The Iceland Guide

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The land and the people

The economy and infrastructure: Agriculture

Farming used to be the single most important economic activity in Iceland, with 80% of the population dependent upon it in 1860. Today, with the growth of the fishing industry and the development of other forms of employment, only 8% of the population live off the land. The main agricultural areas are the lowlands of the south–west and the fjords of the north and east.

This century has seen a remarkable increase in productivity in agriculture, with tractors, ditch–digging equipment and grass–drying facilities all helping to expand production to the point where the domestic market is satisfied, allowing produce (mainly lamb and wool) to be exported. However, there is still overgrazing and because of the cold climate and the low level of organic material in the soil, heavy loads of fertiliser are often needed.

Up until the seventeenth century (at the onset of the "little ice age"), grain was grown, but since then the main crop has been hay for winter feeding. Grass will only grow for about four months (mid–May to mid–September), so the size of the animal population depends to a great extent on the winter fodder available, since the cattle have to be fed for about eight months in the year and the sheep and horses for about six months. Grazing land covers only about 20,000km² (out of approx. 103,000km²), but the amount of good quality land is being increased by draining large areas of wet meadows. These are usually the farm's outfields, the farmhouse normally being built on rising ground with its most fertile field, the home field (tún), around it. Most of the cattle and many of the sheep graze on the outer fields, the rest being moved onto common grazing lands in the uplands where they will stay from about July to September.

The cattle (c.60,000 of them in the early 1980s) are raised mainly for milk and butter products, though the production of beef is becoming more important. Most of the meat produced is mutton or lamb (there were c.800,000 sheep in the early 1980s) with about half of the sheep being slaughtered each year. Mutton, fleeces and various kinds of woollen goods are exported: Icelandic woollen goods are of excellent quality and are good souvenirs for visitors to take home.

One of the newest branches of agriculture, that of horticulture using natural warm water for heating the glasshouses, is expanding in a number of places. Some settlements (Hveragerði, for instance) specialise in this; in other areas horticulture is a subsidiary activity for the farmers. These glasshouses supply bananas, tomatoes, cucumbers and flowers.

For over a thousand years the Icelanders have relied on their horses for transport and today over 50,000 of them can be seen grazing on the farms. These are the direct descendants of the Vikings' horses as no other breed has been introduced since the Settlement. Although they are not very big, they are strong and able to carry a rider and provisions over rough ground for some distance, making them indispensable at the autumn round-up when the sheep have to be brought down from the highlands. During winter they grow a long shaggy coat as extra protection against the cold. They have five gaits: walk, pace, trot, gallop, and the tölt. The latter is a gait peculiar to Iceland: it is the equivalent of a running walk. On many farms the horses are being bred for export; this is an important activity in some areas in the south–west and in the north.

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The land and the people

The first explorers
The Age of the Settlement
The conversion to Christianity
The discovery of Greenland and America
The collapse of the Commonwealth
The Dark Ages
The nineteenth century
The twentieth century
Culture in the Icelandic environment
Old Icelandic literature
Eddic and skaldic poetry
The Sagas
Later literature
Modern literature
Painting, sculpture and music
The Icelanders
Traditional living conditions
The seasons
Changes in the modern world
Independent minds
Superstition, morality and the media
The land
On the edge of Europe
The shape of the land
The volcanoes
The glaciers
The natural world
The climate
The economy and infrastructure
Industry and energy