Volcano takes toll on Iceland farmers
Eruption coats fertile fields with ash; some cattle slaughtered
By Anna Andersen
THORVALDSEYRI, Iceland - As once-stranded European travelers return to their routine lives, farmers near the base of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano are only starting to grapple with long-term consequences of the recent eruption.
The April 14 blast triggered major flooding that inundated hundreds of acres of fields and coated the area with ash up to four inches thick in some areas.
Farmers have begun cleaning up — a laborious process that's expected to continue through the summer, said Olafur Eggertsson who operates a farm in Thorvaldseyri, at the foot of Eyjafjallajokull."Over the weekend, firefighters spent 24 hours cleaning the ash from the roofs of my farm, a task that required 150,000 liters (40,000 gallons) of water," Eggertsson said. "More than 50 people have also been helping me shovel ash from my farm grounds, already driving away 500 tons, which does not include my fields."
Eggertsson's 2,500-acre farm, which has been in his family since 1906, was one of the hardest hit by both glacial flooding and ashfall. Following the eruption, he was not permitted to sleep at his farm for four nights.
Recalling his first night back, Eggertsson said the rumbling in the volcano was so loud that he had to sleep with earplugs. Most difficult, however, was sleeping in fear of more glacial flooding, he added.
While the area was evacuated, Eggertsson made daily trips to the farm to care for his 160 cattle, including 60 dairy cows, which produce 80,000 gallons of milk every year.
"The farm was completely engulfed in ash," Eggertsson said, describing the first two-and-a-half days after the eruption. "It felt like living hell on Earth," he said.
Visibility was so poor that it took his son an hour to drive less than three miles through the ash cloud before reaching the farm. Joining his son a few hours later, Eggertsson said he drove in an armored car, navigated by GPS.
Harvest in doubt
Although Eggertsson said he believes the greatest ashfall has now passed, his plight and that of the 20 farmers hardest hit by the eruption is far from nearing an end.
Given that he will not be able to make hay from his fields this summer, Eggertsson expects he will have to decrease the number of cattle and dairy cows on his farm. Moreover, his farm is one of the largest grain suppliers in south Iceland and Eggertsson said he is not sure whether he will be able to harvest this summer.
While Eggertsson, who has been farming for 35 years, said he plans to keep farming, other farmers weigh the possibility of leaving their farms considering the uncertainty of the eruption's course and the difficult of work ahead.
In Onundarhorn, on a farm not far from Thorvaldseyri, dairy farmer Sigurdur Thor Sigurdsson and his wife Poula Kristin Buch are also dealing with the aftermath of both the glacial runoff, which rushed down the mountain and flooded hundreds of acres and the thick blanket of mud and ash which subsequently settled over everything.
Sigurdsson and Buch have not decided whether to leave their farm of 13 years, but Buch said she knows a couple of the neighboring farmers are considering it.
"There are all kinds factors playing into the decision," Buch said. "The eruption is taking a toll on people's nerves, there are health concerns and some of the older farmers are not up to the work, which is difficult as it is."
The average farmer in Iceland is 52 years old and the average workweek is 92 hours on a farm with 40 dairy cows, according to the Farmers Association of Iceland.
He added: "It's tough to start clearing the ash from the fields when they could be blanketed again tomorrow. Not to mention the money gone down the drain."
A matter of health and safety
Like Eggertsson, Sigurdsson expects he will have to buy hay to feed his animals, which can be quite expensive. Until grass returns to his fields, Sigurdsson will lose 1,700 rolls of hay every summer, which is used to feed 230 cattle, including 36 dairy cows during the winter.
Ultimately, however, Sigurdsson said the decision to leave comes down to health and safety. "The ash is likely to continues blowing all summer, and if the level of fluorine in the ash is deemed unhealthy we have no choice but to move," he said.
Following the eruption, dairy farmer Kristin Stefansson from Raufarfell started making preparations to leave his farm, but he does not think it will be feasible anymore for financial reasons.
Stefansson has already sent 30 cattle to be slaughtered and he drove his sheep to neighboring pastures outside of the area of ash fall. In a week's time, the sheep will begin lambing and it is not possible to keep them inside as it is with the cattle.
"It's not pleasant to be here today and the ash is likely to continue blowing this summer if not longer," Stefansson said. "But I have loans to pay off and the banks are not going to stop demanding payments if I leave my farm."
Stefansson plans to continue downsizing his farm as necessary, but if the government stepped in and allowed farmers to postpone their loans, he said he would not hesitate to leave and knows at least one other farmer who would do the same.
However, the volcano under Eyjafjallajokull has only been erupting for about two weeks and it's difficult to predict how long it will last. It could continue spewing ash for multiple years, and in that case the farmers may have to re-evaluate their situation.
So, given the likelihood that you haven't heard the last of "Eyjafjallajökull," listen here for the volcano's correct pronunciation and enjoy botched attempts made by foreign reporters.
Anna Andersen graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 2009 and currently lives in Reykjavik and attends the University of Iceland.
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