If you have driven through the Icelandic countryside, you have certainly passed several Icelandic farms. You probably assume – and with good reason – that they are sheep farms. But there is more going on than meets the eye. And depending on where you are, the farm may actually have different functions. Believe it or not, some things actually grow here! Let‘s take a closer look at the Icelandic farm.
Sheep Farming and Livestock
Sheep are not native to Iceland. They were brought to the island by the Norse and Celtic settlers in the late ninth and early tenth centuries. Raising sheep would be the traditional occupation of Icelanders for centuries until fishing became a huge industry. The Icelandic sheep is double-coated. The outside layer, tog, gives the sheep protection from snow and rain. The inner coat, þel, insulates them from the cold. The two types of wool can be used independently, but when worked together, they create the Lopi—a distinctively Icelandic wool used for their beautifully patterned sweaters, the lopapeysa. The meat is pretty delicious too!
The other famous farm animal is the Icelandic horse. The Icelandic horse is a huge part of Iceland‘s heritage, having been brought to the island by the original settlers and left to grow in isolation. While in the VERY old days, Icelanders would eat horse meat (it is still available in some grocery stores), the majority of horses in Iceland are today not for consumption. Farmers raise them to ride, for competition, breed and export – the Icelandic horse is in high demand in other parts of the world – and for tourism. There are many horseback riding tours to choose from year-round!
Icelandic Cattle, Chicken and Pigs
Less popular and more difficult to find in Iceland are its cows. The Icelandic cow is a small breed, related to the Scandinavian cow. They are raised in Iceland for their meat but mostly for their dairy. Most dairy farms are located in South Iceland, but they can also be found along the coasts. There are about 600 dairy farmers in Iceland, and 90% of them supply one company – MS Dairies.
The Icelandic chicken was similarly introduced to Iceland when settlers appeared in the ninth century. Over the centuries, it has been bred to thrive in the harsh conditions of island life in the North Atlantic. They are good foragers, they can handle very cold temperatures, and they are actually pretty good fliers. The population in Iceland is relatively small, with only about 3000-4000 birds.
Pigs were arguably a very important animal to the Norse settlers of Iceland, as several place names reference them: Svínafell, Svínadalur, etc. The deforestation of Iceland after the settlement seems to have affected swine in particular, as they disappeared by the 17th century. They returned in the 19th century, but pig farming did not really take off again until around 1930. Since then, Icelanders have developed a taste for bacon that cannot be satisfied with Icelandic pork and has to be imported!
Crops and Vegetables Grown in Iceland
Iceland‘s harsh climate and rough terrain make it difficult to grow very much on the island. But over the years, we have been able to cultivate some homegrown vegetables and some crops. Many herbs grow wild throughout the Icelandic countryside, such as sheep sorrel, creeping thyme, birch and dulse. Several types of berries also grow in the Icelandic wild, including crowberries and bilberries.
There are small pockets around the country of rich arable soil near geothermal areas in which Icelanders have been able to grow potatoes. Over the decades, farmers have been able to grow cauliflower, carrots, rhubarb, rutabaga, cabbage, and leeks as well.
Beginning in 1924, Icelanders began to harvest natural geothermal energy to grow more vegetables in greenhouses. The greenhouses are heated by geothermal energy, while farmers use clean glacier water and electronic lights to help crops grow. The main vegetables produced in Iceland‘s greenhouses are tomatoes, cucumber, peppers, cabbage, strawberries, and mushrooms.
Vegetables grown in greenhouses make up about 43% of domestic vegetable consumption.
Many of these come from Hveragerði, a small town about 45 km (27 mi) east of Reykjavík, known as the greenhouse capital of Iceland. Along with mushrooms and tomatoes, the farmers in Hveragerði grow something that most would not expect from Iceland – bananas. Icelanders love bananas and were once Europe‘s biggest consumer per capita of the yellow fruit. Thanks to their greenhouse technology, however, we have come to grow our own. Rumour has it that the banana plant in Hveragerði is the largest in Europe.
From a distance, the Icelandic farm looks similar to those in mainland Europe or North America: there are traditional farm animals, tractors, barns, and more. But Icelanders have had to get creative. Cereals and many other crops cannot grow here because of the harsh terrain, limited daylight, and brutal weather. Turning to geothermal heat, greenhouses, and renewable energy has revolutionised Icelandic farming and vegetable production. If we can grow bananas, there is no telling what technology can help us grow next!