Winter Travel & the Evolution of a Family Farm
By Lauren Rudersdorf | Photos By Lauren Rudersdorf 0
When we first began farming, young and idealistic, I imagined CSA vegetable farming as the perfect profession for my wandering spirit. I envisioned a life where we worked hard eight months out of the year and used the remaining four months to travel and see the world. I thought winters were a time of rest and inactivity. Over the years, I’ve learned that having “winters off” isn’t really a reality.
There’s much to be done between delivering the last CSA box in late October and planting the first seeds in our greenhouse in late February. During those four months we’re ordering seeds, drafting field plans, creating seeding calendars, building infrastructure, working off-farm jobs, attending conferences, synthesizing information from the previous year, making decisions, drafting budgets, creating marketing strategies, doing taxes, hiring employees, and catching up on projects at home. The list of things to accomplish each winter, before the drum beat of another season keeps us all-consumed and devoid of free time (albeit also filled with joy), is daunting.
With all that needs to be done, I’m definitely not left with much time to travel, but it’s still a priority in our household to get out of Wisconsin and experience somewhere new. It’s not always easy, and some years our funds are quite limited, but in my book, it’s an essential part of winter as a Wisconsin vegetable farmer.
This winter it was Iceland. We purchased the plane tickets because of an incredible deal, not knowing much about the country or its culture. When I dove into guidebooks, I was surprised. This icy land to the north, that experiences as little as four and a half hours of daylight in late December and early January, actually has a fascinating agricultural sector. The hot springs and geothermal activity make year-round greenhouses possible, thanks to the affordable renewable energy. Volcanic soils are rich and filled with nutrients. Highland pastures are perfect for grazing. The self-sufficiency of a people who have learned to exist vibrantly on a small island makes farming an essential part of their culture.
I knew from the very beginning of planning our trip that experiencing the farm culture firsthand was a priority. For a nine-day trip, the first accommodations we booked were two nights at a small farm hotel right off the Golden Circle route and only a few miles from the tourist meccas of Gullfoss and Geysir. This aging dairy and cattle farm that I found was given new life through agritourism. Snæbjörn and Björg began renting out Icelandic horses and a few rooms of their family home 20 years ago. A few years down the road, a beautiful log building with 10 guestrooms and stunning views of the countryside was added. While a new farmhouse was built, the original family home was converted into a farm-to-table restaurant and café that brings in guests from all around the world.
Our stay at Efstidular II was nothing short of magical. The visit began on a Friday night. We had woken in Reykjavik and ventured through Thingvellir and Laugarvatn on our way to the farm. While my husband checked us in at the beautiful wood-paneled reception, I ambled into the small café. Tables, couches and bookshelves made you feel like you were welcome to linger all day. Large glass windows connected the café to a dairy barn. We watched the cows marching in rotation to each take their turn munching on some hay. The farmer would walk in and out of the barn, checking the levels of food and water, using a pallet fork to bring in a new round bale when necessary. Guard dogs circled at his feet partially keeping watch over the livestock but mostly just loyal to the farmer who stopped every few minutes to pat them on their heads.
We drove our rental car down an icy graveled path from reception to the quaint log cabin that housed 10 guest rooms. The Highland mountains climbed into the mist behind us. Inside our room, a large window let you watch over the countryside and gave great opportunities for Northern Lights viewing (though the overcast nights of our stay didn’t leave us so lucky). The radiant flooring let you forget that it was only 20 degrees outside. Our first evening was calm and quiet with card games, reading and enjoying some duty-free Icelandic vodka; everything a night on an Icelandic farm should be.
We awoke in the morning to a buffet of freshly baked bread, meats, cheese, local tomatoes, tuna salad, rhubarb jam, pancakes, and farm-produced milk and skyr (the local yogurt) in the farm restaurant. The farmer we’d watched the day prior was now in the kitchen preparing our breakfast. He handed plates filled with food to his wife who was the smiley warm woman who had greeted us at reception.
We planned our day from a table beside the window, continuing to watch the farm and the animals while we feasted. Our day was spent venturing to local sites. We saw the dramatic falls of Gullfoss and the geothermal spray of Strokker before dining on tomato soup and fresh-baked bread inside a greenhouse at Friðheimar and then finding some hot springs in Flúðir to lounge in. Back at the farm, we could hardly wait for dinner. After a meal of beef raised on the farm and surrounding farmers’ veggies made into one of the best salads I’ve ever tasted, we headed back down to the café to sample from the array of farm-produced ice creams. The cinnamon cookie and rhubarb caramel ice creams danced together in a small bowl my husband and I shared.
When it was time to leave the next day, my heart was full. Our visit gave us a view into local agriculture in a way I had never experienced. As a farmer, I can tell pretty quickly whether a farm is authentic or putting on a show. I’ve visited farms who claim to be “functioning” farms but really spend the majority of their day catering to guests making the farm look romantic and perfect and doing very little actual farming. This wasn’t like that. This was agritourism in a way I’d never seen.
There were no farm tours. No one trying to sell you on the importance of local agriculture or the merits of their business practices. It was subdued. It was subtle. There were signs posted throughout the property explaining the history of the farm, the family members who participate and the roles they play, the evolution of a property through five generations, and information on Icelandic agriculture. Each farm building had large windows and they were just that: windows into the day to day life of running a farm business. Nothing was perfectly clean or manicured. It was what it was and you were welcome to view it. You were invited to be a real part of it.
In the end, I was most touched because it was a story like ours. The current owners of the farm, born the same year as my parents, were passionate about agriculture and their family’s farm legacy. The land had been in their family since 1850, a similar number of years as the land of my family that we farm on today.
During our stay at Efstidular II, we were lucky enough to see the farm as it moved from the current owners to their son Sölvi and his wife Día—the farmer I had watched through the window and the woman who helped us throughout our stay. The transition set in motion many years ago was taking place while we were guests. The weekend of our stay, Solvi and Día were moving into the family farmhouse.
The transition of a farm from one generation to another is a powerful thing, and I feel honored to be a part of it. My parents have raised pigs and steers for 35 years on our family farm, a dramatic shift from the farming practices of my father’s grandparents. Now we are in the transition of taking it over ourselves, also looking to turn it into something different entirely. I only dream we can bring as much life, vibrancy and love to our land as the farmers of Efstidular have to theirs.