On April 14, 2010, Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted. As a cloud of ash headed toward Ólafur Eggertsson’s picturesque farm nestled in the foothills, he gave his cattle a four-day supply of food, plugged cracks in the barn, then evacuated with his family. Over the next few months, the family filmed their efforts to restore their home and eventually created a 20-minute documentary. A year after the eruption, the family opened a visitor center across the street from the farm to show the film and sell knick-knacks, including bottled ash, to the booming number of tourists that followed in the wake of the eruption.
More than 2.2 million tourists—roughly six times the country’s population—are expected to visit Iceland this year for the rugged beauty, glaciers, volcanoes, Northern Lights, and perhaps surprisingly, agriculture. “Agritourists” are people who travel to enjoy local food and a taste of the agrarian lifestyle, and even on this isolated Arctic island, agritourism is taking off. “Tourism isn’t just a business, but a cultural force,” said Gudrún Gunnarsdóttir, the director of the Icelandic Tourism Research Centre, at the October 2016 Arctic Circle Assembly.
The ongoing tourism surge, sparked by a post-eruption marketing push and fueled by cheap airline deals, has helped stabilize Iceland, which was hit hard by the 2008 financial crisis. As visitors have flooded in and discovered the country’s idyllic pastoral landscapes, agricultural demand has increased dramatically. And, as Iceland melts, climate change is expanding the crop possibilities to meet it.
The Eggertssons are among the farmers who have been exploring ways to take advantage of Iceland’s changing climate. They’ve experimented with barley varieties for decades, and, more recently, with wheat and canola, crops once unthinkable above 60 degrees latitude. The canola serves as cooking and biodiesel oil. And the barley is a high-quality forage crop for more productive cows, as well as an ingredient for bread, beer, or whiskey.