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Feature of the Week: Living with the Volcano

Magazine

Feature of the Week: Living with the Volcano

Two and a half years after the volcanic eruption in Eyjafjallajökull, life goes on at Þorvaldseyri. The farm became famous when a haunting picture of the ash cloud hovering above it appeared on the covers of the world’s major newspapers. Was it a blessing in disguise?

Published in the 2012 October-December issue of Iceland Review – IR 04.12. By Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir. Photos by Geir Ólafsson and courtesy of Ólafur Eggertsson.

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The wind whips the grassy fields in front of the stately red-and-white farmhouses at Þorvaldseyri below the Eyjafjöll mountains in South Iceland. Nestled in a depression between the mountains Steinafjall and Lambafell in the backdrop of the earlier pristine white, now black-speckled glacier Eyjafjallajökull, Þorvaldseyri looks the model Icelandic farm. The barley fields are bare, only yellowish stubs remain, as the grain was hastily harvested before the first autumn low of the season hit the country the weekend prior.

“With such a forecast, we just had to go for it,” explains farmer Ólafur Eggertsson. “It was a good harvest, even better than last year. We got 180 tons of barley from 40 hectares.” Devastating as it was at the time, the ash emitted during the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption has now enriched the soil, making it more fruitful than even before.

Three Generations of Pioneers

Owned by the same family since 1906, the residents of Þorvaldseyri have earned a reputation for being pioneers in agriculture. When dung and coal were used for cooking and heating on most farms in Iceland and electric cables wouldn’t reach the remotest regions of the country for decades to come, Ólafur’s grandfather, Ólafur Pálsson, built a small hydro plant to power the farm in 1928. His son, Eggert Ólafsson, was considered rather eccentric when he started growing cereals at Þorvaldseyri in the 1950s; the Icelandic climate was believed to be too hostile for such ventures. However, while predominantly a dairy and cattle farm, barley has been grown continuously at Þorvaldseyri since 1960 and, although still in its infancy, grain farming has started to spread around the country. Today, Þorvaldseyri is mostly self-sufficient: a natural hot spring of 66°C (151°F) is used to heat the farmhouses and experiments are being made to run its vehicles on homeproduced biodiesel from rapeseed oil. “We harvested 15 tons of rapeseed this autumn, which resulted in 5,000 liters of cooking oil.

It’s more valuable than biodiesel but if we had used all of it for biodiesel production, we could have powered the entire farm plus two cars for a whole year,” states Ólafur, who is enthusiastic about alternative energy. “Icelanders have to ask themselves: on what fuel will we run in the future?”

You can read the remainder of the article in the 2012 October-December issue of Iceland Review – IR 04.12.Four times a year the print edition of Iceland Review & Atlantica brings you a wealth of articles on all aspects of life in Iceland including Páll Stefánsson's latest images of the country’s majestic landscape. Click here to subscribe and here to browse through a selection of pages from the current issue.