OPINION: Iceland visit proves an eye-opener

“You surely don’t expect to learn much about farming in Iceland,” retorted a friend when he heard I was leading a tour to look at that country’s agriculture. “Maybe not,” I replied, “but we may learn how to survive in a climate and on a terrain, both of which can be hostile.”

Having just returned, I can report that our experiences exceeded expectations and I would recommend a visit to anyone fed up with Britain for the past few years. It will make you realise how lucky we are.

If it’s a tan you want, Iceland isn’t for you. The clouds cleared from time to time and we saw the sun occasionally lighting up stunning landscapes and geological phenomena, but through early June a brisk breeze blew, sometimes approaching gale force, accompanied by horizontal rain. The Gulf Stream kept temperatures at generally comfortable levels and the rough weather was a reminder of what Iceland’s 320,000 residents have to put up with most of the time.

We visited several farmers and in every case were impressed by their fortitude and determination to make a living from their land and find whatever advantages they could identify. As we travelled the island – about as big as Ireland but with more than 100 volcanoes, many of them active, as well as frequent earthquakes – it was difficult to see what those advantages might be.

Indeed much of the land is covered with huge lava fields composed of waves of moss-covered petrified volcanic rock. Where this is absent or has been cleared and the land beneath cultivated for farming, the resulting grass, and in some cases late wheat and barley, looked a good colour. Little artificial fertiliser is used, we were told, but the mineral content from regular “dressings” of volcanic ash falling from the sky makes it highly fertile. Geothermal energy, enjoyed by most inhabitants, is their most significant natural advantage.

Most farms have a limited acreage of improved land alongside a bigger area of unproductive mountain on which they graze sheep or Icelandic horses kept for trekking. Iceland attracts more than a million tourists each year. About 600 farms have milking cows. Their production is subject to quotas as are most other commodities, limiting the size of enterprise. We visited three milking 50-60 cows each and heard of one of 100, thought to be the country’s biggest.

Two of the dairies had installed robot milkers to free time for other activities to earn extra income such as making cheese, yoghurt and ice cream and, in one case, milk chocolates. Virtually every farm we went to welcomed visitors and offered local products from their own holding or bought-in craft items for sale. Jumpers, hats and socks knitted from the wool of Icelandic sheep were especially popular.

One farm was immediately below the EyjafjallajÖkull volcano that erupted three years ago and disrupted air traffic over Europe. The farm was covered with ash and the family evacuated, coming back in protective clothing and under escort to feed and milk their cows. But they had the foresight to video their experiences and later produced a CD. Afterwards they opened a shop at the end of the drive selling this and other volcano memorabilia. It appeared to be doing very well.

I asked the son of the owner how often he’d like the volcano to erupt to ensure a good living. He grinned and said, “Every 10 years would be nice.” Typical of how Iceland turns major problems to profitable advantage.

David Richardson farms about 400ha (1,000 acres) of arable land near Norwich in Norfolk in partnership with his wife, Lorna. His son, Rob, is farm manager.

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