(Hot) Water Water Everywhere (Iceland Age part 1)

Although Iceland has been getting a lot of press lately as a hot – metaphorically and geologically speaking – tourist destination, it hardly seems a likely go-to spot for an agricultural experience. That however is exactly what landed me in the middle of the blustery North Atlantic in October along with seven other Yukoners. We all received generous funding from the federal government’s Growing Forward program to attend the Circumpolar Agriculture Conference held every two years in one of the world’s northernmost growing regions. I’ll spare readers the details of the conference proceedings, but am keen to wax lyrical on another nation that grows food north of sixty – and fills a much greater proportion of their needs than we do. It’s something to aspire to.

We needn’t feel too bad: we don’t have the moderating ocean to keep us between -10 and +20 all year, and our habit of freezing hard makes hydro-stations more challenging. Nor do we have hot water shooting, pouring and seeping out of the ground with which to heat greenhouses, homes, and even parking lots.

I had ample opportunity to both observe and submerse myself in this phenomenon, from steaming pools nestled in remote fjords to the tiled neighborhood facilities in Reykjavik with a series of tubs in two degree increments. I’d often soak with the water up to my eyeballs to get out of the lashing rain driving off of the North Atlantic.

The Icelandic government has a goal of supplying all of the meat and dairy for the country, via sheep and cows respectively. They have a strong protectionist policy that means foreign food is very costly in a country that is already known for being prohibitively expensive to visit. Iceland has suffered rural decline in the same way as the rest of the world, and agritourism is being seen as the way forward for revitalising rural landscapes and providing more varied opportunities for people choosing agriculture. This was in great evidence on the main tourist loop out of Reykjavik, which is called the Golden Circle, where we visited three farms that have embraced tourism in equally substantive but different ways.

Our first stop was a dairy where the barn had been converted into restaurant and ice cream parlour, with the cows still in residence munching their hay on the other side of a window.  The hospitality portion including accommodation is run intergenerationally by family members that had given up on farming, but were drawn back by the idea of an educational and tourism opportunity.

We also visited a greenhouse operation, Fridheimar, that was getting the year’s tomato crop underway – yes, in October. Geothermal energy is in evidence most obviously in the warm and steamy atmosphere, but also in carbon dioxide captured from a nearby vent to improve photosynthesis and the use of tuff (pumice) instead of soil as a growing medium. They too have embraced agritourism in a big way with an attractive little café in the greenhouse itself, serving a never-ending pot of tomato soup and a bar specializing in takes on the classic Caesar. An information panel in the café cites low levels of pests, diseases and weeds as benefits of a northern climate and the island’s isolation, and shares that the operation uses 1.2MW of electricity (a combination of hydro and geothermal). Greenhouses have been in use on the site since 1946.

The third farm on the visit had a rather unique take on tourism – a very well-kept and diverse operation including a small dairy, field crops, a micropress for canola oil and a small grain mill, and it capitalized on what was nearly a disaster when a nearby volcano erupted and buried the farm in ash. A visitor’s centre opposite the farm plays a very well-shot documentary of the events that took place during and following the eruption, and serves to educate visitors on not just the occasionally spectacular nature of vulcanism, but on the rapid and efficient Icelandic emergency response. “Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered,” seems to be the main message.

On the other extreme from these highly polished farms-for-tourists, my partner and I had the pleasure of staying at a sheep farm in the remote Westfjords where tourism, though a welcome additive to the income stream, in no way took over from the farming. Stay tuned for that story in the coming weeks, in No Farmer Left Behind.

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