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Western Iceland’s Land of Milk and Hay

At a dairy farm on the coast, a glass of fresh milk takes on new meaning. “Meet the North,” a series that ventures into the lives of some of the 4 million people who call the Arctic home, learns about farming in a country now dominated by tourism.

Written by Jennifer Kingsley Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
A warm glow comes from the cow barn at Hraunhals during the evening milking.Eric Guth

Light spilled out of the barn windows and the sunset glowed over the ocean. It was time for the evening milking.

Johannes Eyberg Ragnarsson (Eyberg) was one year old when he moved to Hraunhals farm in western Iceland in 1964. The rhythm of his life has been the same ever since: “We have milking at seven in the morning and seven in the evening and other than that time is easy.”

Eyberg and his wife Gudlaug Sigurdardottir (Lauga) make it look easy. They’ve been farmers all of their lives; they met as children and have lived together on this 600-hectare (1,480-acre) farm for 30 years. When I visited, they had 100 sheep, 30 dairy cows, 32 calves and a few cattle that they raised for meat.

The farm sits along a gravel road in between a lava field and the wild coast. Stories in these parts go back hundreds of years; in fact, one of the sagas, the Eyrbyggja saga, is set right here. The lush hayfields look so natural it’s easy to overlook the expertise it takes to grow such a crop in a cool, rainy climate where windstorms blow hard enough to break windows and sandblast the paint off cars. The deep knowledge of Iceland’s farmers can get lost amid today’s tourism narrative that highlights glaciers and thermal pools.

Eyberg and Lauga’s cows are Icelandic. They are small and come in many color combinations of black, brown, white and red. Their fur holds a slight curl.

Eyberg and Lauga have named each cow in the barn. This is one clue to the care the animals receive here; another is their milk yield.

The average milk production for an Icelandic dairy cow is 5,400 liters (1,425 gallons) per year, but Eyberg and Lauga’s animals produce 7,700 liters (2,035 gallons) per year on average. While this is much less than other breeds around the world, Iceland is opting, for now, to maintain its own breed, which has been isolated on the island for more than a thousand years. By Icelandic standards, these cows are superstars.

Gudlaug Sigurdardottir and Johannes Eyberg Ragnarsson enjoy life together and time with their animals. (Eric Guth)

Gudlaug Sigurdardottir and Johannes Eyberg Ragnarsson enjoy life together and time with their animals. (Eric Guth)

Hraunhals’ milk goes into an MS Iceland Dairies truck that comes by every day. MS is a cooperative that includes many small dairy farms around the country, and the milk is used in a variety of products, including Iceland’s famous yogurt-like skyr.

Eyberg credits the quality of his hay for his production levels, but the more I saw how much attention and love he put into his work, the more I understood.

“These cows are my friends,” said Eyberg, but that wasn’t quite what he meant. He searched for the words in English and pulled his hands to his chest. “They are my good friends, my good friends.”

One cow got nervous at milking time. When it was her turn, Eyberg stood next to her, scratched her back and kept a hand on her side to soothe her. “Cows are the same as people. Sometimes they feel good, sometimes bad,” he said.

I asked Eyberg what will happen to this farm when he and Lauga are gone, and the answer was simple: “Finished.” Family farming is declining in this area, despite a growing international interest in Icelandic dairy products. There used to be 66 dairy farms on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, now there are 11 – Eyberg counted them out on his fingers. The change is a mixture of economics and lifestyle.

This couple’s daughter and son-in-law are teachers who look after the farm on the rare occasions that Eyberg and Lauga are away, but they will not take over the business. “If you have a small farm, not many cows, it is not enough,” Eyberg said.

Not enough, perhaps, in a country transitioning to a faster pace, but this farm, with its two inhabitants, strikes a balance between productivity and relaxation. Eyberg has a passion for tractors, and he rebuilds them in his spare time. Lauga loves sheep, which she raises for meat and wool. She has a special room in the sheep barn where she sleeps during the lambing season to help the laboring ewes.

“Twenty-four hours a day is not enough for us,” said Eyberg, “Twenty-nine would be good.”

Lauga, Eyberg and Jennifer Kingsley share stories amid farming trophies spread across the kitchen table. (Eric Guth)

Lauga, Eyberg and Jennifer Kingsley share stories amid farming trophies spread across the kitchen table. (Eric Guth)

Before leaving Hraunhals, we stopped by the house to eat cake with whipped cream and chat around the kitchen table. Eyberg and Lauga shyly showed us the trophies and certificates they have won, year after year, for the quality of their work.

Before we left, we drank milk. Eyberg drinks about 4 liters (1 gallon) per day to the exclusion of almost everything else (“Not beer. Not wine.” He rarely even drinks water.) The sample, fresh that day, was rich and delicious with 4.4 percent fat. I could taste the hay, which meant I could taste the land, which meant the milk was flavored with stories, like the sagas, that stretch back centuries.

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