Centre for Agrarian Historical Dynamics

Icelandic Agricultural History

Since 2005 Dr. Árni Daníel Júlíusson has taken part in the writing of an agricultural history of Iceland. The planned history of Icelandic agriculture is four volumes, and Dr. Árni is responsible for two of them, volumes one and two. His subjects are the social aspects of agriculture in the whole period, peasant society until about 1940 and the farming community after that and also the development of the agricultural system until about 1750. The other two volumes have been written by Jónas Jónsson, on the various aspects of farming, sheep-rearing, horse-raising, dairying and other aspects of farming technology, primarily after 1750. Jónas regrettably passed away in the summer of 2007, but his volumes will be edited for publishing by Helgi Skúli Kjartansson.

The first volume traces the development of Icelandic farming from its origin in the Norwegian agricultural system and Norwegian viking age society, through to the 18th century. The continuity between the Norwegian system, which itself was a result of 5000 years of development, and the Icelandic agricultural system all the way until 1400 BC is remarkable. Grain production, cattle, iron making and fishing all played a role in Icelandic agriculture just like in Norway. There was a break in the period 1400-1600 as grain growing disappeared along with indigenous iron making, and the proportion of sheep rose precipitiously compared to cattle. This tendency intensified after the smallpox epidemic of 1707-1709.

There are traces of a landowning class in Norway long before the viking age, at least from about 200 BC. In Iceland the chieftain class certainly owned tenant farms in the 11th century, and after 1100 there is much evidence of manorial systems, big manors owned by landowners governing surrounding tenant farms. This system had its heyday in the 14th century and remained firmly in place until about 1600. It started to disintigrate slowly in the 17th century, and the manors were in steep decline by 1700. In 1785 sales of crown lands to tenants began.

The second volume deals with the development of peasant society in the 19th and 20th centuries. In the 19th century sheep farming and shark hunting became the most important sources of export for the farming community. For the first time peasant society started to show signs of economic growth. This was hampered by the Danish control of trade, so in 1870 a movement rose among the farmers which in 1880-1910 wrestled control of trade from the Danish merchants. In the period 1920-1940 export started to decline, but instead the internal market in the growing towns was organised. Dairying and wool production was moved from the control of women at home on the farms into factories in the towns.

In the second world war an immense wave of population movement developed from the countryside and to the towns. A large number of farms was deserted. Even so, the countryside experienced an equally immense economic development, with technological progress in every field of farming and increased productivity. This was thightly controlled by the state. In about 1980, this period of „traditional modernity“ came to an end with quotas on every farming product. From 1980 to the present there has been rapid development of fewer farms with bigger production on each farms.

The work on the Icelandic Agricultural History has been supported by the Ministry of Agriculture, now Ministry of Fishing and Agriculture, by the Agricultural Commission of the Althing, by the Farmer´s Association of Iceland, and by private companies connected to the agricultural sector. There is an editorial committee, consisting of Benedikt Sigurðarson from KEA, Helgi Skúli Kjartansson, professor of history at the Icelandic College of Teaching, Níels Árni Lund, head of department in the Ministry of Fishing and Agriculture, and Sigurgeir Þorgeirsson, the manager of the Farmer's Association.