What I Learned About The Future Of Farming In Iceland

These are some of the lessons I learned about sustainable farming thanks to a summer internship in Iceland.
Nicola Parfitt in Climate Action
Monday, 21 November 2022

As a student in her twenties, I’ve spent many summers of life looking for a summer job or internship. Over the years I’ve worked as a tennis coach, an ice cream scooper, a bookkeeper and an assistant nurse at an elderly care home. I learned a lot from these experiences, but this past summer I really wanted to find a job more closely related to my studies in environmental studies and sustainability science.

That turned out to be quite the challenge. If you’re a student, I’m sure you know the drill: every position either requires a master’s degree, five years of work experience, or you should be able to finance all your own living, food and travel expenses — which isn’t feasible as a student.

I was starting to lose hope when I came across a job posting in my field (a job for which I was qualified!) on Instagram of all places. Not only was it related to environmentalism and sustainability, but it was located in Iceland. On an island where you can literally chase waterfalls, swim in dreamy geothermally heated lagoons and even see volcanic eruptions.

The job opening read: “Summer positions in horticultural research and organic vegetable growing are available this summer for 3 university students at Flight Song Farm in Reykjalundur, Iceland. No experience necessary.” I applied immediately. The best part? Two of my classmates and were also hired. We were thrilled! On Saturday June 11th, we boarded our flight start our journey of becoming the most fun female farming trio Iceland has ever seen. Okay, please don’t quote me on the “most” part, but I can 100% stand behind the “fun female farming trio” part.

When we arrived, we spent our first weekend marveling at the gorgeous mountain views in Reykjavik’s harbor. The mountainous, volcanic was like nothing we’d ever seen before.  It was like we had traveled back in time to when Vikings ruled the north. Iceland felt like a pre-industrial world where the natural world thrived in the absence of modern technology and the hustle and bustle of city life.

Which brings me to the main point of this story. Did you know you can farm warm climate vegetables in Iceland? Iceland is one of the coldest countries on Earth during winter season, but it isn’t the ice-covered country its name suggests. No anymore, at least. 

Climate change is enabling farming to take place further and further north of the globe, whilst countries closer to the equator are experiencing agricultural hardships due to an increase in natural disasters such as droughts and floods, as well as extreme temperatures. In the past few years, the temperature in Iceland has increased so significantly, as well as the knowledge of how to farm effectively in Iceland, that vegetable growing has become a lot easier and widespread[1].

There were only a few vegetable farms in Iceland a decade ago, due to its long, cold winters and short, harsh summers. Back in 2012, Iceland imported 61% of its vegetables, though it was 99% self-reliant in its meat and dairy production[2]. Even today, only 6,000 hectares of land are being used to grow vegetable and oil crops, though studies suggest that 28,000 hectares of land could be used.

Iceland could significantly decrease its environmental footprint by growing a larger portion of its vegetables locally, which is why farms such as Flight Song Farm are so important. The business, which relies on a subscription model to limit waste, is rooted in the concept of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and is helping to reduce Iceland's reliability on vegetable imports.

There are of course many geographical difficulties to consider. Due to Iceland’s cool climate with temperatures averaging around 1-2 °C (33-35 F) in winter and 12 °C (54 F) in summer in Reykjavik, farming is like walking on a tightrope each day, with the weather changing from hour to hour[3].

This is why most vegetable growing in Iceland is done inside greenhouses[4]. The unique geology of Iceland allows for greenhouses in many areas to be heated with geothermal energy — the most sustainable way to power a greenhouse, and the one used by Flight Song Farm. Long pipes are connected to an 80°C hot spring and run along the floors of the greenhouses, enabling naturally hot water to circulate through them. This allows the vegetables to grow in the warmth, even when the sun isn’t out to heat the greenhouses. Hydroponic greenhouses are common in Iceland because the country has more water supply than topsoil. Growing plants in water has many benefits, including reduced need for pesticides, reduced need for water, and this form of agriculture uses less space for the same yield[5].

Flight Song Farm, on the other hand, was a soil-based greenhouse which also has its advantages.

  1. Growing produce organically with soil often allows for weeds and flowering plants to grow on the sides of plantations. This further promotes biodiversity by creating habitats for pollinators. There’s also something so beautiful about seeing flowers grow on your farm.
  2. Soil is the most biodiverse resource/habitat/material on Earth (that we know of, at least) and it contains so many microbes that are important for human and planetary health. These bacteria help recycle nutrients and feed plants, which in turn feed animals and feed us. Without soil microbes, biological waste such as leafs, food leftovers and carcasses wouldn’t be able to decompose properly and biological waste would pile up.
  3. All foods can grow in soil, but only certain foods can grow hydroponically. Root vegetables such as carrots, turnips and beetroots need to be able to spread their roots out properly, which isn’t possible if they’re grown in water.

Iceland’s cool outdoor temperatures are also beneficial for some produce. Kale, for instance, doesn’t handle heat well, so it is normally grown during the winter months. In Iceland however, kale can be grown during the height of summer and still retain its unique flavors and high nutritional content. Icelandic kale could become a worldwide sensation in times where the rest of the world can’t grow it as efficiently.

On Flight Song Farm, we grew a wide variety of both indoor and outdoor crops. Indoors, we grew nightshades that love the heat, including slicer tomatoes, eggplants and a wide variety of chilies (habaneros, sweet banana peppers, jalapenos and Hungarian hot wax peppers). We also had delicious cucumbers, green and yellow zucchini and butternut squash.

Outdoors we grew carrots, spring onions, broccolini, kale, radishes, fennel and garlic. It was amazing to have access to such a wide range of vegetables in Iceland. It was so fun to practice our cooking and eat fresh produce we had helped to grow. We made a lot of vegetable stews and paired them with either pasta, rice noodles or sweet potatoes and we also made some nice curries and vegetable fry ups with rice or tortilla wraps.

Every Saturday, we sold our local vegetables at a little market in Reykjavik and had a chance to tell Icelanders about the farm. Most of them were surprised that the veggies we were selling were grown organically only an hour outside the capital. The amount of appreciation and enthusiasm they showed towards Flight Song Farm was enormous and so heartwarming.

I learned so much for this experience and I have so much respect for farmers all over the world.

  1. Farmers deserve so much more praise, respect and higher salaries. The work that goes into farming is both physically and emotionally demanding. Some days we were out working from 9 in the morning until 10pm at night. If something needs to be done, such as pruning or harvesting tomatoes, there is a very narrow time frame in which it needs to be done to make it as successful as possible. Pruning tomatoes a day too late can mean slowing growth and harvesting them too late can cause ruptures in the skin of some varieties, making them unsellable.
  2. I think farmers should be subsidized for both physical and mental health support. Farming can be very physically demanding, especially if you utilize carbon neutral methods such as broad forking as tilling, and carrying your own materials around, which we did. In many parts of the world, agriculture workers have amongst the highest suicide rates of all occupations. It is literally vital for farmers to receive better support!
  3. Small scale organic farming is very demanding but extremely rewarding! Towards the end of my internship, I did start wishing for a machine to come and replace some of the work I was doing by hand. But in the end, knowing my environmentalist heart, I wouldn’t have accepted the help of a machine if it was presented to me. Manual labor might be more time consuming and physically demanding, but it is also so much more rewarding and so much better for the environment.

With food security becoming an increasingly important issue to tackle in the face of climate change, we need to make sure to respect and value farmers all around the world and provide them with the resources they need to continue doing their vital work. At the end of the day, everything we do depends on us having the energy to do it — and without farmers, that energy would be lost!