When the Icelandic immigrants came to Canada, they left a country where the soil was only suitable for grazing. Even that grazing land was only about one percent of the total land because the rest of the country was covered in mountains, lava deserts, lava fields and glaciers. To make matters worse, during many years, because of cold weather, the grass didn’t grow. That meant there was no food for sheep or dairy cows and with the die off of cattle, starvation was inevitable. The only alternative food was fish and in particularly cold years , the harbours filled with ice so that inshore fishing with open boats was not possible. There were no other sources of food.

Visitors to Iceland commented on the fact that farm land could be much improved with drainage. However, the return on drainage, given that it had to be dug by hand and because of the land ownership and rental system, was questionable.

There were attempts to grow grain but those failed. In 1772, Governor Thodal planted barley. It grew well but before it could be harvested, a storm destroyed the crop. Governor Finsen tried to grow oats but it was never warm enough for oats to ripen. In the Faroes, the farmers were able to grow and harvest oats.

At the end of the 1700s, the Danish government established model farms in Húnavatn. The farm managers tried to grow oats, barley, and rye. When walls were built to protect the grain from the cold wind, the grain nearly ripened. We think of Quinoe as a new discovery but in 1875 Burton mentions the possibility of it being grown in Iceland because it is grown in the Peruvian Andes at altitudes and temperatures where no other grain can grow.

Hr. Haldorsen introduced the potato to Iceland and by the time that Burton is writing Ultima Thule, the potato is grown all over Iceland. It is small but satisfactory, he says. Burton suggests that people grow turnips. Radishes are grown but are ‘hard, coarse, and woody.” Spinach is a success.

In the north-west the Stranda Sýsla has tried to grow various kales. Broccoli, turnip-cabbage, red cabbage, cauliflower. Lettuces are common; beets both red and yellow, carrots, onions, garlic, and shallots, chevril, black mustard, watercress, horse radish and parsley.

Ultima Thule was published in 1875 so Burton‘s comments are relevant to the experience of our immigrant ancestors. His observations are not that the growing of these various food plants was widespread but, rather, that they were experimented with. The attempted growing of food plants is reported by other travelers at earlier times but those experiments were usually associated with the bishoprics where there was the influence of clerics from Europe.

Therefore, when the Icelanders boarded ships to Ameríka, their wooden traveling chests were not filled with agricultural implements unless it was the short blade from a scythe. Their only crop was hay and their agricultural experience was limited to manuring a home field, cutting, raking and stacking the grass. They brought no seeds, nor garden implements, no ploughs. They came singularly unprepared for farming.

In New Iceland and as they moved Westward toward Brandon, then Argyle, further to Regina and Swift Current, they learned to evaluate land, but often the lessons were costly both in resources and in lives. Graveyards and family stories testify to that cost.
Many Icelanders began their journey westward from New Iceland shortly after they arrived in 1875. In the meantime, across the Rockies much had been happening during the 1800s.

On Vancouver Island, the Hudson Bay Company established a number of farms in Victoria as far as Colwood. Settlers were arriving and they wanted to have their own farms. One of the first independent farms was bought by a Captain Cooper in 1851. It’s interesting that as the land was cleared, it wasn’t just farmed but sheep and cattle were grazed. That meant when the Icelanders arrived, there was already a precedent and experience in grazing animals locally.

The first gold rush that brought American miners and others north was the Fraser Canyon gold rush of 1857. This rush was mostly over in three years but prospectors kept finding new gold areas. Most miners by necessity and by government decree entered the goldfields through Victoria. Business boomed. Then in 1896 to 1899 the Kondike goldrush began. A hundred thousand hopeful gold seekers headed north.
Cattle ranching developed to feed the early gold seekers but spread beyond that goal as ranchers sought markets for their cattle. In 1876, the year the large group of Icelanders arrived in New Iceland, Thaddeur Sarper started a cattle drive to Salt Lake City. His goal was to put his cattle into rail cars and ship them to Chicago. Instead, seeing an opportunity closer at hand, he shipped the cattle to San Francisco.

The ranchers also started fruit farming. Between 1864 and 1880 one rancher planted a huge orchard. In the meantime, on Salt Spring Island, apples had been growing since 1860. The first Salt Spring Island Fall Fair was held in 1896. By 1900 there were 80 official farms.

The immigrants had left an Iceland plagued by severe weather that brought many of them to the brink of starvation. Their journey had taken some of them to Nova Scotia where poor conditions drove them away. They traveled to Kinmount where tragedy beset them and the land was not suitable for grazing or growing grain. They traveled on to New Iceland to face a dreadful winter and disease. Westward, always westward, looking for good land, for opportunity. When those immigrants who made it to the Coast stepped off a train in Vancouver, after a long and arduous journey, they were greeted with flower gardens, fruit trees, vegetable gardens, wild berries in abundance. They were greeted with cornucopia.

When I was at the Saanich Fair this past weekend, I thought of those Icelanders who came to Vancouver Island in the late 1800s. I gazed at the abundance of vegetables, fruit, and flowers, and when I came across a display of local produce in a basket, I thought Cornucopia, they were greeted by Cornucopia. To me that basket of fresh produce symbolized this new world they had struggled so long and hard to reach. Of course, sadness, hardship, disappointment did not end. Those are all part of life. Tragedy can occur anywhere but for most, the West Coast provided opportunity.

Cornucopia! As I studied the basket on display with its blue ribbon, I thought of those immigrants as I stood there at the Saanich Fair.

(Material for this article from numerous sources including Burton, Ultima Thule. Lutz, Interlude or Industry? Ranching in British Columbia, 1859-1885, British Columbia Historical News, Summer 1980, Vol. 13, No. 4. Sivertz, The Sivertz Family, Book 2, Elinborg. Wickipdia.)

Thanksgiving hunger

Have you ever really been hungry? I don’t mean peckish as in, “I think I could use a cup of coffee and a kleinur to tide me over until supper time.”

I mean hungry, with nothing to eat for the last day or so, the kind of hunger that means a constant headache, a pain in your stomach, so hungry that you’d eat things you normally wouldn’t? Hungry enough to eat out of a dumpster? Hungry enough to steal, to beg? To stand on the divider between the traffic lines with a piece of cardboard saying, “Hungry.”?

So hungry that you cried? So hungry that you’d beg? Please give me something to eat.”

As hungry as the Icelanders in 1783 after the Laki eruption? In Iceland to steal food was the worst sin imaginable but when three out of four animals die because of ash and sulfur dioxide and there’s no meat and milk, stealing food becomes a matter of survival. Ten thousand people died, that’s one out of every five people.

Or, how about the potato famine in Iceland between 1862 and 1864? Icelanders, unable to grow grain because of the Little Ice Age, had started to grow potatoes. The potatoes suffered from blight. This time only five percent of the people died.

Or how about the volcanic eruption in 1875? The one that made a situation with political repression, dreadful weather, worse. That meant people, particularly in the North East, desperate.

Desperate. Like, I’m desperate because I can’t afford to go to a concert? Desperate because I can’t afford to buy a new couch? Or desperate as in if we can’t get to North America, we’re going to die of hunger.

Desperate for food. Desperate to eat.

There were no Pilgrim Fathers in our background. Thanksgiving came to Canada with American settlers (refugees?). Doesn’t matter. There was reason for Thanksgiving. If we hadn’t imported Thanksgiving, we’d have invented it. Food on a plate. Enough food stored to last the winter. One Ukrainian settler in the Gimli area said, “We came to eat.” So did the Icelanders. We spread out all over North America finding good places to eat. Not five star hotels but good land, good fishing, good cattle ranching, good jobs, good housing. Good everything.

Look how hard we searched. Nova Scotia, Kinmount, New Iceland, Winnipeg, The Dakotas, Argyle, Swift Current, Foam Lake, Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver, Victoria, Point Roberts, Boundary Bay. Even Alaska. Looking for a place where we could feed ourselves.

Look at what our families found, what they created, what they can put on their plates today. From private meals at Thanksgiving to fowl suppers, we honor the people who sailed to North America, who took trains, who took boats across the Great Lakes, who walked, who rode horses, who kept moving, always looking for a place where they could produce enough food to feed their families, where no one would die of starvation.

To my Icelandic ancestors, to my Irish ancestors, to my English ancestors, my thanks, my thanks for the food on my plate. Bless, bless.


The Saanich Fair

I love the Saanich Fair. There’s not much that will draw me back to Victoria from Gimli, Manitoba before the long weekend in September but the Saanich Fair will. I would like to take all sorts of people I know to the Fair and say, see this, look at that, isn’t that amazing?

This year was the 145th Annual Saanich Fair. It’s the oldest continuous agricultural fair in Western Canada. For $10 a day on Saturday and Sunday and $9 on Monday, you can lose yourself in the incredible world of agriculture on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands.

What surprises me is that the first agricultural fair here took place in 1867. The Icelandic emigrants wouldn’t arrive in Gimli until 1875, eight years later. The first ship load of settlers arrived on Salt Spring in 1859. People who pre-empted land ended up paying a dollar an acre. (Salt Spring, Charles Kahn) By the time Icelandic immigrants were trying to farm hopelessly rocky land in Nova Scotia and Kinmount, 1874, 1875, good land and a good climate meant that settlers on Salt Spring had already developed orchards and were raising sheep. One islander, “a graduate of the University of Heidelberg” already had an orchard with 1800 trees. His partner rowed strawberries and other fruit to Victoria. (Salt Spring, CK)

Although Scandinavians had settled in British Columbia, they’d had to travel far and, often, circuitously, either around the Horn or, more likely, to the East Coast of the USA, then across the continent to California, then by ship up the Pacific Coast. The Finns started arriving on Vancouver Island and area in 1882. However, once the CPR had completed its rail line to Port Moody, then Vancouver, the Icelanders started to arrive. In the Icelanders of Victoria display it says that Thorkell (Kelly) Johnson and his wife, Maria, arrived in Vancouver on the first train in 1886. Others soon followed and in an article in Heimskringla, 1953, Arni S. Myrdal says that “In the autumn of 1887 we moved into our new home.” and, later, that “We had been in Victoria but a short while when letters began to pour in; most of them were from friends and acquaintances seeking information about the city.”

If Kelly Johnson was the first Icelandic settler to arrive in 1886, then only eleven years had passed from the settlement of New Iceland. A thriving Icelandic community developed in Victoria with a distinct culture, at least one store, a church. However, a recession started and, once again, many Icelanders picked up stakes to move to Pt. Roberts.

The Icelanders who came were not farmers in any sense of the term as we use it today. In Iceland, they could not grow grain. The cultivated no market gardens or orchards. In Victoria, they entered a surreal world where there was little that could not be grown. However, they seem, in large part, to have chosen the trades for that’s where the jobs were, or government work, or education.

It’s all about the climate. Pretty hard to grow figs in Manitoba or walnuts or cultivate vineyards for creating prize winning wines. No slander on Manitoba. I love Manitoba strawberries, raspberries, hazel nuts, blueberries but on Vancouver Island we live in a world of micro climates. Find the right southern slope and walnuts and figs prosper, grapes thrive, peaches turn ripe and succulent, kiwi hang from vines.


Maybe it has something to do with the kind of people who migrate here but people dedicate their lives to emus and llamas, to miniature horses and Clydesdales, to more varieties of chickens than I ever had any idea existed. They’re product proud whether it is local honey or heritage beets. It’s not just profit that brings them to the local markets with their produce but pride.

The 4H section of the fair is large. There are entries of every kind from vegetable art to scarecrows. There are animals competitions, the best goat, sheep, horse, pig, rabbit, chicken. Ribbons abound.

For years it was impossible to buy any of the products. The public demanded the right to buy the produce on display and now the farmers and market gardeners have booths laden with freshly picked produce. You can buy heritage fruits and vegetables you never see in the store.

There are demonstrations of using draft horses, of blacksmithing, of milking goats. There are pie, muffin, watermelon, ice cream eating contests. There’s dressage and a continuous horse show.You can even gaze at the stars.

Vancouver Island is all about flowers and there are flower displays and competitions.

They’ve combined the food booths of a Folklorama with the agricultural fair. The Hungarian booth has people lined up for a block but all the booths are busy.

On the main stage, musicians entertain the crowd that wants to sit down for a while.

Somewhere in all this is a chance to learn how to get involved. You can learn about raising chickens in the backyard, how to quilt, how to spin wool, grow Dahlias, milk a goat, have a farm in your backyard, make halters, raise bees.

I’ve always gardened, never farmed, never raised animals, but once a year over the long weekend in September, I return to my Irish roots, to a heritage of owning farms in Northern Ireland, of raising both crops and animals, of an Icelandic great grandfather who was a dairyman and farmer, of an Irish grandmother who loved gardening with a passion, who could grow anything, even on a city lot in Winnipeg.

Everything in our stores come from here, from the earth. Every child should visit the Saanich Fair, should see and smell and hear and touch live animals, should see the machinery, should meet the people who work the earth, raise the animals to feed us.

It may not be the Saanich Fair you are close enough to visit but there are others like the Brandon Fair, like Fairs spread across Western Canada, teaching us about both the present and the past.