Until recently, very little grain had been grown in Iceland since the time of the Vikings.
The Vikings settled here during a warm spell, and they could harvest barley, rye and wheat, but a cold spell, that began in the 14th century and lasted for 500 years, killed this branch of the Icelandic economy.
Archeologists suggest the settlers had discovered the use of seaweed as a fertilizer, and some suppose grain farming was dependent upon seaweed.
Most places where grain was grown are within a short distance from the shore.
One can only suppose that, back then, the seaweed worked as well as it does today, when we can buy seaweed fertilizer in liquid form and use it on our gardens and houseplants.
Scientists believe seaweed stimulates the growth of plants and increases their tolerance against diseases.
But seaweed or no seaweed — in the next 50 years, scientists suppose global warming is going to create warmer atmosphere in Iceland, which in turn will continue to allow better farming.
With this warming spell, harvests will become larger and more dependable, and northerners can look into growing new crops, said Bjarni Gudleifsson, a scientist with the Icelandic Farming Institute.
We’ve already begun to see the effects here. In 10 years, the production of grain and wheat has multiplied many times over, or from 485 tonnes to well over 10,000 tonnes in 2004.
However, along with this warm spell will come diseases and insects that harm crops, and that is something farmers will have to learn to deal with.
Grain production has recently become an official farming operation, and the Icelandic government has begun to offer support to grain farmers.
Most of the grain is grown in the south of the country, where the winters are often milder than in the north.
Some farmers in the south and east of the country have had quite a good success with sowing grains late in summer, and harvesting it the following year.
Then the grain grows to about 10 centimetres before the winter, and stays green until the next summer, when it matures.
The grain they use can tolerate temperatures as low as minus 10 degrees Celsius.
Some farmers use genetically modified grain, with the approval of the government.
There are complaints that grain farmers show very little foresight when it comes to new techniques. Few seem aware of the danger the genetically modified grain may bring.
“I don’t understand grain farming in Iceland,” says Sæmundur Thorvaldsson, the head of forestry in the west of the country. “It’s a bit like someone is building a big house, where he intends to be comfortable, but forgets to put the windows in.
“Other northern nations that grow grain understand the usefulness of wind breaks and how to use them.”
Grain production in Iceland is a very sensitive operation. In some years, a third of farmers’ harvest has been lost to a single windstorm in September.
This fall, an early snowfall in the coldest September since 1982 caused farmers to fear for about a third of their grain, as they had not harvested it.
Though most farmers sell little of their grain — they use it to feed their own livestock — the financial damage could have been quite devastating, as no Icelandic insurance company will cover a harvest still in the field.
This time, all went well, and the farmers managed to save most of their crop.
Now, geese are grain’s main enemy.
During their spring migration, they descend on fields by the thousands and devour crops.
Farmers will likely have to employ scarecrows, which until now, were a rare sight in Iceland.