be paying a lot more than the £4.00 a kilo they will get from a buyer.
The blueberries are good this year and just over the incline are thousands of lingon berries. This final berry of the season is a close relative of the cranberry and has been eaten in Sweden for hundreds of years. Lingon is a great source of vitamin C and is drunk both as a cordial and a juice. It has its own pectin which has helped generations of Laplanders preserve the berries in jars and enjoy them with their favourite meal of reindeer meat and almond shaped potatoes.
The blueberries and lingon are picked with a contraption that looks like a large hair comb fixed to the end of a small shoe box. The boxes are dragged through the bushes and after one or two swings, you will find berries mixed with leaves and a few twigs in the box. These are put in a bucket and then after a while the buckets are emptied into one of the larger containers in the car.
It’s back breaking work, but on a good day Fon, the youngest of the brothers, can bank around £120.00. When you consider the rubber boots he is wearing cost him less than a pound in Thailand, you can see why he doesn’t mind working so hard for these few weeks of the year. When he returns home in late August, he can take the following six months off to finish building his house. He is very happy that he can work on the house with his unemployed neighbours, who he can pay.
A few hours later and we are back at Björn and Lin’s house. The map is covered with crosses and the sample berries we have are good quality. The Thais change out of their juice stained clothing and we all enjoy a drink at the end of a successful day.
The usual joking and laughter begins while we watch Hon’s daughters sort the leaves out from the berries we have returned with. A tinge of envy waves over me as I watch these happy people who have so little compared to us in the western world, and yet get so much joy from helping others. We could learn a lot from the berry pickers.