Sunday morning, 11:00. Þorvaldseyri farm. Autumn has arrived, but this morning is sunny and unseasonably mild. The waves of a golden field of rapeseed flowers undulate in the gentle breeze almost as far as the eye can see. Almost at the southernmost point of mainland Iceland, these fields lie in the shadow of the tumbling, mountainous Núpur ridge, and just a few short kilometres from Eyjafjallajökull and Hekla. On a clear day, you can see the dramatic cliffs of the Westman Islands from this spot.
Jón Bernódusson travels here most weekends, setting off from Reykjavík in the early morning to make the three-hour drive to catch up with Ólafur Eggertsson, whose family has farmed this land for over a hundred years.
Jón takes the flower of one of the stems in his fingers and tears it from its stalk. He opens it up to reveal a line of tiny brownish pips—these are the seeds that will be extracted and then crushed to produce the rapeseed oil which Ólafur is bottling back at his farmhouse. “These need another week or two,” Jón says, scattering the seeds back over the earth, casting a hand across the tract of farmland where we stand. “The seeds have to be black before you can harvest them.”
Jón works for the Icelandic Maritime Administration (IMA), which is leading the development of rapeseed as a crop in Iceland, aiming to see the country’s fishing fleet use sustainable and environmentally sound biodiesel made from rapeseed oil in place of fossil fuels.
The Icelandic ship fleet has become larger and more powerful in recent years, guzzling approximately 275,000 metric tonnes of diesel fuel in one year, according to 2010 studies. The quantity of rapeseed oil necessary to match that could be grown on 2,200km2—or roughly just 2% of the total area of Iceland. “Biodiesel,” Jón wrote in an official report for the IMA published in 2010, “is the best renewable energy source in Iceland for today’s engines.”
As well as biodiesel, farmers all across the island are harvesting rapeseed to produce cooking oil. Ólafur collects rapeseed oil in tall 500ml bottles, all lined up waiting to be shipped this Sunday morning—each bottle emblazoned with a label portraying the evocative rural setting of Þorvaldseyri. Jón himself swears by the oil’s medicinal qualities: “I take a spoonful of it every morning—it’s very good for you.” By-products from the oil can also be used in animal feed, whilst the straw may be used as bedding for horses.
Rapeseed is by no means a new innovation. “It’s been around since the Romans,” Jón says. Two varieties of rapeseed are cultivated worldwide: Brassica campestris (a field or turnip mustard) and Brassica rapa (common rapeseed). In the 1970s, the possibility of cultivating a variation of rapeseed to produce rapeseed oil was discovered, leading to the development of canola oil (“Canadian Oil, Low Acid”). Since then production has grown at a dramatic rate, with a sixfold increase reported worldwide between 1975 and 2007.
Warmer temperatures mean that the rapeseed crop grows well in Iceland today, yielding harvest results similar to Scandinavia and Northern Europe. In Iceland of course rapeseed growth is strongly boosted by long summer days with almost 24-hour sunlight.
“The only support for rapeseed harvesting in Iceland is coming from the IMA,” Jón insists. “The research and development division has spent more than 35 million krónur on the project since 2008.” Þorvaldseyri is one of ten farms participating in the project, cultivating rapeseed under different conditions.
Ólafur was among the first farmers to take part in the IMA’s trial project. “All machinery for the cultivation was already available at the farm, since we use the same equipment for cultivating corn.” At Þorvaldseyri, he and his family buy into Jón’s vision. “Since we have a lot of good land for cultivation in Iceland, the prospects for domestic production are promising.”
Using biodiesel, the 2010 IMA report states, would boost Iceland’s energy independence and cut levels of greenhouse gas emissions, as the rapeseed plants bind at least double the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by biodiesel fuel when burned: one hectare of rapeseed uses 6 tons of CO2, whilst being burned as biodiesel it emits 3 tonnes.
In addition, Jón insists rapeseed offers food security: “About 85% of the harvest is used directly or indirectly for human consumption. The rapeseed meal can be used as food for animals, and for humans as well—the bakery Reynir bakari in Kópavogur, for example, are selling rapeseed meal bread.” In turn, it guarantees farmers a higher income: “They can use the rapeseed meal for their animals, so they don’t need to buy food. They can use the oil for their driving equipment and their heating devices.” Above all, Jón says, “It makes the farmer independent.”
Last spring Fréttablaðið reported that the Icelandic oil company N1 was set to invest in the project, ready to pump tens of millions of krónur into what had previously been the pipe-dream of a handful of farmers.
Yet it remains crucial for Jón that farmers such as Ólafur on his twenty hectares in South Iceland continue to stand as pioneers in the field. Around 130,000 hectares across the entire island could be cultivated for rapeseed. The Agricultural University of Iceland says the potential cultivation could be more than four times larger. As farmers across the island join Jón’s cause, the IMA’s vision is becoming an increasingly tantalising prospect.
Iceland’s Most Famous Farmer
The story of Ólafur Eggertsson and the Þorvaldseyri farm
Ólafur Eggertsson became world-renowned in 2010 when the Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted, casting a cloud of ash across his farm at the foot of the glacier—photos of which appeared all over the international press. Long before then, however, he had become a famous face among Icelanders.
His grandfather, Ólafur Pálsson, arrived at Þorvaldseyri in 1906, finding the farm in a poor state—the house in disrepair and the surrounding fields and meadows flooded and all but destroyed. But this didn’t discourage Ólafur who bought the farm from Icelandic poet Einar Benediktsson, who had bought the land a year earlier. Ólafur’s son Eggert was born in 1913, and took control of Þorvaldseyri in the late 1940s, launching grain cultivation and establishing a local association of grain farmers, before joining the board of the Agricultural Association of South Iceland and becoming a respected figure in the country’s agrarian community.
Eggert’s son Ólafur then took control of the farm in 1986, after graduating from the Agricultural College at Hvanneyri and learning the business from his father. He immediately set about continuing his parents’ work, improving the grass fields and increasing production, as well as pioneering technical innovations. Despite the scepticism of scientists, Ólafur had his land drilled for geothermal water in 1989 and the houses at Þorvaldseyri have since then been heated with geothermal energy. In 1997, the Minister for Agriculture presented Ólafur and his wife Guðný with a special award recognising their achievements in Icelandic agriculture.
In 2009, Ólafur began cultivating whole wheat flour and barley flour, which led to the production of bread made entirely from Icelandic wheat and barley. That year, President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson bestowed him with the Knight’s Cross in the country’s chivalric Order of the Falcon for his work in agriculture.
Today, visitors can stop by his Þorvaldseyri Visitor Centre, which he opened on April 14, 2011, one year after the start of the Eyjafjallajökull eruption. There he shows footage from the eruption and sells all kinds of stuff, including “hunks of lava, actual ash from the volcano, T-shirts, perfume, chocolate, photos and postcards, as well as products from our farm, like ground barley, whole wheat and our own breakfast cereal made from barley,” as his website, www.icelanderupts.is, states. Admission is 750 ISK.