Untapped Potential in Vegetable Farming in Iceland

Iceland’s government aims to increase the country’s vegetable production by 25%, but MP Ágúst Ólafur Ágústsson says it could easily be boosted by 400%. Icelandic farmers could grow up to 60% of the vegetables Icelanders consume, according to the Chairman of the Farmers Association of Iceland. The opportunities lie both in greenhouse agriculture and outdoors, and could contribute toward both climate goals and economic response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Funding for the Four-Legged

In a radio interview this morning, Ágúst, an MP for the Social Democratic Alliance, pointed out that the majority of the Icelandic government’s farming subsidies go toward sheep and cattle farming. “[Government] agricultural contracts are based on the four-legged and not the green,” he stated. “Only about 5% goes to horticultural products. Twelve billion [ISK, ($88.7 million/€74.9 million)] go toward sheep farming and cattle farming, so state support for horticultural farmers is far too small.”

Ólafur believes lowering electricity prices for greenhouse farmers and subsidising their transportation costs would support growth in the industry. He added that increasing vegetable production could be a well-formulated government employment policy, rather than just a side project.

Greenhouse Growth

Gunnar Þorgeirsson, Chairman of the Farmers Association of Iceland, says Iceland’s horticultural farmers are ambitious and there is growth in the industry. “I think this is the first time that more than 10,000 square metres [of greenhouse space] have been built in a single summer […] greenhouses are springing up like mushrooms,” Gunnar stated. He credits the government contract with horticultural farmers, renewed last spring until 2026, for the industry’s expansion, though he agrees with Ólafur that subsidised electricity costs would go a long way toward supporting horticultural farmers.

Locally produced vegetables also have a lower carbon footprint than the same products imported from abroad, according to a 2015 study. Gunnar says Icelanders are increasingly seeking out local food and therein lies an opportunity.

Outdoor Opportunities

Gunnar insists, however, that the biggest opportunity in the industry lies outside the glass walls. “First and foremost, we need to strengthen outdoor vegetable cultivation. There we can also be looking at why we can’t be producing onions in Iceland, because that’s quite possible. We just need to find someone who’s up for the project.” Radishes are another vegetable that Gunnar says Icelanders could be growing. “We are importing them like there’s no tomorrow and they grow here almost like a weed. There is an incredible number of species that we can definitely cultivate here in Iceland and we just need to support that and steer men and women in the right direction.”

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.”