Harvesting Sunshine


Harvesting Sunshine

By: Zoë Robert

Published in the 2014 October-December issue of Iceland Review & Atlantica – IR 05.14. Words by Zoë Robert, Photos by Áslaug Snorradóttir.

These ones are almost ready,” proclaims Gerhard Plaggensborg, pointing to a row of deep yellow Gouda cheese rounds in the cooling room at Skaftholt organic farm.

As he runs me through the three-month process, he drains the next batch, removing the whey from the cheese milk.

“For one kilo of cheese, you need ten liters of milk,” he explains.

As the only organic Iceland-made cheese on the market, it’s proving popular, manager Guðfinnur Jakobsson says proudly when the photographer and I pay the farm a visit in early August.

The cheese is only sold at a few locations and they don’t advertise.

“Good products sell themselves,” he says. “Making food with passion and love makes even more of a difference than the ingredients.”

The farm, located in the countryside of inland South Iceland 95 km (60 miles) east of Reykjavík, sells up to 600 four-kilogram (8.8-lbs) rounds annually.

“We used to take the summer off, but now we make cheese the whole year round. We sell about 70 percent of it, and we need to have enough for ourselves,” Gerhard adds.

While the farm sells most of its cheese, only some of the fresh produce harvested ends up on the market, with the farm preferring to keep most for its own use.

“We’re good at eating our vegetables, and we need to have enough for ourselves. It’s the same with the herbs for making tea.”

Sustainable Future

Established in 1980, the 200-hectare (490-acre) farm is a home and workplace adhering to the Rudolf Steiner philosophy, which Guðfinnur describes as having four main aspects: art, creation, the environment and providing the disabled with the opportunity to lead a normal life.

The farm, Guðfinnur says, allows people with disabilities to live without the pressures or stresses that exist in the rest of society. Each disabled person is teamed up with an able-bodied worker to complete tasks.

Eight people live full-time at Skaftholt, while a total of 20 are employed at the farm.

With Steiner, known as the “father of biodynamic farming,” strong emphasis is placed on environmental sustainability. The farm is seen as an organism with animals, crops and soil treated asa single system.

“We try to take a closed-loop approach by, for example, not using any synthetic fertilizers and trying to use only organic produce. When we make skyr, for example, we give the whey to the chickens—nothing is wasted. We try to think about everything as a part of a whole,” Guðfinnur describes.

As part of the farm’s philosophy, he feels strongly about ensuring Icelanders’ long history with the land is not lost, by opening its doors to school children.

“Many words in Icelandic have their roots in the fishing industry or in farming, but young people today don’t know that. It’s important for children to have a connection to the land.”

After sampling a buffet of delicious dishes using mostly farm-produced ingredients, as well as fresh skyr for dessert, Guðfinnur takes us on a tour of the greenhouses.

In one, the sweet smell of peppermint overpowers. Several varieties of tomatoes hang from the vines, flowers paint the ground in color and a few small bunches of grapes—rarely grown in Iceland—begin to ripen.

Welcoming the Public

Forty-five kilometers down the road is Sólheimar, a community running on similar principles.

With 100 residents, including 60 staff and an additional ten volunteers, it’s much larger.

“You can ask them anything. People are very honest here. They will always tell you what they really think. Comedians even come here to test out their material because they know they’ll get honest feedback,” says social affairs officer Valgeir Fridolf Backman when we arrive on the eve of the village’s annual Lífræni dagurinn (‘Organic Day’) festival.

There’s a frenzy of activity taking place in preparation for the big day. Valgeir has been cooking soup over the campfire.

Others are busy packing vegetables, baking cakes and breads and stocking the shelves of the store with fresh produce and handmade beauty products.

“The main aim of the festival is to introduce the staff and the community to the public. It’s a special day for us, the highlight, really. Some of us get dressed up in our scout uniforms. It’s also harvest time, so we present our products and hope to sell as many of the vegetables as we can."

While many visitors attend the festival each year, Sólheimar’s location near popular summerhouse community Grímsnes means that it receives up to 35,000 visitors each year.

Like Skaftholt, school children visit to learn about the environment and life on the farm. “It’s good to get them early,” Valgeir says, laughing.

Sólheimar also runs an eco-center hosting lectures and other events on sustainability.

Historical Significance

Founded in 1930 by Sesselja Hreindís Sigmundsdóttir (1902-1974), Sólheimar was one of the first farms in the Nordic region to implement permaculture and organic horticulture successfully and is cited as being the first community in the world designed to have both disabled and able-bodied people living together.

“That’s what people say and it’s really beautiful to hear that. There are 43 disabled community members here and all of them are equal. No one gives the orders. They don’t live feeling like they are disabled,” Valgeir explains.

Sólheimar also works with the prison authorities and probation system—two to three prisoners live and work in the community at a time—as well as the longterm unemployed.

Diversity in the workday is an essential part of life at Sólheimar. There are six different workshops: weaving, ceramics, candles, fine art atelier, paper-making and herb and carpentry.

“Sometimes someone can be making candles in the morning and then be in the woodwork shed in the afternoon. There are more than 20 different possibilities. Our disabled and non-disabled work together, which makes everyone feel that it is their responsibility to get the job done. I think that’s normal... but I work here.”

Few Reasons to Leave

Having moved to Sólheimar nine years ago, Valgeir has certainly grown accustomed to life here, he tells me the following day as he prepares to welcome festival guests.

“[My wife and I] are so lucky that our three children have spent part of their childhoods here in the community. I think they have gained so much from the experience. My youngest son wants to go to drama school. Because of his age, we discussed whether we would need to move the family to Reykjavík. My wife said, ‘No, absolutely not. We’re staying here!’ I was so happy when she said that because things are really good here and you can look around and see that people are happy. And it’s genuine happiness; people don’t want to leave.”

So intent are the village’s residents on staying at Sólheimar that some have vowed to never leave. “One man told me the other day that he didn’t want to be taken away in an ambulance and never come back. He wants to be here until the end. We have even prepared our own graveyard,” Valgeir says solemnly.

An aging population is somewhat of a problem, though. “We need more people and we need more young people. We have a lot to offer young people—creative jobs, for example. There needs to be a better balance in the community because we’re quite old and unfortunately many people are ill and need more attention and care,” Valgeir states.

And there are few reasons to leave. The village includes greenhouses for vegetable and non-food plant cultivation, the only organic forestry in Iceland, a gallery, café, guesthouses, swimming pool, church, sculpture garden, sports hall and gym and conference center, i.e. most things one needs in day-to-day life.

Children, however, travel to nearby villages to attend school.

Sólheimar classifies as an ‘eco-village’ because the community is socially sustainable (a village must be financially, environmentally or socially sustainable to classify) through its provision of employment opportunities, skills development programs, social activities and therapy programs.

The community produces some of its own energy through renewable means. Sólheimar’s financing comes mostly from a number of funds, but its operations are also supported through the sale of its products, as well as its guesthouses and the hosting of workshops.

Time to Celebrate

Another highlight of Sólheimar’s summer calendar of diverse events is a performance by beloved veteran singer Ragnar Bjarnason, or Raggi Bjarna, as he’s always called.

The excitement in the community is palpable, and we’re reminded repeatedly by residents of his impending visit.

But Sólheimar has its own star, too. Reynir Pétur Steinunnarson became a household name when in 1985 he walked the 1,417 km (880 miles) around Iceland in a bid to raise awareness of the status of disabled people, essentially putting a face to the statistics.

“I really wanted to shine a spotlight on the community here. There were of course other reasons, like being the first to walk Ring Road 1, seeing the landscape... and all that exercise is of course good for you, too,” he explains, in between serving festival visitors a taste of Sólheimar’s fresh produce.

Back at the campfire, Valgeir is handing out cups of vegetable soup to visitors. “It’s made from all the vegetables we grow, like peppers, carrots, onion, tomato, potatoes and rutabaga, but we’re also always trying to do something new, grow something different. Now we’re trying to grow corn, which isn’t really being done elsewhere in Iceland,” he says.

Innovation is important to the farm, he explains, adding that the volunteers bring with them a lot of new ideas. “Things are always changing and improving because of what people leave behind. Their different ideas or ways of doing things have a lasting impact on the community. It also creates a very international atmosphere.”

Community Spirit

Paulo Bessa and his partner Pamela Sousa from Portugal are among the village’s foreign residents.

Paulo spends most of his time in the herb workshop, producing soaps, creams, lotions, shampoos and lip balms, while Pamela works in the bakery and studies herbal medicine long-distance.

Paulo’s passion for all things botanical is immediately clear upon meeting him. On a tour of his garden, he describes enthusiastically the properties of each plant and his experience with growing it in Iceland.

“It’s a challenge growing a garden here. There are only a few months when you can plant things outdoors, and you really need to know what temperature conditions the different species can tolerate. It’s a case of trial and error but it’s great to experiment with it.”

Paulo is also passionate about organic modes of production. Iceland is a long way behind other countries when it comes to environmental thinking, he argues.

“Perhaps because everything is still so pure here, people don’t realize the value of all the water running in the rivers, the fish, the fresh air, the unspoiled wilderness. In many countries, there isn’t a lot of fresh, unpolluted water left.”

The community spirit is one of the things keeping the couple at Sólheimar.

Artist Wren Bytheway-Hoy, a volunteer from the United States who has spent time at other eco-villages, agrees that the atmosphere is a major draw.

“There are small details which are different here to other places. I also really like what they’re doing with art. You see it everywhere—they’re really proud of it,” she says.

For Wren, life in Sólheimar, as in other eco-villages, is better. “I love the idea of living off the land, being self-sustainable. And for the disabled, it’s also the most natural and healthy way to live.”

With the community’s name meaning ‘worlds of the sun,’ it’s no surprise that our weekend at Sólheimar, as well as Skaftholt, is brightened by sunshine and new friends with a zest for sustainable and creative living.

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