Axel Månsson was born in 1956 and raised inside the city of Brande in the middle of Jylland. Axel’s father was a self employed painter, but as far back as Axel can remember, he always knew he would be a farmer.
All the children thought it was fun when “Henrik The Milkdriver” came along with the milk-carriage and the horses Musse and Klaus. The others jumped off shortly, but Axel stayed put and drove around to collect milk at all the farms on the route.
Already at the age of 10, Axel was out helping the school teacher’s husband, who was a farmer. Here he fed the calves and loaded the cleaned beaks on the trailer behind the old gray Ferguson. He spent all his spare time and most weekends at the countryside. It was not the money that drove him , although there was a small payment from time to time, but a completely limitless interest in animals and agriculture. At the age of 12, he began to work with potatoes and earned a little money.
Became a herdsman at the age of 17
“I went out of 9th grade and was not good at reading, but I was good at mathematics. At that time you could almost always control what lessons you would like to attend to. At least in this area of the country”, Axel explains.
“So I did not attend so many lessons in Danish and Religion, and it became clear that I was better of starting at the school of agriculture. After two years at the school one had to get out to serve. It was in the southern Jylland and even though I was only 17 years old, I became a herdsman and it was on two different farms. I got a huge responsibility already as very young. All the trust that was shown to me at that time, I have felt throughout my life”, Axel says with some humility in his voice.
Axel did certainly get a lot of self-esteem in his younger years, and he is sure that is has had a crucial role in reaching as far as he is today.
“As a 20 year old I bought crew and machinery and rented land of a widow to the local bank-director. She had 16 dairy cows, 40 fatted pigs and 300 hens and had employed 2 men and a girl in the house. But when I took over she fired the people and I did it all by myself, while I was working at another place as well, so she probably did not run the place very efficiently”, Axel says while laughing.
Chinese cabbage: From failure to success
Axel bought and rented more and more land and several farms. Chinese cabbage was one of the crops he was successful with, but not without problems:
“Oh, that story I have told so many times,” he says as he laughs. “One day – it was in the early 80’s – my daughters wife came home with a Chinese cabbage and a bag of seeds. I tasted the cabbage and thought it tasted very good. The cabbage had cost 20 kroner and the seeds almost nothing. And then I figured out that I could plant 60,000 cabbages per acres and soon becoming a millionaire. So I bought and saw a kilo of seed and figured that my happiness was done. But result was, that I only sold 230 kinakål to 1.80 kr. Pcs”, Axel laughs loudly as he shakes his head off his own naivety.
After that he contacted the plant breeder and started right from scratch instead. The production of Chinese cabbage was a great success and after a short while Axel Månsson became a supplier to COOP (one of Denmarks biggest food-chains). Axel has also met great difficulties – and so big that most people would have given up along the way:
“In 1987-88 we almost went bankrupted. But I always had a strong belief that we would probably get through. Even though lawyers and auditors had given up, I still made some agreements with the company Hedegaard , so I could get through it all”, Axel explains .
Parallel breeding may work well
Today, it’s not Chinese cabbage that’s driving the business. Chinese cabbage is not as popular as it once was, but Axel is, besides another producer, the only one still producing the almost legendary vegetable. Instead, it is the iceberg salad, which is the bearing crop in the company Axel Månsson today. In addition, a few other salad types are grown, as well as 5-7 different kinds of onions. Most crops are grown conventional in Axel Månsson Friland Aps, but onions and iceberg lettuce are also grown organically in Axel Månsson Øko Aps.
The risk of confusion of conventional and organic production is minimal:
“We have some very thorough procedures for how we handle the things we produce,” says Axel. “The organic iceberg is packed in labeled bags, which are placed in boxes directly in the field. The bulbs each have their physically distinct layers. We always pack onion on certain days and it’s always the organic we start with in the morning. All boxes are labeled and we pay very much attention all the time and regularly follow up on procedures. We have to be absolutely certain, that no one will be able to question our products or the way we do things”, Axel says.
Organic has come to stay
Organic production started together with the chickens.
“I started with an organic egg production back in 1999. We had had free-range egg production for some years, so it was not that big a step to move on to organic production”, Axel says.
Today, Axel Månsson A/S has about 200.000 organic chickens and is thus one of the largest organic egg producers in Denmark. He was also one of the first in Denmark, who was granted permission to keep the hens on several floors. The eggs are always delivered to Hedegaard. The hens are white Italians.
“I have always liked to see my animals being out, so organic production also appeals to me in this area,” says Axel.
“But it is also the professional challenge in the organic productions that drives me. When I started as a farmer, there was also mechanical weed control with weed harvester and so on. But then came conventional agriculture with the use of pesticides, and it was amazing for us at that time and was perceived as a big step forward”, Axel explains.
But things has changed. Axel was one of the first to go in the opposite direction in the 80s where he shifted to the somewhat controversial IP production, which has since been replaced by Euro GAP and recently Global GAP. To be certified to Global GAP, one must meet a variety of environmental and quality requirements as well as document about how the company’s products have been manufactured. So, even though Axel Månsson still operates some of the land by conventional means, it takes place according to rules that ensure a certain consideration for the environment. But Axel acknowledges that the professional and technological development in organic production has gone strong and the many new techniques and new knowledge in cultivation methods have made it realistic to invest even more in organic production in the future.
Vision of 100% organic
“Growing agriculture is also a mental development. This also applies to organic agriculture. We have become wiser and experienced that what we could not do a few years ago, we can do today. That’s what makes it so exciting to be a farmer: to use ones experiences to change and shape the future. My vision is to become 100% organic someday in the near future. I would like all Denmark to be organic. It would be great if we were known as an organic country out in the big world . But you must learn to crawl before you can walk and in order for our business to survive, we must do what we know we can and then develop one step at a time. If I had not had the conventional production, I would not have been here today, because then we could not have developed – nor within organic production. But I think that in the foreseeable future we will see it changing, so it’s the organic production that forms the basis for our existence”, says Axel.
In addition to the production in Brande, Axel has a partnership with Baltic Berries in Latvia through its company Axel Månsson Holding Aps, which cultivates 150 acres og organic currants, red currants and rosehibs. Axel is also part of a B2B Danida project in Egypt, where they, among other things, cultivate 50 acres of organic onions. The project includes health-care programs for employees and share of knowledge with the local producers