Minister to Discuss Government Aid for Weather-Hit Farmers

Vaðlaheiðagöng tunnel, snowstorm in June

An unusual cold spell in North and Northeast Iceland has threatened farmlands and caused livestock to suffer. The government has established a working group and plans to provide support through an emergency fund to help farmers cope with the consequences of the weather.

Farmland at risk, livestock suffering

Following an unusual cold spell that has affected North and East Iceland – with yellow or orange warnings in effect and heavy snowfall – farmers in the area have struggled to cope.

In an interview with Vísir today, the Chairman of the Farmers’ Association, Trausti Hjálmarsson, stated that farmlands were at risk and livestock were suffering in the severe weather.

“Everyone is doing everything they can to minimise the damage  caused by this unprecedented weather. The conditions have become highly challenging, prolonged, and farmers are very tired,” Trausti stated, adding that it would be impossible to assess the impact of the weather until later this summer.

Support through the emergency fund

Speak to Vísir, the Minister of Food, Agriculture, and Fisheries, Bjarkey Olsen, stated that it was clear that the government needed to intervene and offer support through the emergency fund (Bjargráðasjóður).

“Both because of the cold damage that has occurred and is being assessed, it is obvious that intervention through the emergency fund is needed,” Bjarkey Olsen – who will address the farmers’ conditions at a government meeting this morning – observed.

Working group established

As noted by Vísir, the Ministry of Food, Agriculture, and Fisheries; the Farmers’ Association; the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management; and the Agricultural Advisory Centre established a working group yesterday to assess the farmers’ damages and manage their situations.

“We’re aiming to support farmers who are going through a very difficult time right now, especially due to the harsh weather,” Bjarkey stated. “They’re fresh out of lambing season and other related tasks, and they are quite exhausted. I think it is appropriate for us to try to offer support. The working group is meeting right now as we speak.”

Trausti encouraged farmers to seek help if they needed it or if they knew of someone in need: “Dial 112, and the Civil Protection authorities will respond.”

Icelandic Farmers Experience More Signs of Stress and Depression

Newly concluded research conducted by the University of Akureyri for the Icelandic Regional Development Institute (Byggðastofnun) indicates that Icelandic farmers show more signs and symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression than the average Icelander.

The research was conducted via an online survey, and then compared to similar research conducted by the Directorate of Health in 2022 that measured the same traits in Icelanders overall. The results showed that depression and stress in particular were predominant amongst Icelandic farmers, even when compared to other Icelanders in the labour market.

The research also showed evidence that farmers who plan to change jobs or move experience more symptoms of depression, stress and anxiety. However, it should be noted that due to the small number of respondents, there is great statistical uncertainty about how big the difference really is between this subset and those farmers who are not making such plans.

A major contributing factor in these results was workload. A large proportion of farmers think they either very often or always have too much work to do. At the same time, a large proportion of respondents also believed they had to work with great speed.

The full report, in Icelandic, can be read here (.pdf).

Grain Farmer Fights Off Swan Invasion with Falcon-Shaped Kites

A farmer in South Iceland is resorting to a unique method to combat a unique threat to his grain crops. RÚV reports that Björgvín Þór Harðarson, a pig and grain farmer in Laxárdalur, is using falcon-shaped kites to scare away the whooper swans that are consuming and causing significant damage to his crops.

Swans are a major threat to grain crops in Iceland but are generally unfazed by farmers’ attempts to ward them off. Björgvín Þór said the birds are definitely the most difficult pests for him to deal with on the farm—and probably the most prolific. When the swans’ numbers are at their peak, he may find as many as 500 swans occupying his fields.

‘When they arrive, it’s just total destruction’

“When they arrive, it’s just total destruction,” he lamented. “If they arrive in a fully mature field in the fall, they’ll walk all over it and eat it and trample all the straw and everything.”

Björgvín Þór has tried many deterrents—including scarecrows and acoustic warning devices, or pingers—but to no avail.

“I was fighting with this swan that was attacking both my barley in the fall and wheat in the spring,” he explained. “Then I tried one of these kites that I’d been told about, and it worked like a charm.”

Falcon Crop Protection, FB

Kites mimic the flight of birds of prey

The kites that Björgvín Þór uses are shaped like falcons and designed to glide in a pattern that mimics the flight of birds of prey. They are used widely within the wine industry as an environmentally friendly and effective form of “bird abatement.” They can also be used on fish farms and to drive away unwanted gulls and crows in urban areas, among other uses.

But as well as the kites work, Björgvín Þór is still careful to use them only sparingly so the swans will not grow accustomed to them or eventually see through the ruse.

He first used the kites in the spring when his wheat crops were growing but has now taken them down because there’s no need at the moment. He’ll fly them again in the fall, during the harvest, and hopes they’ll be enough to keep his voracious whooper nemeses at bay.

No Small Potatoes: Local Spud Farmers Hopeful For This Year’s Harvest

Potato farmers in Þykkvabær, the spud capital of Iceland, have high hopes for a good harvest this year, RÚV reports. This despite the presence of some potato blight, a fungus that wreaked havoc on last year’s potato crop.

Farmers say that if the weather remains good and sprouting goes well, domestic potato production will be sufficient throughout the year. Potato farmer Markús Ársælsson says this hasn’t been the case in recent years, but he’s still hopeful for this year’s prospects.

“It’s gone just fine and the outlook’s really good, but you never know until the end of the day what the result is going to be,” he remarked. “We might have a frost in August. But as things stand right now, it’s looking good.”

Potato blight is a major concern for farmers in Iceland, Markús agrees. “Yes, it rears its ugly head when weather conditions are like this and we’ve started spraying just to be on the safe side and that’s going pretty well. We’re hoping, just crossing our fingers, that nothing comes up now that makes this summer like the one last year, which was brutal. Because even though we sprayed them, for some reason, nothing helped with anything.”

Farmers take measures to ensure that their potatoes sprout as quickly and prolifically as possible, but growth does sometimes slow, which can make competing with imported potatoes even more difficult, says Markús. Growth delays on the domestic market means that Icelandic grocery stores will import potatoes and then want to sell off all their imported product before looking to buy more potatoes from domestic producers.

“It’s awful, of course,” said Markús. “Customers aren’t offered fresh Icelandic [potatoes], rather it’s ‘we’re going to finish off the old imported ones and then we’ll come back to all of you [Icelandic potato farmers].”

Over the years, domestic potato production has ranged from 7,000 tons all the way up to 12,000 tons in a particularly good year.

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.”

Icelandic Sheep Fetch Handsome Prices at First-Ever Online Auction

sheep

Icelandic sheep were auctioned in the UK’s first-ever online auction, Bændablaðið reports. The auction was handled by the Scottish “livestock marketing company” Harrison & Hetherington.

Twenty-six animals were auctioned in the two-day auction in early September. The highest-earning sheep was the only ewe on offer, Alfifa, who, according to the auction catalog, “had a single ram in 2020 and twin ewe lambs in 2021.” Alfifa fetched ISK 56,000 [£317; $438; €371].

Screenshot from Harrison & Hetherington Sheep Auction Catalog

Also for sale was Bijarni, a Shearling Ram who “[w]as commended by Tim Tyne [author of The Sheep Book for Smallholders, known as ‘the bible for sheepkeepers’] in last years [sic] show despite not being entered in ram class.” Bijarni was commended as being “Gentle natured [with] well spaced horns” and noted to “stand on his feet well.” A gimmer, or female sheep that has been weaned but not sheared, named Not Splodge was also sold, as were whether lambs, and a number of ram and ewe lambs.

The average price for ewes was ISK 53,875 [£305; $422; €357]. Rams fetched a lower average price, or ISK39,000 [£134; $185; €156]. The whethers fared a little better, with an average price of ISK 33,000 [£185; $256; €216].

Screenshot from Harrison & Hetherington Sheep Auction Catalog

Interest in Icelandic sheep has ‘completely spiralled’

The first Icelandic sheep were imported to the UK in 1979. The Icelandic Sheep Breeders of the British Isles (ISBOBI) was founded nine years later, in 1988. Per Cumberland’s News&Star, in recent years, British breeders have cross-bred Icelandic sheep with “…Blackface and Shetlands with much success; others have had particularly good results crossing with the larger continentals.”

“Icelandic rams have come into their own,” the article continues, “producing cross breeds which are considered by members of the breed society to be lighter on the ground than some heavy breeds and producing better quality meat than some smaller breeds.”

Screenshot from Harrison & Hetherington Sheep Auction Catalog

There are currently around 300 Pedigree Icelandic Sheep in the UK, and the Scottish Farmer reports that they are increasingly in demand, hence auctioneers’ decision to sell them via the more accessible, online platform. “In the past our Icelandic Sheep sales have been held as part of our wider rare breeds sales, and in holding an online sale, the aim is to open the breed up to a broader UK wide audience,” remarked Harrison & Hetherington auctioneer Grant Anderson.

“In recent years there has been so much interest in Icelandic Sheep, it has completely spiralled,” added Ruth Stanton, assistant secretary of ISBOBI. “The aim of this auction is to help provide us with a measure as to what is happening as well as a benchmark for the breed.”

Icelandic Sheep and Cattle Farmers Receive ISK 970 Million in Pandemic Support

sheep farm Sauðfjárbúið að Hesti í Borgarfirði Hestur Kindur Kind Sauðfé Sauðfjárbúið að Hesti í Borgarfirði Hestur Kindur Kind Sauðfé

Kristján Þór Júlíusson, Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture, has completed the allocation of ISK 970 million ($7.5 million/€6.3 million) in funding to sheep and cattle farmers to meet the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The measure is part of a 12-point action plan in response to the effect of the pandemic on Icelandic agriculture. Social and travel restrictions have hit Iceland’s sheep and cattle farmers hard, leading to drops in both demand and prices for their products.

Tourism Halt Led to Drop in Demand

“It is undisputed that Icelandic farmers have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in various ways, including in light of the fact that two million tourists didn’t come to Iceland this year. Thus the demand for food products has decreased while at the same time imports have increased according to tariff quotas. It’s domestic food production that takes that hit,” Kristján Þór wrote last December shortly after he proposed the initiative. He pointed out that prices for meat and wool had fallen and waitlists at slaughterhouses had gotten longer. Meat production is particularly vulnerable to rapid market changes as it can take a year to ramp down production. Thus, lamb and beef reserves in Iceland have grown considerably as demand has fallen locally and internationally.

Most Funding to Sheep Farmers

The funds have now been approved and allocated: 75% will go to sheep farmers while the remaining 25% will go to cattle farmers. The funding to sheep farmers will be allocated via an additional mutton quality control surcharge as well as for wool production and through a special action plan on sheep breeding. Cattle farmers will be given an additional payment for each calf that was slaughtered in 2020, some 11,000 animals.

The funding is part of a broader action plan to support the local agricultural industry in responding to the challenges of the pandemic. Other measures include freezing tariff hikes, changes to tariff quotas, efforts to increase farmers’ opportunities for home production on the farm, and the creation of a new agricultural policy for Iceland.

Vets to Conduct Virtual Inspections as Part of Home Slaughter Pilot Program

Veterinarians will conduct their health inspections of meat over the internet as part of the new pilot project which allows farmers to slaughter at home, RÚV reports. The project is hoped to support innovation in the sheep farming industry and help farmers hold on to more of the profits from their lamb. Thirty-five farms around the country are taking part in the project. Each farm is allowed to slaughter five lambs at home.

Farmers have long called for changes to made to existing laws on home slaughter. Currently, farmers who sell meat must take their sheep to a slaughterhouse and then pay fees if they want to sell their products to the public.

See Also: Iceland to Permit Limited Home Slaughter This Fall

In addition, current regulations require a veterinarian to inspect any meat that intended for sale to the general public. Project manager Hólmfríður Sveinsdóttir says that one of the first things that needs to be done, therefore, is to determine if there’s a way for this inspection to take place remotely, as bringing a vet on-site can be costly for farmers. Online meat inspection has been carried out with varying degrees of success abroad, and there are many factors that determine how well this process works, such as the quality of the internet connection and the cameras being used.

As part of the pilot program, 19 of the participating farms will have a vet visit them to conduct on-site inspections. Sixteen will have their health inspections conducted online. Hólmfríður says that the inspection process will be the same in both cases—one will simply take place virtually. Farmers undergoing virtual inspections will take samples themselves, measuring the microbial and pH levels in the meat.

These individuals will also be responsible for ensuring that byproducts are handled correctly. Burying slaughter byproducts directly in the ground is forbidden. As the home slaughter only involves lamb, Iceland’s Food and Veterinary Authority has stated that farmers can take their byproducts to a carcass dumpster that each municipality is required to have.

Authorities will decide how to proceed with home slaughter based on the results of this pilot effort.

Frost Damage Forces Farmers to Buy Hay

Farmers in North and East Iceland will likely need to purchase hay in order to keep their sheep fed this winter, due to heavy spring frost, RÚV reports. Sveinbjörn Þór Sigurðsson of Búvellir farm in Aðaldalur, North Iceland says 80-90% of his hayfields were frozen in spring, and dry weather exacerbated the situation.

The tables have turned since 2018, when Icelandic farmers’ hay harvest was so abundant they sold to drought-plagued Norway. This year a cold spring has made haymaking a challenge for many farmers in Iceland.

The weather improved at Búvellir in the summer and Sveinbjörn has managed to make enough hay for his winter supply. Other farmers have not been as lucky, however. Geir Árdal of Dæli farm has had to purchase hay for his livestock. “We’ve bought about 300 bales,” he told reporters. “Of course it’s much better to make hay if you can do it yourself.”

Weather in South and West Iceland has been more favourable: farmers there are not facing hay shortages in those regions this season.

Slaughtering Season Off to Uncertain Start

Icelandic sheep

The slaughtering season has begun in Sauðarkrókur in Northwest Iceland, RÚV reports, but uncertainty about meat prices has many farmers concerned about their earnings in the coming months.

Those who hold slaughtering licenses set the prices at which meat will be bought from producers each season. But although the slaughtering season is underway or about to begin in most places, license holders still have not announced what purchase prices will be this year. At the beginning of August, the National Association of Sheep Farmers demanded an increase of 132 krónur [$0.96; €0.81] per kilo on last year’s prices, which averaged ISK 600 [$4.35; €3.86] a kilo. Lamb and mutton prices in Iceland have not kept pace with those on the international market and are, in fact, the lowest in Europe. Slaughter license holders are not required to abide by a set reference price but are instead, free to set prices as they see fit at all stages.

“There’s a great deal of uncertainty about this because of COVID,” remarks Unnsteinn Snorri Snorrason, director of the National Association of Sheep Farmers. This is, he continues, both a function of uncertainty about the status of the market as well as how the slaughtering season will fare with staffing shortages in the industry.

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. Finding Icelandic workers for slaughterhouses has proved equally difficult. Thus, these staffing shortages could easily delay the slaughter this year.

See Also: Without Foreign Workers, Slaughterhouses Face Staffing Shortages

“I think people are operating on the assumption that things won’t be as efficient as usual and maybe it’s for the best that people are taking longer,” Unnstein says. “It’s necessary to train staff and get a routine in place … But we don’t have as many of the key people needed to make this happen as we usually do.”

Unnsteinn says that the lamb stock is essentially what it was last year, and although there are fewer tourists coming to the country right now, he doesn’t see this as a reason for lamb production to contract any further than it already has.

“Maybe it’s not a direct result of [fewer tourists], but of course, this has an effect on the market in some way,” he explains. “We also have an opportunity to increase exports, but first and foremost, we need to see higher meat prices. If we don’t see those, then we won’t see an increase in production—rather, we’ll see a contraction in production across the board.”

Still, there is enough demand for prime cuts of lamb on the domestic market, Unnsteinn asserts, “[e]specially now that we’ve considerably reduced production. Just looking at lamb meat, we’ve cut down by some 1100 tons in just a few years. Our biggest market is the domestic one and it has been fairly stable comparatively. We’re getting good results from the foreign markets we’re building, though. And you can’t forget that part of what we’re exporting are inexpensive cuts that we don’t have a market for here in Iceland.”