The ship sailed into Eyjafjörður fjord, on the northern end of the little island.
Helgi the Lean, who was travelling with his Irish-born wife, Thorunn, their family and their livestock and household goods, threw his high seat pillars over the side of the boat so that Thor would guide him to his landing spot, but, when he found it, Helgi chose to name his land Kristnes, Christ’s Point.
The year was 890. One thousand and nine years later, one of his Canadian descendants lingered by the farm marker, nine kms south of Akureyri, knowing she stood on ancestral land. Icelandic farms are named, marked with the blue and gold signs, and designated on road maps.
The original buildings are long gone. Iceland’s forests disappeared soon after the Vikings arrived, victim to over-grazing by sheep, and an over-reliance on wood for fuel and the iron smelting process. Original farm buildings, sod and rock, have, the most part, vanished. They have been replaced most often, as have the buildings at Kristnes, by cream-coloured houses and outbuildings with red roofs, a unified whole, picture postcard perfect.
The poem Havamal, probably composed around the year 800, said to be the words of Odin, the Vikings’ chief God, includes advice on farm and family management:
Trust not an acre early sown,
Nor praise a son too soon:
Weather rules the acre,
wit the son,
Both are exposed to peril.
Today, farming itself is exposed to peril, with Iceland under siege from cheaper produce from Europe. The number of farms is shrinking, there’s a move to off-farm jobs which means moving the family into the nearest town, and local rural schools have almost entirely disappeared. In 1999, when Iceland’s President, Ólafur Ragnar Grímmson, visited Saskatchewan, he said that Iceland has a second concern as farms vanish. “Our farms,” he said, “are along our coastline. Without the farms, we have miles and miles of unprotected coastline.”
Delicately flavoured lamb, wool spun into cobweb threads for lacy shawls and high-fashion dresses or knitted into traditional Icelandic sweater patterns, unique horses, and quality dairy products have given Icelandic farms a reputation that is worth protecting.
While Iceland is nudged up against the Arctic Circle, the country has been blessed with the moderating North Atlantic Current and, from mid-May to mid-August, almost continuous daylight. Farming is a viable industry, with its face turned firmly towards tomorrow and technology but its backbone firmed up by 1000 years of tough times, tenacity, wisdom and tradition.
Iceland’s livestock came to the island with the Vikings.
The early settlers brought their sheep, goats, cattle and horses. Those animals have not been modified over the years. Attempts to hybridize the sheep were a disaster – the experiments produced animals that were unable to survive the climate. The Icelandic sheep has a long, coarse outer coat which is waterproof, and a fine, soft inner layer that serves as insulation.
The Icelandic horse has also evolved for life at home and Iceland is protective of the gene pool. Both horses and sheep share a genetic quirk. There is no colour rule. Two white sheep can as easily produce a brown or black lamb as a white one. Twins can be two different colours.
Once the new lambs can fend for themselves, the sheep are turned loose for the summer, roaming along the coastline and up the mountains, searching out the herbs, shrubs and blossoms that produce
unmatched meat. In the fall, many Icelanders take holidays to join the annual roundup.
The sheep are herded into pens where they are sorted out – they all wear ear tags – and brought home for the winter. The roundup would not be possible without the Icelandic horse which has evolved for the conditions. “Your North American quarter horse couldn’t manage our mountain slopes – they’re too big, too heavy,” the farmers explain.
The Icelandic horse, small by North American standards, is often called – much to the annoyance of Icelanders – a pony. Sturdy, hardworking, energetic, their unique quality is their five gaits. The distinctive tolt has given the horse an international reputation – a number of foreign magazines are dedicated to the breed.
Dairy is the other agricultural staple. The short, sun-filled summer produces lush hay but is not conducive to grain – although determined Icelanders are now experimenting with growing enough barley to brew their own beer – so cattle are raised on silage and hay, producing rich, delicate milk. There is a major cheese industry, and skyr is now also served up as a drink.
According to medieval sources, Iceland’s 9th century climate was mild enough to encourage grain farming. The early settlers also raised swine, fowl, goats and geese. In the middle of the 12th century, the temperature began to cool, a condition that continued well into the 19th century. Grain growing ceased.
Icelandic farmers do raise vegetables – potatoes, turnips and carrots in the fields and more delicate plants in greenhouses. Both hot water and electricity come from clean, pollution-free, cheap renewable geo thermal resources. However, long dark winters keep Iceland from being self-sufficient in vegetables year round.
The relatively cool climate does offer Iceland a unique advantage. The cold protects the land against most plant diseases and insects, almost eliminating the need for herbicides and pesticides. Being organic in Iceland is almost too easy.
Many Icelandic farmers have another treasured resource. Iceland is famous for salmon streams. Farmers lucky enough to have a river running across their property own the fishing rights and can sell them to the highest bidder who then sells the licenses. The significance of this asset? Iceland is Prince Charles’ favourite salmon fishing site, and a day’s license can cost $1000.
It’s not all Eden. There is no doubt that Iceland’s economic woes will filter down to the farms.
However, Icelanders are a tough and resilient people and young farmers like 20-year-old Kari Gautason from Vopnafjörður have no intention of leaving. Kari, who is also a saga-teller who explains that most of the farms mentioned in the Icelandic sagas still exist and are still farmed, spent time in New Zealand as an exchange student, and speaks, as most Icelanders do, exquisite English.
“Five years ago,” he said, “there were eight dairy farms in the area. Now there are only three left. It’s the market at work.” But, he said, the farm has been in the family for 200 years. No, his parents are not putting pressure on him. He would like to take over.
And he knows how to make it work. His parents are mixed farmers – cows, sheep, mink. “We feed the mink fish remains. They get 98 per cent leftovers. We recycle stuff and it makes nice skins.” The advantage of mink, said Kari, is that in a recession, it’s the mink that keep the farm afloat. “It brings in foreign currency,” he explained. “The skins are sold at auction in Copenhagen. They go to China, Russia, America.”
The family has another resource – an eider duck colony, producers of natural eiderdown, the much prized filling for duvets and winter jackets. It’s all fair, he explained. “We provide protection for the ducks from foxes, gulls and other nasty animals. Eider ducks have been protected since the 18th century and are not afraid of humans. The mother duck picks off her own down and lines her nest with it as insulation. We take the down and let them have hay instead.”
The big advantage of the crash of the Icelandic currency, they say, is the renewed interest in tourism. There are few hotels outside of the Reykjavík and Akureyri centres, and tourists doing the complete circle tour of Iceland on Highway #1 can run into accommodation problems if they don’t do some advance planning. To fill in the gaps, rural boarding schools convert to B&Bs for the summer. Farm families have also gotten into the business of providing room and board to visitors and have formed their own association, Icelandic Farm Holidays. As with the partnership between the eider ducks and Kari’s family, it’s a solution that offers real benefits for everyone.
Or, as recorded in Havamal:
With a loaf cut
and a cup shared
I found fellowship.