Icelandic Farmer Turns from Tourism to Garlic

garlic farm south iceland

When tourism work dried up, one farmer in South Iceland found himself an original new project: planting garlic. Hörður Bender and his wife have planted six types of garlic from Sweden, France, and Denmark on their farm Efri-Úlfsstaðir near Hvolsvöllur, South Iceland, the first attempt to produce garlic commercially in Iceland.

“We think we’re the first ones to do this, at least seriously, that is to say in a significant amount. Some people [in Iceland] have been planting garlic in their gardens in the fall, including me and my wife, but that’s generally been just a few bulbs,” Hörður told Landinn reporters. “What we’re planting now is one and a half tonnes.”

Hope for 15-Tonne Harvest Next Year

According to Hörður, Icelanders consume 200 tonnes of garlic per year. If the plants do well, next year’s harvest could amount to 10-15 tonnes. “We have good land here for cultivation that we wanted to make use of. The reason we started now is maybe that I have been working in tourism in recent years and there is absolutely nothing for me to do there so I needed to find something else,” Hörður says.

He believes the garlic grown at Efri-Úlfsstaðir will be higher quality than the imported garlic available in Icelandic grocery stores, both due to the quality of the soil and the slow growth process caused by Iceland’s climate.

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.”