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The Milk House: The Icelandic cow principle

Ryan Dennis Published on 19 July 2012

Iceland is dominated by volcanoes and mountainous highlands at its center. Although picturesque, most of the surface is barren, the arable land occurring in pockets around the coast.

This is where the island’s 700 dairy farmers make their stand, sometimes in isolation. Although winters are relatively mild, the summers are cold and notably short with unpredictable cold snaps that can kill vegetation and destroy crops.

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It is only in the last 100 years that farmers have been in the practice of tilling and planting some of the ground, despite Norwegian settlement 1,000 years prior. The results are pasture and a minimal amount of barley.

Consequently, grain has to be shipped to the island at twice the cost of other EU countries. The climate tends to limit grazing from May to September, causing the import of feedstuffs to be unavoidable. In addition, the difficult landscape often keeps both farms and required services many miles apart.

With little possibility to share means, each farm – which averages about 30 cows – must own all of their own equipment. As if these circumstances were not arduous enough, the infrequent volcanic eruptions have claimed a few cows and farmers in the course of history.

Iceland can be a tough place to live. To farm may be a testament of will. There is only one dairy breed on the island: the Icelandic cow. She is relatively small and compact. Much like the life based on her, she is not very pretty, per se, but does have a quality of toughness.

Although she produces less than a milking shorthorn, she is exotic in color with six principle shades and patterns – including brindle, pied and dappled – and over 100 possible combinations.

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The breed is only found on the island, descending from the original Scandinavian ancestors over a millennia ago. Since it has evolved in such genetic isolation it is extremely vulnerable to non-native diseases and, if outside cattle were brought to the country outright, it could potentially wipe out the Icelandic cow.

A new breed would have to be quarantined and mixed with the semen of local cattle for five generations before the offspring could be released.

Due to the nation’s quota system, even if the landscape allowed it, Icelandic dairy farmers have little opportunity to expand. Their profit margin is dependent on being as efficient as possible under generally inefficient conditions.

Several years ago, scientists proffered that the use of the Norwegian Red breed would allow farmers to increase their production by 27 percent or alternatively maintain it with fewer cows.

The suggestion presented a choice to Icelandic agriculture and the greater nation. The introduction of the Norwegian Red would ultimately lead to the extinction of the Icelandic cow, as its genetic purity would be lost as farmers went for more efficient producers and crossbreeding expanded through the small national herd.

Icelandic farmers could make farming a little easier on an island where it comes hard or keep the somewhat homely-looking animal that, in some ways, symbolized what it means to farm in Iceland.

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In 1935, Icelandic author Halldór Laxness published Sjálfstætt fólk , translated as “Independent People.” It was part of his main body of work that eventually won him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1955. In Independent People , Bjartur tries to manage a living as a crofter in the early 20th century.

He seeks selfhood and autonomy above all else, far past the point of being logical and even to the extent that it becomes dangerous to himself and the people around him. The book is long and fairly dense – and even has a dusty-moldy feel, since the novel has only recently been reprinted again in the U.S. after almost a 40-year hiatus.

My confession: The bookmark moves fairly slow through it. You might have to find out yourself what happens to Bjartur but I suspect that, as is his nature, he’ll keep pursuing his ideals, despite their inconvenience and sometimes absurdity.

Many insist that farming is, first of all, a business. There is truth in this, at least: That once the farm stops making money, eventually one has to stop farming.

The definition may be incomplete, however, because if we were merely businessmen we would have chosen a poor career path. Our sector has high investment, low return, suffers from extreme volatility and requires a lot of time in a double-eight herringbone office.

For these reasons, I maintain that there is something inherently illogical in the act of farming or, to say it more kindly, evidently another reason why we do it. The challenge. The independence. The work. Maybe it’s an addiction and we were raised to not know any better.

I won’t presume to name what it is for anyone else, only that it’s something that’s not money and that some would say goes against reason.

The Icelandic dairy farmers voted to keep their native cows, overwhelmingly. PD

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