From the booklet "Icelandic Agriculture",
published by the Icelandic Agricultural Information Service .
Iceland was, for the most part, settled by people from Norway and the British Isles in the ninth century. Although this era is usually called the Viking Age, which suggests violent conquest, the original settlers probably came to Iceland with the sole and peaceful purpose of claiming land and establishing farms. Medieval sources report that some of them fled Norway because of oppression by King Harald Finehair, who had sworn a solemn oath not to cut his hair or his beard until he had united the country under his rule. Later research indicates that overcrowding and a shortage of farmland in Scandinavia in the ninth and tenth centuries also played a part in starting a wave of emigration. Support for this theory is found in the fact that Scandinavians sailed all over the known world and settled in areas other than Iceland. The Icelandic sagas provide a great source of information about life in the settlement age. The newcomers brought livestock with them from their homelands: sheep, cattle, goats, pigs, poultry, dogs, cats and especially horses, which were invaluable as a means of transport in this vast land. Icelandic farm animals are the direct descendants of the settlers' animals; the original stocks having been preserved. Through the centuries, Icelandic farm animals have had to cope with hard winters, famine and volcanic eruptions. They have had to adapt to difficult environmental conditions and are therefore unusually hardy, but by the same token, they are also susceptible to disease borne from abroad.
ICELAND AND AGRICULTURE
Iceland is primarily a food-producing country. For centuries, the country's basic industries have been agriculture, fishing and fish processing. Today the fishing industry provides the major part of foreign exchange revenues. The land itself is, in many respects, untouched by modern civilization, and the level of pollution is relatively low due to the small population and isolated geographical position. These are unique conditions for producing wholesome and unpolluted food products, and Iceland is self-sufficient in the production of meat, dairy products, eggs and to a large extent also in the production of certain vegetables.
Icelandic farmers employ the latest agricultural technology and production is subject to constant and strict quality control. Farming is based largely on traditional livestock raising. For centuries, Icelandic farmers have raised both cattle and sheep, so-called mixed animal husbandry, which is still the most common form of farming. Such farms usually also have some horses. Specialization has, however, increased significantly in recent years. Many farmers now raise only pigs, poultry or horses, or produce eggs exclusively. A considerable number of farmers are engaged in vegetable-growing or greenhouse production. More and more farmers are also becoming involved in the tourism industry and offer various different services to tourists.
Cultivation is almost exclusively confined to the lowland areas although most of Iceland's land area consists of highlands. Out of a total land area of around 100,000 km2, about 15,500 km2 is arable. However, only about 1,500 km2 of this land has been cultivated as hayfields. Therefore, considerable opportunities for cultivation still remain, although no further crop growing is considered necessary under present conditions. Farmers have mostly concentrated on the cultivation of grass, as the land is well suited to this. Conditions for grain growing are difficult due to the short summers and cool climate. However, hardy, fast-growing barley types do grow well here.
Icelandic grass is better and more nourishing foragethan most other grass grown in Europe. The explanation for this is found in the long hours of daylight during the country's short, cool summers. These conditions cause grass to grow exceptionally well during bright summers.
Some agriculture is conducted in all lowland areas. Icelandic farmers have relatively large holdings, which include on average 30-50 hectares of cultivated hayfields, the total size of farms often being hundreds of hectares. The largest continuous agricultural areas are found in low-lying areas along the south coast and in the northwest, where growing conditions are favourable and where farming benefits from the proximity of farms to the country's largest urban areas. In sparsely populated areas, such as the western fjords and on the east coast, farming is limited chiefly to the raising of sheep. Sheep farming exists in all parts of the country as the land is especially well suited to it. Milk is produced chiefly in the south and north of Iceland, where potatoes are also grown. Vegetable and flower growing are conducted mostly in greenhouses in the geothermal areas of the south and west. In the northwest, there is a considerable amount of horse breeding.
One characteristic of Icelandic agriculture is the varied colouring of its native livestock. Horses, cattle and sheep exhibit many colour varieties, no particular variety having been favoured. However, emphasis has been placed on the wool of white sheep being pure white, as this variety is more valuable.
The cool climate has had a formative influence on Icelandic agriculture. Cool weather means, for example, that farmers need good buildings for livestock during the winter. An advantage of the Icelandic climate is that the use of insecticides and herbicides is minimal. The cold protects the land against various plant diseases, insects and other pests which plague agriculture in more southern climes.
THE FARMER AND THE LAND
There are about 3800 farms in Iceland at present, but their numbers are decreasing. The majority of Icelandic farmers, about 75%, live on their own land, and holdings have often been in the same family for generations. The income of farmers is rather low and although most farmers live reasonably well, very few can be said to belong to a high-income group.
Although small in size, Icelandic farms are highly mechanized. Apart from poultry, egg and pig production, operating units are, as a rule, relatively small, family-run farms. The land itself is thus not overburdened, since little damage has been done to it through the use of large machinery. The standard of animal welfare is generally high.
Almost all full-time farmers are members of the Farmers Association of Iceland, which is the farmers’ trade union and provides advisory services for all spheres of agriculture. Each branch of agricultural production has an organization that represents the interests of producers in the area, and animal breeding associations are active in several production branches.
Between 15 and 20% of farmers have completed a course of education at an agricultural college. There are three agricultural colleges in the country, namely, Hvanneyri Agricultural University College in Borgarfj÷rur on the west coast and Hˇlaskˇli Agricultural College in Hjaltadalur in the north, which both provide general courses of education in agriculture. Hvanneyri also awards university level degrees. The third institute is the Reykir Horticultural College in the south of Iceland.
In the traditional branches of agriculture - dairy and sheep farming -production has been controlled for the last decade through a system of quotas. This is still the case for milk production and the quotas are freely tradeable, whereas in sheep production the quotas no longer control the production but are the basis for dividing up direct support paymentsbetween sheep farmers. Official price administration of agricultural products used to be the main rule, with a board of representatives of farmers and wage earners fixing the price of each main product, but presently this only applies to milk, beef and sheep meat (lamb and mutton).
THE LAND OF ICE AND FIRE
Growing conditions were quite good when the first Nordic settlers established their farms in Iceland. Medieval sources, such as the Book of Icelanders, report that the land was covered with birch woods and scrub from the mountains to the sea, and some descriptions make it sound like Iceland was a land of milk and honey. Research has shown that the climate was very mild in the ninth century and conditions were thus favourable for settlement.
There was some grain farming in Iceland in the beginning, and medieval sources mention swine, fowl, goats and geese farming. It is known that there was considerable cattle rearing until the late Middle Ages, when a rapid increase in the number of sheep occurred.
There seems to have been a cooling of the climate in Iceland and the rest of the Nordic countries around the middle of the twelfth century. The weather was changeable during the following centuries, with various indications showing that the climate slowly but steadily cooled well into the nineteenth century. Temperatures fell noticeably, which had a far-reaching effect on agricultural conditions. The land became more difficult to cultivate than it had been during the first centuries after the settlement, and grain growing ceased. This development had a great influence on the face of the land. It is believed that 65% of Iceland's land area had been covered with vegetation during the settlement age, 25-40% being covered with birch woods or scrub. 300-400 years later, most forest areas had disappeared and the amount of grazing had increased. Today, about 25% of Iceland's land area is covered with vegetation.
A succession of severe winters characterized by long periods of heavy frost, during which polar ice was driven onto Icelandic shores, caused many deaths among the population. Cool spring and summer weather accompanied by visitations of drift ice had an even greater effect on living conditions. Volcanic eruptions with lava flows and falling ash destroyed a lot of farmland, causing some previously populated areas to become completely deserted. The cooling climate and other difficulties made Icelanders more and more dependent on sheep. It was this animal that kept the nation alive.
Land cultivation was slow and difficult work before the days of modern technology. The interaction of water and frost in a land almost without forests creates hillocks that make haymaking difficult. Gathering hay was thus a time-consuming process. Horses were used wherever possible; otherwise hay was carried or dragged into the barns. The Icelandic nation survived in this way for centuries until the mechanization of agriculture began in the period between the two world wars.
Fishing was conducted hand in hand with farming and special rights attached to some farms were exploited whenever possible. Seals and sea birds were hunted and men lowered themselves down sheer cliffs on ropes in order to collect birds' eggs. Rivers and lakes were fished and eiderdown was gathered. The beaches could also be exploited. Edible seaweed and driftwood were gathered there, and people considered themselves extraordinarily lucky if a whale washed ashore. Sharks were also hunted in open boats and fishermen often endured great hardship.
Difficult living conditions set their mark on the Icelandic diet. Foreign visitors are often amazed when pickled rams' testicles or other traditional dishes are offered. Icelanders' consumption of this type of food is now limited largely to special occasions. However, some of the old eating habits have survived. Seared lambs' heads are considered a delicacy and are often seen on Icelandic tables, especially during the autumn slaughtering season, when blood and liver pudding is also traditionally eaten. Unleavened bread and smoked lamb are traditional favourites as well, and meat, mainly lamb, preserved in whey is still popular. Many people also consider fermented shark to be a delicacy. Some enthusiasts consider it the equal of fully ripe French Camembert.
Icelandic agriculture certainly had to contend with difficult conditions in the Land of Ice and Fire. But today research in all areas of farming, improved technology and better housing has made the job easier for Icelandic farmers. They pursue their occupation in a difficult land, where both man and animal must struggle constantly with the forces of nature.
AGRICULTURE AND PRODUCTION
At the turn of the last century, 77% of Icelanders lived in rural areas and were engaged in farming. By 1940, 32% of the employable population worked in agriculture. At the beginning of the nineties, the percentage had dropped to about 4% and will probably decline even more in the future.
As these developments indicate, Icelandic agriculture has changed dramatically during the course of this century, as it has in the other industrialized countries. There were few attempts from central government to employ new agricultural technology or improve roads and transportation until the end of the Second World War, when the government made great efforts to build up the country's basic industries. The process of mechanization had begun slowly around the turn of the last century but then ground to a halt during the Great Depression that spread over the world in the thirties.
During the course of a few decades, agricultural production capacity increased dramatically, and the shortages and rationing that Icelanders had known only too well had disappeared by the mid-fifties. At the same time, the processing of agricultural products changed as well. From the time of its settlement, Iceland has been dependent on imports for certain basic necessities. Icelandic agriculture now supplies only half of the population's required caloric intake. This amount, which is low compared to neighbouring countries, has steadily declined in recent decades due to the increase of imported foodstuffs.
The government's main purpose in developing agriculture had been to make Iceland as self-sufficient as possible in food, because a dependable supply of staple foodstuffs is vital to any nation's security. The authorities had also hoped that exports of agricultural products could be increased, as they had been an important segment of the country's exports over the centuries.
Emphasis was placed on increasing production in traditional areas of agriculture, i.e. dairy products and sheep, and export subsidies were introduced in the early sixties in order to improve the competitiveness of lamb and dairy products in foreign markets. Sheep stocks reached a peak in 1979, with almost 900,000 winter-fed animals. By the seventies, production had increased to the point where 20% more milk was available for domestic consumption than was needed, and there was a 45% surplus of meat from sheep and lambs. In other areas of agriculture, production in excess of domestic consumption was insignificant.
At the same time as agricultural production increased in Iceland, export opportunities decreased, and by the end of the seventies it was clear that the markets for Icelandic meat and dairy products had been lost. Since 1980, several measures have been taken to reduce the production of milk and lamb. A new law on agricultural production was passed in 1985, which authorized the Minister of Agriculture to negotiate with the Farmers Union (now the Farmers Association) on the quantity of milk and sheep-meat for which the state would secure fully administered prices. This involved a quota system and, at the same time, a gradual reduction in export subsidies was stipulated.
In 1991, a major policy change was made through negotiations and was manifested in the Agricultural Law. Actually, two agreements were made - one on sheep-meat, the other on milk. Both included the introduction of direct payments to farmers to replace subsidies at the wholesale level and a total abolition of export subsidies. Progressive reductions in administered prices were agreed, and quotas were brought back closer to domestic consumption levels. Quotas were made freely transferable between farms. Furthermore, farmers were no longer guaranteed the full price.
These measures were tough, particularly for the sheep sector, where over-production was considerable at the time. This, together with the continuous drop in lamb consumption, meant a drastic contraction in production quotas and a massive drop in income. Farmers and the Government alike recognized this situation as being unacceptable, and in 1995 a new agreement was made that extended to 2000, with some major changes. Firstly, the State assisted in clearing up the surplus stock of meat that had accumulated. Secondly, incentive payments were offered to farmers to encourage retirement from sheep production. Thirdly, an overall sum of support money was determined and direct payments were detached from production levels. The sheep quotas now only provide the basis on which direct payments are divided between the farmers, while production has been made free of limits with the obligation that all producers participate proportionally in the export of lamb.
Changes in legislation concerning agriculture in the nineties have generally focused on increased efficiency of production, price reduction and relaxation of production and price control, as well as liberalizing import control in connection with EEA-membership and the WTO-agreement.
The Icelandic sheep is special in many ways. For example, leader sheep possessing the qualities of the Icelandic type do not exist anywhere else in the world. There are many stories of how they have rescued both men and other sheep from danger. The wool of Icelandic sheep is also special in that it consists of two types: long and coarse hairs, called tog in Icelandic, and a short and fine inner layer called ■el.
Sheep farming is practiced throughout the country, although it is most common in sparsely settled areas. About 2,000 farmers get most of their income from sheep farming Icelandic sheep are so-called short-tailed animals, a type which was formerly common in northwestern Europe, but which is now found in only a few areas of the world. It is a strong, hardy species that has
adapted well to Icelandic conditions. The majority of the national flock has horns, but polled sheep are also common.
A few weeks after the lambing in May, sheep are sent out to graze in the hills and mountain pastures, where the animals run free until autumn, feeding on the rich, nourishing vegetation. Many farmers formerly allowed their sheep to graze in outlying pastures over the summer months, but as a result of the recent reductions in flocks, animals are increasingly kept in home pastures. As there is sheep breeding throughout the country, these animals are a prominent feature of the summer landscape.
Farmers gather their flocks in the autumn. In many places, the roundup is conducted on horseback and sheepdogs are used to assist the men. The entire process can take up to a week, during which time participants stay overnight in mountain huts located in many places in the highlands. Each sheep farmer has his own earmark, which he uses to mark his livestock. When farmers have gathered the sheep in the autumn and brought them in from outlying pastures, they drive the animals into sorting pens, where the animals are identified according to their earmarks. Each sheep is then dragged into the pen assigned to its owner. This is traditionally a festive occasion in Iceland and people usually take a holiday, celebrating with a dance in the evening. These events are so popular that there are sometimes more people than sheep present.
Sheep used to be sheared before they were put out to pasture. Now most farmers shear them in the autumn or winter because such wool fetches a higher price. Sheep receive mostly non-commercial fodder, consisting of dry hay and silage. Silage production in round bales has increased greatly, because it is a great advantage for farmers to be able to process grass into silage, given the fact that Icelandic summers can be very wet.
Icelandic consumption of lamb is among the highest in the world. Most slaughtering is done in the autumn, making the supply of fresh lamb seasonal, in contrast to other types of meat, which are available fresh all year round. In order to increase the supply of fresh lamb, the traditional slaughtering time, which previously occurred over a short period in the autumn, has been extended.
THE ICELANDIC DOG
The purebred Icelandic dog is a close relative of the Nordic breeds found all over Scandinavia. It is an excellent sheepdog and a very dependable companion; as well as good-tempered if properly cared for. There were no efforts to breed the pure type until the 1960s. The variety is now strong, and there have been considerable exports of Icelandic dogs to the other Nordic countries. The breed has done well in dog shows, as it is thought to be better-tempered that its Nordic cousins, the spitz types. In recent years, it has become a very popular family pet in Iceland.
CATTLE AND MILK PRODUCTION
The Icelandic breed of cattle is smaller than cattle in neighbouring countries. It is a hardy and fertile type of cow and produces a great deal of milk. The number of dairy farmers is gradually declining as the productivity of individual farmers increases. There are currently about 1,100 milk farmers in the country.
Most milk production and cattle breeding is conducted in the south, west and north-central areas of the country, near the major urban centres. The cows are kept in barns for eight months of the year and fed on dry hay and silage. The most productive milk cows also receive feed concentrates. Cows are put out to pasture in the summer and are usually very frisky for the first few days.
Icelanders consume an average of 158 litres of milk per capita per year, which is among the highest consumption in the world. They also consume large quantities of cheese, which is a very interesting development because few varieties of cheese were produced in Iceland before the sixties. Since then, many new types have made their appearance, and Icelandic cheeses have won many prizes in international competitions.
Beef consumption has increased significantly in recent years, as both meat quality and handling methods have been improved. Icelandic law forbids the use of hormones for promoting growth.
Horses were the chief means of transportation in the country until well into this century and were called, with good reason, "man's most necessary servant". There were few roads, and in the highlands especially, no other means of travel was as good as the Icelandic horse. The Icelandic horse is rather small, its height usually being about 140 cm. It is sturdy and hardworking and has greater endurance than its foreign cousins. It has a characteristic varied colouring that breeders have attempted to preserve rather than eliminate. As a riding animal, the Icelandic horse is exceptional in that it has five gaits, called fet, skei, t÷lt, brokk and st÷kk in Icelandic. It has become famous internationally for its various gaits and smooth movement. Icelandic horses are considered energetic and ready to run, and they are also admired for their even and friendly disposition. Icelandic farmers have traditionally been interested in the strength and endurance of horses. Most farmers own some horses and quite a number of farm owners derive a reasonably good income from breeding horses and training them for riding. The sale of riding horses to urban dwellers has increased significantly in recent years. The export of horses for riding has also grown. There are societies of Icelandic horse breeders in many countries, and there are a number of foreign magazines dedicated to the Icelandic breed. The interest in horsemanship has led to great improvements in the breed, with emphasis in riding horses being placed on appearance and build. Several training schools operate in Iceland.
Horsemanship has become a very popular sport in Iceland and many people in urban areas have taken up riding as a hobby. Several well-attended riding competitions are held every summer, where horses are shown and entered in competitions. Horse ownership is largest in southern and northern Iceland. Farmers have also begun operating horse rental services, and riding tours accompanied by guides can be booked. The Icelandic horse has thus never been more popular, even though mechanization has made the horse no longer necessary as a draught animal or beast of burden.
Horses are kept outside all year round and the animals become quite shaggy during the winter months. They are fed on hay and sometimes herring. During winter, horses that have been broken in are usually kept in stables.
Pig breeding has increased in recent years, and there are several large operations that produce most of the pork sold on the domestic market. Ancient place names indicate that pigs were kept at the time of Iceland’s settlement, but this breed died out. Pig farming was not re-established until the twentieth century. Pork consumption has increased steadily since, and has risen significantly in recent years. Although pig breeding is a relatively young branch of Icelandic agriculture, the quality of Icelandic pork is fully comparable to that of neighbouring countries. Each sow produces at least 17 piglets a year on average, yielding about 1200kg of meat. The use of hormones in pig breeding is not permitted and there are stringent regulations concerning animal welfare.
POULTRY AND EGG PRODUCTION
Egg and chicken producers employ a species from Norway. Fertilized eggs are imported regularly and the eggs are hatched in a special quarantine station. The chicks are then kept in isolation for a specified period before being distributed to chicken and egg producers. During recent decades, there has been an emphasis on producing chickens for slaughter. Ducks, turkeys and geese are also bred on special poultry farms. Modern egg and chicken farms have been built in order to satisfy the domestic demand for these products. Stringent regulations are in force concerning fowl breeding conditions as well as product standards.
There is still a very old Icelandic poultry breed in existence today. The hens are small and multi-coloured, and the cocks extremely proud and colourful. Some farmers keep this breed as a hobby. It was feared for a time that this ancient variety was about to die out.
Fur farming has been conducted in Iceland for over 50 years. The first mink intended for fur farms were imported in 1930. The industry died out during the war years, and it was not until the eighties that there were serious attempts to re-establish it. It was hoped that it would be a profitable new branch of agriculture that would compensate for the recession in traditional areas. The government and agricultural organizations encouraged farmers to consider this option and a number of fur farms were established to breed mink as well as silver and blue fox. However, at the beginning of 1987, the industry suffered one setback after another, the worst being a collapse of prices on foreign fur markets. In the wake of this development, fur farmers began to show considerable losses. Fur breeding has had to contend with extremely difficult conditions in recent years, and the number of farms has decreased rapidly. There was a total of 55 fur farms at the beginning of 2000.
The mink is not native to Iceland, but the fox is a native animal. The import of mink for breeding unfortunately led to some animals escaping and establishing themselves in the wild. This newcomer is not welcome because it is a vicious predator and causes considerable damage. There have been attempts to hold the number of wild mink in check, but the creature has proven to be incredibly adaptable and has spread throughout the country.
FISH FARMING AND RIVER STOCKING
There was considerable investment in salmon farming in Iceland around the middle of the eighties. It began with smolt production but soon expanded to include the raising of fish to slaughter-size in land-based stations and sea cages as well as ocean ranching operations. In land-based facilities, fish are raised in tanks. The advantage of this type of aquaculture is that growth can, to a certain extent, be controlled; and these stations can take advantage of available geothermal energy. Cage farming employs large pens anchored near the shore, while ocean ranching involves releasing smolt into the sea, with the hope that a certain percentage will return to spawn.
An increased supply of salmon from fish farms has led to a decline in world prices and financial difficulties began to plague this new branch of farming at the end of the eighties and the beginning of the nineties. Salmon raising has had to deal with various initial difficulties, but there are hopes that they will be eliminated through further research. In other respects, conditions for fish farming are excellent in Iceland. Unpolluted seas surround the country and there is an abundance of clear spring water for smolt production. Geothermal energy can be used to accelerate the growth of fish and the nation has extensive experience in the handling of fish products.
In recent years, there has been an increasing interest in farming Arctic char, a typically Nordic fish that is well suited for smolt production as well as raising for slaughter because it thrives in relatively cool fresh water. There is also growing interest in halibut culture and experiments in this area are promising.
There are about 80 salmon rivers in Iceland, where the fish are caught both by anglers and in nets. Net fishing is practiced only in glacial rivers, where the waters are murky from the debris carried by the rivers from the glacier. A number of farmers have released smolt into rivers, which has resulted in increased catches. Rivers have been made passable for fish by building salmon ladders in places where spawning conditions are favourable. Salmon fishing at sea has been banned in Icelandic waters for 50 years, which has led to fresh water catches being much higher in Iceland than in neighbouring countries.
All rivers and lakes in a given area are the common property of the region's landowners, who are obliged to organize fishing clubs to control exploitation of this resource. Arctic char and trout are found in many rivers and lakes and are fished with rod and net. Some farmers conduct fishing in these lakes. There have been good catches, especially where lakes are over-populated and there have been systematic attempts to cull trout stocks.
PRODUCTION OF COMMERCIAL CROPS, NURSERY STOCK PLANTS AND GLASSHOUSE CROPS
A special characteristic of Icelandic agriculture is greenhouse production. Approximately 135 growers are engaged in this production method, utilizing a total area of about 180,000 square metres under glass.
Greenhouses have been built on sites in close proximity to geothermal energy and use either hot water or steam from boreholes to provide their heat source.
Most growers specialize either in vegetables or cut flowers or potted plants, with the major crops consisting of tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers, roses, gerberas, lilies and various kinds of potted plants.
The main problem with growing under glass in Iceland is the long and dark winters, but by using artificial light some growers have started year-round production of certain crops, e.g. roses and cucumbers.
Icelandic growers cannot satisfy domestic demand in winter, during which time it is still necessary to import significant quantities of vegetables and flowers.
Although Icelandic summers are short and cool, conditions are relatively favourable for growing various kinds of vegetables, such as potatoes, carrots, cabbage, kale, cauliflower and turnips. The use of a covering for both the protection of outdoor plants against cold weather and wind, and for warming the soil, has increased considerably in recent years. This has enabled growers to lengthen the outdoor growing season and it has also shortened the time needed for vegetables to reach maturity.
The cool climate in Iceland means that the need for the use of pesticides outdoors is minimal. Wherever possible, greenhouse growers use biological methods to combat pests, such as insects and mites.
Icelandic nursery stock production began with plant propagation for forestry purposes.
Production of garden plants, i.e. trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals, was very small in the beginning, but is now a substantial business. Today there are about forty nurseries in this field and they use about 80 hectares for their production. There are about 250 species and varieties of trees and shrubs grown in Icelandic gardens and nearly all of them were originally imported species. About 50 species of annuals and 300 - 400 perennials are normally under production. Total production of forest plants amounts to about five million plants per year.
Fruit growing is not commercially viable and all fruit is imported.
There has been a steady increase in tourism in the last few decades in Iceland. Many farmers have started providing room and board as well as various other services to visitors. An association of farmers offering such services was formed in 1980, receiving the name Icelandic Farm Holidays. Its office arranges holidays in the countryside and, both at home and abroad, it promotes farm holidays on Icelandic farms.
Icelandic Farm Holidays has been very successful and its services represent a growing sector of the farming economy. The emphasis is on providing tourists with the opportunity to enjoy relaxing outdoor holidays. Riding tours and hikes to scenic spots as well as trips to glaciers are offered. Lake fishing is also made available, because many farmers who are engaged in tourism also sell fishing licenses for both rivers and lakes. In some locations, there is also deep-sea fishing and golf.
The Icelandic Farm Holidays programme is an ideal choice for tourists wanting closer contact with Icelanders and the natural environment. It is also a safer way to travel independently in this large and sparsely- populated land.
OTHER BRANCHES OF AGRICULTRURE
Goats have never been very significant in Icelandic agriculture, although they have been present since the settlement of Iceland. A few farmers still keep them, chiefly as a hobby, and receive financial assistance to maintain the species.
A few farmers have experimented with rabbit breeding, both the Angora variety and Castor Rex. Angora wool is blended with sheep wool in order to make it softer and lighter. The Castor Rex rabbit, on the other hand, is farmed primarily for its skin, which commands a high price on the market.
SPECIAL RIGHTS ATTACHED TO FARMS
The Icelandic farmers' relationship to the eider duck is a unique example of co-operation between man and nature. The bird's down is both light and a very good insulator. A number of farmers have nesting sites on their land, mostly in the western part of the country near Breiafj÷rur and in the northwest fjords. The down is carefully gathered from the nests, taking care not to frighten the ducks away. Many farmers have been able to encourage large colonies to nest on their land, because the birds actually prefer to live in groups near human habitation.
The down is cleaned and exported, or sold domestically. After processing, the down is an expensive luxury item used in duvets, sleeping bags and padded winter clothing. Eiderdown duvets are especially popular - and expensive.
The eider duck is protected in Iceland, and farmers who possess the rights to gather eiderdown do everything they can to care for the birds and keep predators such as fox, mink, black-backed gulls, ravens and other birds of prey away from the nesting areas.
A number of farmers who own land along the seashore have the right to collect driftwood, which can be used for various purposes, such as building fence posts or creating sculptures. Driftwood comes mainly from Russia and the northernmost part of Scandinavia.
Seal hunting was formerly a lucrative occupation but has now almost ceased. Seals were once hunted for their skins and meat, but the market for sealskin has virtually disappeared.
PRODUCTS AND PROCESSING
Most processing plants and sales associations are operated by farmers as partnerships or co-operatives. The largest processing organizations are the slaughterhouses and dairies. There is also considerable wool and hide processing. Tanned skins are exported to Italy and other countries. Processing is done in highly mechanized plants operating under strict quality control. Research on biotechnological products has also been conducted.
There are also various cottage industries connected with agriculture. The traditional method of cleaning eiderdown has changed little in the course of centuries. Some trout fishermen use the traditional method of burning sheep dung to smoke their catch for sale. Small firms have sprung up to smoke and marinate fish produced in aquaculture. Hand-knitted wool sweaters and hand-made souvenirs, such as woodcarvings, are popular cottage industry products.
AN ISLAND NATION
As Iceland is an island situated far north in the Atlantic, the importation of goods at various times in the country’s history has been quite difficult. Domestic animals have thus survived in virtual isolation from other species since the time of the settlement of Iceland. They have adapted to conditions prevailing in Iceland over the centuries and are now strong and hardy. But centuries of isolation have also made them very sensitive to disease from abroad.
Attempts to improve the Icelandic breed of sheep through hybridisation proved to be very damaging and made Icelanders realize how sensitive the native stock was. Imported sheep brought diseases that killed a large part of the domestic stock. In 1933, the import of Karakul sheep from Germany brought visna-maedi to Iceland, which had a drastic effect on local stocks. A great many sheep had to be killed and protective fences had to be raised to confine the outbreak of the disease and prevent it from spreading over the whole country. These measures were very costly for farmers and for the Icelandic nation as a whole, although it was possible to wipe out the disease in the end. Scrapie and mange also came to Iceland with foreign livestock.
Very strict import regulations have been set to prevent devastating animal diseases from being brought into the country. A great deal is at stake, because some highly contagious infections, such as foot and mouth disease, have not yet appeared in Iceland. All imports that could carry the disease are subject to authorization from the Chief Veterinary Officer, and imported animals are quarantined for a considerable period of time.
There have been efforts to improve animal breeds in Iceland for a long time. In spite of some setbacks, there has been considerable improvement in stocks since the first sheep breeders' association was founded in 1855. Farmers have since established similar organizations around the entire country, and half of all sheep farmers participate in the improvement of the breed. The purpose of these efforts is to produce sheep with leaner meat. Improvements in cattle were begun in 1903, when the first cattle breeders' association was founded. The result has been better milking cows and improved body structure. Average milk production has increased by more than half. The average for a registered cow is now approx. 4,400 kg a year, with 82% of all cows being registered. Foreign beef cattle have been imported for limited breeding with the Icelandic type. Improvements in Icelandic horses have concentrated on producing animals for riding that are able to perform all the gaits.
The country's isolation and stringent import regulations have preserved native breeds of farm animals and their unique characteristics. Increased knowledge of the nature and incidence of animal diseases has reduced the risk of contagion accompanying the use of imported genetic material or animal species. Preservation of the health and genetic characteristics of the Icelandic breeds must be considered along with the desirability of utilizing the results of successful breeding experiments conducted abroad.
AGRICULTURE AND THE ENVIRONMENT
There is no pollution from agricultural fertilizer in Iceland, as only 1% of the land area is under cultivation. Soil nutrients are not washed away to any significant degree because there is little open field cultivation where the likelihood of this happening is present. Animal waste is not a problem because farms are located relatively far apart. For these reasons, it has not been found necessary to set the strict regulations regarding waste disposal and fertilizer handling that exist in densely populated countries.
Although Iceland is famous for its unspoiled natural beauty, there are areas where care must be exercised. One of the most serious environmental problems in Iceland is the loss of vegetation followed by wind erosion. Large areas of the highlands are now barren and evidence of wind and water erosion can be seen in many places in the lowlands. There have been attempts to heal these wounds in the landscape: grass seed and fertilizer have been spread by plane and certain areas have been closed to sheep grazing. These measures have been successful, but they are costly, and efforts must be increased if soil erosion is to be stopped. Wind erosion is an age-old problem in Iceland. The land surface is composed of layers of volcanic ash alternating with layers of soil, which makes it susceptible to wind and water erosion. There are three major soil types in Iceland: 1) the typical brown volcanic soils (Andosols), 2) the soils of barren/desert areas, which are rich in volcanic ash, and 3) peaty soils, also very rich in volcanic products. Bouts of severe weather have left eroded areas, which have proven difficult to revegetate. In the past, sheep had to be grazed all year round, even in winter, because feeds were scarce. This clearly shows how hard the struggle for survival was in Iceland. It had disastrous results when the climate began to cool. The interaction of natural forces such as water, wind, fire and ice, as well as the encroachment of man and animal, has in the course of time, disturbed the layer of surface vegetation. If it is destroyed, a chain reaction of soil erosion begins which is very difficult to stop. Hostile weather conditions mean Icelanders must constantly battle with destructive natural forces, which can never be completely controlled. It is only possible to minimize their destruction and protect sensitive areas from overuse by man and animal.
The practice of allowing sheep and horses to range freely in large open areas has been criticized from an environmental point of view, but it is up to local government to restrict grazing. There are usually fences between open land and the main populated areas. The practice of keeping sheep and horses in fenced pastures in lowland areas is increasing and in some counties, horses are not allowed to run free at all. However, there appears to be a need for better fencing for grazing animals.
There has been a great emphasis on land reclamation and afforestation in Iceland in recent years. An organized campaign against erosion began in 1907, when the first laws concerning the sowing of grass in sandy areas were passed and the forerunner of the State Soil Conservation Service began operation. The latter body has achieved impressive results in land reclamation. Over one hundred areas have been fenced in and declared revegetation sites, their total area amounting to more than 2% of the country's land area. A large area has been successfully reclaimed. Research has been conducted on the varying degrees of tolerance different areas have for grazing, and with the help of a vegetation chart, it is possible to organize grazing more successfully than in the past. There have also been experiments to determine what plants are most suitable for land reclamation purposes according to climate and soil conditions, which can vary considerably from one area to another. Farmers have also joined hands with the Soil Conservation Service in encouraging the growth of better grass cover as well as in taking protective measures against erosion. New legislation and appropriations have also enabled farmers to grow trees for commercial exploitation along with traditional agriculture. And, significantly, even the general public has become involved in tree and grass planting for land reclamation purposes.
AGRICULTURE AND THE FUTURE
One of the major problems of many of the world's industrialized nations is surplus production of agricultural products, an ironic fact in a world where many go hungry. A number of these countries have resorted to subsidizing farm products both at home and for sale abroad. It is disturbing to think that unnaturally low prices can also encourage destructive use of natural resources and increased use of various undesirable materials such as pesticides, drugs and hormones, which reduce the wholesomeness of agricultural products.
There are plenty indications that nature has already been abused beyond recovery in many places in the world and calls for healthy products from organic agriculture are heard more and more frequently. Soil erosion, the destruction of forests, excessive irrigation, fertilizers and other pollution are just a few examples of the tremendous problems that need attention. It is predicted that in the coming decades, the supply of food in the world will decrease because of increasing pollution and there is growing concern that this will have disastrous consequences for the 2lst century.
In spite of these ominous predictions, the position of Icelandic agriculture is, in many respects, favourable. It operates on a sustainable basis in relatively small units in an unspoilt environment. In its agriculture, Iceland possesses a natural resource that will become increasingly valuable.
TOWARDS A SUSTAINABLE FUTURE
Agriculture shall be in harmony with the environment. Production capacity of farming land shall be improved from one generation to the next.
Emphasis shall be placed on land reclamation and afforestation.
A high standard of animal welfare shall be a prerequisite for livestock production.
The production of wholesome and pure foods shall be the cornerstone of Icelandic agriculture.
Quality control shall be encouraged throughout all production processes.
Determined efforts shall be made to strengthen certified organic production and other sustainable forms of agricultural production.
The countryside shall remain a viable and dynamic community.
The earnings and social conditions of the agricultural community shall be attractive enough to make farming a worthwhile profession.
The general public shall be made aware of the fact that the farming heritage is a cultural treasure that needs to be preserved.