Farmers are a dying breed. They work hard, 24-7, every day of the year. They have to tend to their animals in all types of weather and can never go on vacation without finding someone willing to fill their shoes and take on their immense responsibility for a couple of weeks, which must be difficult. They don’t run a profitable business, so they may not even be able to afford a vacation. They can barely make ends meet. And their children move to the city to study business, law or medicine and don’t want to take over the farm after their parents have called it a day.
Last weekend I went to watch réttir, the annual sheep round-up, in Fossvallarétt sheepfold, between Reykjavík and Selfoss, something I hadn’t done since I was a kid. Watching the sheep being corralled together by weathered farmers clad in lopapeysa (traditional woolen sweaters) is great entertainment, a way to experience the reality of the Icelandic countryside and a reminder of how hangikjöt (smoked lamb) ends up on my plate at Christmas.
At first glance the activities at Fossvallarétt didn’t seem out of the ordinary. The sheep were there perplexed and bleating, the sheep dogs were there guarding with watchful eyes, the farmers were there in their traditional outdoor clothing and smiling children were offering kaffi og med thví for sale, coffee and Icelandic cakes, like hjónabandssaela (literally “happy marriage”), an oatmeal cake with rhubarb jam.
But then a few things struck me as odd. The sheep were unusually colorful. Most Icelandic sheep have a dull white color (though more than 30 different sheep colors exist in Iceland, farmers are usually more concerned about breeding for quality meat rather than attractive sheep) but these had every shade from grey to rust, with stripes and spots in every imaginable pattern.
Some of the farmers did fit the stereotypes I had in my mind—middle-aged men with graying hair, red noses and dirty, sinewy hands, poorly shaven faces and missing the occasional tooth. But others were unexpectedly civilized looking with a relaxed, carefree air about them, allowing their children to run around among the sheep, ride their backs, pull out their wool and, well, drive them crazy.
The path leading up to the sheepfold was filled with parked cars of the sleek, shiny variety as opposed to old, big, dirty, rusty Land Rovers, Lada Sports, Wagoneers and the big-wheeled tractors you would expect farmers to drive. The fold was lined with spectators of all nationalities, shapes and sizes, and professional photographers trying to erect their tripods in the midst of the hysterically bleating fidgeting sheep.
Hobby shepherd Aegir Snorrason.
I approached one man, sharply dressed in a checkered jacket, leather gloves and cowboy hat and asked him—being the journalist that I am—whether I could take his picture and ask him a few questions. He agreed and I asked him first if he had any sheep at the round-up.
“Yes, about five,” he replied. Strangely few, I thought.
“Where’s your farm?” I continued.
“Oh, I’m not a farmer, this is my hobby.”
As it turned out, most of the sheep owners present at the réttir were in it just for fun. They live in Reykjavík or the greater capital region, rent facilities for their sheep and horses in a collective farm nearby called Fjárborg. They play around with pairing rams and ewes with rare colors to make their herds look pretty. They chase their sheep into the mountains surrounding Fjárborg in the spring, and though they could herd them by foot in fall, they prefer horses because they enjoy riding. They send most of their sheep to the slaughterhouse after réttir and eat the meat themselves or give it to their friends and family.
So the traditional réttir, which used to be one of the most important events for sheep farmers in Iceland, often costing them blood, sweat and tears, has become a hobby and a tourist attraction. It is advertised in the papers so city dwellers can watch an almost staged version of sheep round-ups and imagine what life used to be like in Iceland’s countryside.
While many farms and farming activities are still “genuine”, maybe after a few years they will become a mere memorial of bygone times.
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