Getting Your Goat

icelandic goat háafell farm

Visiting Háafell Goat Farm on a bright and breezy day in late April, the vitality of spring is palpable. The sun casts a warm glow over pastures beginning to green as snow melts from the peaks above. Amidst this lively backdrop, over a dozen new goats born the previous night add to the happy community […]

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Deep North Episode 59: Turf and Rescue

turf house farm iceland

Hannes Lárusson grew up in a cluster of turf houses on the farmstead Austur-Meðalholt in Southwest Iceland.

His ancestors moved there around 1850. The houses they constructed were made with the remnants of the land’s pre-existing houses, which slouched near the marshes when they arrived. The history of the farmstead stretches nearly as far back as the settlement.

In 1965, when he was ten years old, Hannes moved to Reykjavík. He studied visual art and philosophy in Iceland and abroad prior to redirecting his attention to his childhood home in the mid-80s.

By that time, the turf houses of Austur-Meðalholt were abandoned and on the verge of ruin. Although he had observed those houses being mended as a boy, he lacked the know-how to rebuild them himself; and so Hannes and his family enlisted the aid of Jóhannes Arason, a turf master who grew up in the Westfjords’ Gufudalssveit area, and who stayed with them for parts of the summer between 1987 and 1993.

Read the story here.

Turf and Rescue

farmhouse iceland

Austur-Meðalholt Hannes Lárusson grew up in a cluster of turf houses on the farmstead Austur-Meðalholt in Southwest Iceland.His ancestors moved there around 1850. The houses they constructed were made with the remnants of the land’s pre-existing houses, which slouched near the marshes when they arrived. The history of the farmstead stretches nearly as far back […]

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First Cocoa Bean Grown in Iceland

cacao plant iceland

The first cocoa beans ever grown in Iceland were recently harvested at the Gardening School of Reykir, making the dream of homegrown Icelandic chocolate one step closer.

Guðríður Helgadóttir, a horticulturist at the Gardening School in Reykir, stated to RÚV that cocoa plants have been cultivated for some 11 years in the banana greenhouse in Reykir, with the hope that one day a cocoa bean would grow on them. Now it seems that the years of work have paid off.

“These plants have been bred for for nearly a decade with the dream of creating Icelandic chocolate. Now, that dream is well within reach,” stated Guðríður. “This is the first cocoa bean to grow in Iceland, as far as we know. The cocoa fruit that we recently produced came from a flower that was fertilized last summer and remained green while it grew and developed into a cocoa pod. So now, it has suddenly turned this beautiful shade of yellow, and that’s when it bloomed, and I honestly can’t believe how we missed it!”

According to Guðríður, the Gardening School at Reykir received two cocoa pods in 2012. Some 80 plants sprouted from the seeds, but of these, only some three survived. But now, after a decade of care, the efforts are finally bearing fruit.

The conditions in the banana greenhouse in Reykir are favourable for cocoa plants, but there are still differences compared to the cocoa plant’s native habitat, making the process of producing usable cocoa rather difficult and complicated.

“In the plant’s native habitat, there are specific flies that pollinate the pods,” Guðríður stated to RÚV. “Of course, we don’t have those flies here, so we were considering whether we should manually pollinate by dabbing with a watercolor brush and mimicking bees by transferring pollen between the flowers. So, it was a bit surprising for us to see pods appearing without any human intervention in the greenhouse!”

High Demand for Chicks

iceland chickens

The demand for chicks is especially high at the moment, reports Vísir.

The high demand has led to some business opportunities, with one chicken farmer in South Iceland filling his incubators with eggs and distributing the chicks across Iceland.

Ragnar Sigurjónsson, a farmer in the Flóahreppur district, raises so-called “Papar” chickens, which he says are descended from the semi-historical Irish monks who may have settled Iceland’s outlying islands before Norse settlement.

These chickens, he stated to Vísir, are also very productive at laying eggs, laying up to 170 to 180 a year.

Ragnar has incubators that are constantly full of eggs to meet the high demand for newly hatched chicks.

“There is just so much demand,” he stated to Vísir. “I’ve had two machines running at once. People are always asking for chicks. Right now, I have a hatchery where about half of them are going to a preschool in Kópavogur.”

Some Icelandic preschools keep hens as a way to reduce food waste. The hens are fed cafeteria leftovers and provide eggs for the children and families who volunteer to take care of them.

According to Ragnar, the unusually high demand for chickens can be attributed to a growing interest in raising chickens in backyards. “They are nice animals to have around,” Ragnar stated. “People want to have three, four or five chickens in their garden and get fresh eggs.”

Deep North Episode 25: Good Breeding

iceland sheep breeding

This April, sheep at Bergsstaðir farm in Northwest Iceland were diagnosed with the fatal degenerative disease known as scrapie. In accordance with regulations, the 700-some sheep were culled to prevent the spread of the disease to neighbouring farms. We revisit our 2022 article, Good Breeding, to see what’s being done to fight this deadly disease.

Read the full story.

Dream of a Scrapie-Free Iceland May Be a Reality Within 10 Years

Karólína Elísabetardóttir, sheep, scrapie research

It may be possible to eradicate scrapie in Iceland in the next ten years, RÚV reports. This hopeful news comes via a study led by sheep farmer Karólína Elísabetardóttir and a team of scrapie experts from four countries, who have isolated a genotype in the Icelandic sheep population that should protect the animals from the disease.

Scrapie, an incurable, degenerative disease that effects the nervous system of sheep and goats, has plagued the Icelandic sheep population for some time, not least in Skagafjörður, Northwest Iceland, where farmers were forced to slaughter over 2,000 animals last year when a scrapie outbreak was detected at several farms.

See Also: Scrapie Detected in Skagafjörður

Samples were taken from 2,500 sheep in Iceland and Greenland. “First, we found one sheep and then we started systematically looking in its relatives and then we found other sheep, such that now we have a trail and based on that, the outlook is really good.” This is the first such study to be conducted in Iceland in 20 years.

Karólína’s team is comprised of two doctors from a German institute that studies prion diseases experts from England and Italy, and locally, two experts from the Icelandic Agricultural Advisory Centre and a scrapie specialist from Keldur, the Institute for Experimental Pathology.

Now that the protective genotype has been identified, Karólína says the next step will be to find a ram who shares this and then organize breeding from there. “I’d even say that it might be possible, if farmers are diligent in their efforts, that this could work within ten years.” A scrapie-free Iceland, concluded Karólína, is “the dream.”

Without Foreign Workers, Slaughterhouses Face Staffing Shortages

icelandic sheep

Despite rising unemployment throughout Iceland, slaughterhouses throughout the country are having trouble staffing their facilities in advance of the annual slaughtering season, RÚV reports. Slaughterhouses have predominantly been staffed by foreign workers in recent years, but bringing in workers from abroad is more difficult now during the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Iceland’s slaughtering season generally begins in early September and accordingly, slaughterhouses begin advertising for staff during the summer. Slauturfélag Suðurlands, which runs the largest abattoir in Iceland, expects that they will need to extend their season of operation; they are usually staffed by a large group of professional butchers from New Zealand during the slaughtering season but those workers cannot travel to Iceland this year. CEO Steinþór Skúlason says that it is proving difficult to find Icelanders to do this work.

Ágúst Torfi Hauksson, the operations manager at a slaughterhouse in Húsavík, North Iceland is experiencing similar staffing difficulties. He says 35 employees are still needed at his facility. He’d hoped that people who had been laid off from their jobs at the silicon plant in Bakki would apply and indeed, all nine of the former silicon plant employees who have applied for work at the Húsavík slaughterhouse have been given jobs. But that’s only nine applications from a total of 80 workers who lost their jobs.

Fjallalamb in Kópasker, Northeast Iceland still needs 20 employees. “It’s going a lot slower than in previous years because of this COVID situation,” remarked operations manager Víkingur Björnsson. “What I’m trying to do now, as best I can, is to get Icelanders or people who live in Iceland.” Víkingur hasn’t had much luck with this yet, however. “I’m a little surprised. There’s a fair amount of unemployment in the country. This is, of course, not long-term [work], just six weeks, but still.”

Volunteers Prepare to Pitch In On COVID-Affected Farms

Almost 100 people have signed up to provide relief assistance on farms across the country, Vísir reports. The initiative, launched by the Farmers Association of Iceland (BÍ), will send temporary workers to help farmers who have fallen ill with COVID-19 and are unable to maintain their farms. At the time of writing, six farmers in the Vestur-Húnvatnssýsla district in Northwest Iceland have contracted the virus.

“Almost a hundred people are on our list,” remarked Guðbjörg Jónsdóttir, the BÍ project manager. “I’m really touched at how the country is thinking about farmers and is ready to help. There are people who have experience and knowledge and have an education in agriculture and then also those who have lost their jobs in the tourism sector and then working consultants – all really decent folk from all over the country.”

At this time, the infected farmers in Northwest Iceland have been able to continue maintaining their farms with the help of family members or workers from nearby farms. It’s not yet known what other farms have been affected by COVID-19, but by having a list of volunteers in place, BÍ is hoping to circumvent further disruptions in the agricultural sector as the virus continues to spread.

“The virus is obviously just starting to run its course,” said Guðbjörg, “and the lambing season is going to start in a month – that’s the biggest concern, how we’re going to deal with that.”

Icelandic Cows Escape for Night-Time Adventure

cows escape

A herd of cows at Hvanneyri farm managed to open the door to their cowshed earlier this week, slipping out for a night-time romp in the snow. As the weather worsened, the herd returned to the shed, where they were found the morning after safe and sound. Hoofprints and tracking devices painted a clear picture of the night’s rowdy activities.

“The approach to the cowshed was somewhat amusing yesterday morning,” a Facebook post on the Hvanneyri Farm Facebook page begins. “By the entrance there were many traces of cattle traffic, but outside no cattle were to be seen. Inside the cowshed all was calm, the cows either lay in their stalls or ate hay at their leisure. All was as it should be, except for one thing, the door through which the cows go out during the summer was wide open and snow had blown in.”

“The cows went out early this year,” the post continues. “They had somehow unbelievably managed to unlock the door and lift the door up and had run out into the night.”

Evidence in the form of hoofprints showed that many cows had run gleefully in circles around the shed and other installations at the farm. “But the amazing thing about the cows’ adventure is that every single cow had returned before morning,” the post continues. As the night progressed, the weather worsened, and the cows didn’t ignore it, returning to the warmth and safety of their shed.

The cows all have tracking devices that alert their caretakers when any one animal is unusually active. “This morning there were over 50 cows with a notification on the computer, and on the movement chart it was clear that they had opened up at midnight and been out until about five or six in the morning. This has been quite an adventure for them, but luckily they all found their way in and no one was injured in the hullabaloo,” the post concluded.