Den Stora Munken: Onslunda’s monument to donut economics

Younger farmers, increasingly disillusioned with conventional agricultural practices, were keen to turn to regenerative agriculture: farming that improved the environment while still producing food.

A visit to the Slow Coast would not be complete without a stay in Munken (“the Donut”), located northwest of Tomelilla in beautiful Onslunda. Its shape—round, with a large circular cavity in the middle—is symbolic of an idea that shaped the economy of the region: donut economics. 

In the early 2020s, most people had a sense that the current economic model was broken: inequality was rampant, the soil was bleeding, and things that seemed almost to be defined by their utter lack of utility garnered massive media interest and financial backing. (Remember the crypto-craze? Ask your grandparents!). However, a shared appreciation of the problem didn’t necessarily help with the corollary question: what should replace this broken model?

One idea—originally proposed by a British economist, Kate Raworth, recently knighted by King William—was that the economy ought to be guided by two overarching principles: it should operate within the safe “carrying capacity” of the planet, while fulfilling everyone’s basic needs. By drawing the planetary boundaries as the outer circle and the social foundations as the inner, Raworth ended up with the eponymous donut. 

In a move that surprised many familiar with the region, the small municipality of Tomelilla became one of the first in Sweden to attempt to implement this economic vision within its borders. The easy communicability of the image—every Swede knows what shape a donut is, after all—helped them garner support from local businesses and politicians. However, the agricultural sector was not keen on this new direction, realizing that the doughnut would threaten their established (and profitable) operating model: large fields containing monocultural crops in rotation, heavily fertilized and showered with pesticides to produce maximum volume. The farmers argued that this was the only way to fulfill the social need for nutritious food for all of the planet’s inhabitants—though the mountain of debt they had accrued in purchasing equipment, amplified by ever-shrinking margins, would have made their holding any other position rather difficult. 

Given their centrality to the local economy, the farmers’ resistance was a big blow to the project. But the farming community was not a monolith, and younger farmers, increasingly disillusioned with conventional agricultural practices, were keen to turn to regenerative agriculture: farming that improved the environment while still producing food. Chief among this group were four farmers who co-owned a farm outside of Onslunda. Through a combination of no-till agriculture, the planting of cover-crops, and agroforestry, they managed to increase the amount of food grown on their land while also providing new habitats for birds, insects, and reptiles, they also sequestered much more carbon by paying attention to soil health.

As the years passed, the Onslunda farmers—and those brave enough to follow their lead—fared much better financially than the big operators, as well as enjoying a more convivial relationship with the soil. They replaced chemical inputs with human labor, provided much-needed jobs for local people, survived droughts and floods, and eventually became the main beneficiaries of the new agricultural subsidy reform. As the cost of petrochemical inputs soared in the wake of the wars, conventional agriculture—already struggling with ever-slimming margins throughout the 2020s—became a losing business; when the government offered to write off debt on equipment in exchange for a transition to regenerative agriculture, many accepted. Nowadays, food production in Tomelilla municipality exists on a spectrum, from the (slightly mad) farmers of Onslunda, to a few stubborn veterans who, having reluctantly retired their pesticides, still maintain large fields of mainly wheat, sugarbeets, and rapeseed.

It was around the time of the subsidy reform that, flushed with success and pride—and, one must presume, with a number of alcoholic beverages—the four farmers of Onslunda decided to manifest their vision in architecture. It’s quite a sight to behold: the sections of the donut most exposed to the sun are made of glass and used as greenhouses, while the other sections are clad in a mix of hay and local clay, serving as storage and housing. The canny observer will note that these buildings seem only to constitute half of a donut… but the structure is actually mirrored below ground, where a massive root cellar is used to store the vegetables, onions, cheese and fruit that the farm produces during the summer and autumn. 

You can stay at Munken as a working guest: bring comfortable clothes (and a sun-hat or raincoat, depending on the season), because you pay for your stay by working the fields! Depending on the season, you may find yourself picking apples, stirring compost, or moving the chicken tractor; what you’ll do is far less than what was once a standard day’s work on a farm, but you’ll contribute enough to feel that you’ve earned a nice cool beverage in the shade. The local cider, when in season, is much recommended—but go easy, it can sneak up on you when you’re tired out from a day in the fields!

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