Uno von Troil says “Next to fishing, the principal support of the Icelanders is the breeding of cattle.
“Their beeves are not large, but very fat and good. It has been reported by some, though without foundation, that there are none among them with horns: it is however true that they seldom have nay.”
“The large cattle are kept at home in their yards the greater part of the year, though some have places appropriated for them in the mountains which they call fatr, where they send their cattle during the summer, till the hay harvest is over. They have a herdsman to attend them, and two women to milk them and make butter and cheese. It is common to meet with oxen running wild about the mountains, which are however drove home in autumn, as everyone knows his own by a particular mark put upon them.
“The principal food of the cattle is hay, and they reckon that a stack of hay for a cow’s winter provision; a stack consists of thirty cocks (kapal) of hay, grown on manured land, and forty cocks kapal grown on un-manured land. When there is a scarcity of fodder, they feed them in some pars with steenbitr, a kind of fish, which, together with the heads and bones of cod, is beat small, and mixed with one quarter of chopped hay. The cattle are fond of it and yield a good deal of milk after it; but yet it is said to have a bad taste, and they only make use of this food in time of need.
“Their cows yield four kanne of milk a day, though they have some that give from eight to fourteen in four-and-twenty hours. A cow that yields six quarts is reckoned a good one, and must not stand dry above there weeks before she calves.
“A young calf is fed with milk for ten days or a fortnight, afterwards the milk is mixed with water and chopped hay, and at last they give it whey instead of milk
“The usual price of a cow, as well as of a horse, is one hundred and twenty ells, thirty of which make a dollar. However, sometimes the better sort of horses are sold for eight or ten rix-dollars. They have less trouble with their horses than their cows; for though some saddle-horses are kept in stables during winter, the greater number of them are obliged to provide for their own subsistence, and when they cannot find this on land, they go in search of sea-weeds on the coasts; but when a great quantity of snow has fallen, the natives are obliged to clear it away for them.”
To get this stack of hay needed for each cow to survive the winter, every farm worker (and the small farm owner), has to scythe an area 180 ft. by 180 ft. every day. That’s on the tún where the soil is manured and where the grass grows more thickly. To get that stack of hay for each cow from unfertilized meadows, a man has to scythe a square 240 ft to a side every day. The women working in the fields have to rake as much hay as three men can mow. Every day. The hours were long, The work hard. In Paradise Reclaimed, after the farm at Steinahliðar has been destroyed and Steina has been sent by the parish council to work on a farm, the narrator says, “She was worn out after a summer of drudgery, long days of toiling in the rain with her rake far into the night.”
Uno von Troil writes about life in Iceland in 1772. Laxness sets Paradise Reclaimed around the year 1874. We know this because the Danish king comes to visit. Little, if anything, has changed.
In 1874, there has been no mechanization. The cattle depend on harvested grass for the winter. The grass was still cut with a scythe and, although there are many tales of witches who can command a host of scythes to cut her grass, the reality is that one man can only wield one scythe. The grass has to be raked. It has to be dried. It has to be stacked. An experienced farmer can look at his stacks of hay and his herd and calculate how long the hay will last and whether or not, before the year is over, he‘ll be feeding his cattle hay mixed with hammered fish bones and sea weed. In a good year, the milk will taste sweet and in a bad year, it will taste of fish. In a very bad year, there‘ll be no milk to taste.
Cows, in a way, were regarded as a luxury because they required more grass than sheep for an equal amount of milk. In Independent People, Bjartur of Summerhouses resents it when he is given a cow unasked. With the milk from the cow, the health of his family improves but only at the cost of less feed for his sheep.
When their cow is starving for lack of hay, Bjartur’s wife, Finna asks him to visit some of the other farms to borrow some hay. He refuses and says,
“No power between heaven and earth shall make me betray my sheep for the sake of a cow. It took me eighteen years work to get my stock together. I worked twelve more years to pay off the land. My sheep have made me an independent man, and I will never bow to anyone. To have people say of me that I took the beggar’s road for hay in the spring is a disgrace I will never tolerate. And as for the cow, which was foisted on me by the Bailiff and the Women’s Institute to deprive the youngsters of their appetite and filch the best of the hay from the sheep, for her I will do only one thing.” That one thing is to kill the cow which he does quite happily.
Not all farmers, however, were like Bjartur. The original settlers had brought over dairy cattle before 1000 AD. The cattle though perhaps not as efficient users of grass as the cows, were still efficient. That was good because no grain ripened in Iceland after the Little Ice Age began. Importing grain was prohibitively expensive even for human consumption. There was no tradition of growing vegetables to feed animals. The climate made it increasingly difficult to grow vegetables and those who did or tried to were mostly Danes.
In spite of the preference for sheep, the settlers in New Iceland followed the tradition of raising dairy cows. In the New Iceland area, just outside of Gimli, the tradition is still carried on by the Narfason family. In 1915, Magnus Narfason was selling fluid milk to the City dairy in Winnipeg from a farm he established in 1897. His sons Elli and Mundi took over the farm after Magnus died in 1931. Oli Narfason, who is Elli‘s son, became involved in the farm in the late 1940s. His son Clifford took over the farm when Oli retired. Today, in 2012, that‘s 115 years of commitment to those cows that Bjartur saw as competing with his precious sheep.
My great grandfather, Ketill, after working as a labourer on the railway and in Winnipeg, saved enough money to start a large dairy business in Winnipeg in 1894. He bought a parcel of land on the N. W. Corner of Simcoe St. And Ellice Ave. What is now in the heart of the city was grazing land. He carried on business there until 1903.
Cows. Hay. Milk. Survival. A way of life. Transferred to North America. First just to provide the milk that was a staple in the diet of the Icelandic settlers but, gradually, as many settlers took other opportunities, there came the possibility of producing milk for the community.
Today, there is little evidence of the critical role dairy cattle played in the survival of both the Icelanders and the North American Icelandic settlers but no history of either group is complete without an understanding of how the cattle Uno von Troil describes were critical to our ancestor‘s survival. Gimli has a large viking statue. We all like it. We take relatives and friends to stand in front of it for pictures. Perhaps, what there should be is a statue of an Icelandic dairy cow, our own Bukolla. The Viking raids left nothing for following generations to eat. Their plunder disappeared. The cows were more faithful. They have fed us for over a thousand years. Maybe a statue of an Icelandic cow standing beside the Viking, as large as he is, would recognize what we owe to whom.
Perhaps, when we reach for the skyr, we should pause for a moment and think of people scything grass long into the night, raking hay in the rain, pounding fish bones and collecting seaweed to mix with hay, so that the milk, cream, butter and skyr would last longer than the winter.