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The Milk House: Anthem

Ryan Dennis Published on 18 April 2014

The more one reads about agriculture in other parts of the world, the more it seems like the story of farming changes little country to country. From Australia to Belgium, farmers lament the volatile prices and narrow margins.

Some farms go out of business, and others get bigger to handle the economic conditions. The children of farmers return to the farm less often this generation because they can’t or because they have chosen opportunities more appealing to them.

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It’s hard work, and sometimes the only rewards are the ones the farmer determines in his own mind. These qualities of farming sometimes seem to be so widespread, regardless of geography, that one is tempted to think they are inherent to the act itself.

Those were the things I put on my grant application to go to Iceland. I said that they needed me to write about their farmers while they still existed. The committee wasn’t made up of Icelandic farmers, so they believed me. Turns out, I was wrong.

One of the families that I stayed with in Iceland was at the farm Hríshóll. It is very difficult to change a farm’s name in Iceland, regardless who lives there, and as a result many of those names can be traced back to hundreds of years.

Some of them were recorded in the sagas about the ninth and 10th centuries. When a family moves onto a farm in Iceland, they take up its history in addition to the lifestyle. Icelanders don’t have family names but last names that are patronymic. (If your father’s first name is Einar, your last name would be Einarsson or Einarsdóttir).

For this reason, it is often easier to refer to families by the farm’s name. This act of taking up the farm’s identity as their own, I’ve come to learn, is a telling detail.

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I introduced myself at the kitchen table while Anna Hlín, the 10-year-old daughter, performed a self-choreographed dance to Michael Jackson. I asked Guðmunder, the father, if she was preparing for a recital. He said no, it was just something she did every day.

When I first shook hands with Guðmunder I told him I was glad to be there, and he said they were glad to have me … so far, and then he winked. Often joking and quick to laugh, I had the sense he was someone used to being in public.

Helga, his wife, would take time between her jobs as a hair dresser and a nurse to set a cup of coffee in front of me and patiently answer my questions, writing Icelandic words on a piece of paper and sounding them out for me.

Halldór Ingi, the toddler, had a game where he’d dump out playing cards that were shaped like Christmas trees and then insist I help him put them back in the case. Freydís and Ingvi, teenagers, were never far, doing chores or finishing homework.

The family had been at Hríshóll for less than a year. The farm had been owned by Helga’s older brother, and when he retired they moved from their home farther up the peninsula into the farmhouse decorated with cow knickknacks and farming décor.

Guðmunder left a job designing crates for an international company in which he was a valued engineer and got to travel to other countries. The kids went from town life to having calf chores and three dogs chasing them around. Halldór Ingi found out that he liked playing with tractors. Just like that, they were a farming family.

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Milk production is regulated in Iceland with a quota system that is adjusted to match domestic demand. Dairy farming is subsidized by the government, which the majority of Icelanders seem to agree with.

Farmers are required by law to pasture their cattle at least nine weeks a year, ensuring the type of farming the public appreciates. For the investment, the island’s citizens also get a stable, secure dairy supply that is one of the few products made in Iceland and is cheaper than most other food on the shelves.

Farmers are able to apply environmentally friendly practices and support rural communities. The healthy agriculture sector prevents urbanization of open land and helps conserve the landscape, which is thought to be Iceland’s national treasure.

I would even argue that supporting family farms helps preserve the Icelandic culture because it is often the rural people that still carry on many of the old traditions, from eating stuffed sheep stomach to challenging each other in improvisational rhyming.

Families like Hríshóll seem to suggest that the farm nearly attains a reverent nature in Iceland. It’s a common story to hear of Icelanders dropping their old lives to take over a relative’s farm, leaving university posts and white-collar jobs to milk cows.

It’s how so many farms have been in the same family for 150 to 200 years. Farming in Iceland is not only a desirable option but also an accessible one, both financially and personally. Banks are more simpatico and farms aren’t already laden with debt.

There is both a strong family and cooperative structure to help new farmers with the learning curve. When Guðmunder backed the TMR wagon the length of the barn without slowing down, it didn’t seem like he had been farming for only nine months.

I enjoyed my time at Hríshóll. They joked and made each other laugh. They liked being around one another and took pleasure in what they did on the farm. The time at Hríshóll represented to me all the good things possible in farming.

Although there is different political and economic dogma on how a country’s agriculture should be governed, farms like Hríshóll suggest that the Icelandic model works well. It shows a government and public believing in the value of farming and how all groups can benefit.

It also shows that conditions are possible in which family farms can prosper and in which the act of farming doesn’t have to be synonymous with struggle. PD

Ryan Dennis is the son of a dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer. The Dennis family dairies and maintains a 100-plus cow herd of Holsteins and Shorthorns.

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