Iceland: Tomatoes on Ice!
I was amazed during a weekend winter break to Iceland, not by the crazy Reykjavik night life, the fine dining, the Northern Lights (which never appeared), hot springs, frozen glaciers or tumbling waterfalls.
No, my interest was caught during a visit to Frioheimar a place where tired travellers can retreat from the ice cold northern winds to warm themselves, wrapping chilled hands around bowls of hot steaming tomato soup while enjoying chunky slabs of tomato bread topped with lushes spreads of tomato relish. I never expected to find myself in cafe situated inside a working greenhouse where visitors rest on simple chairs with tables of fresh natural products arranged in front of them, surrounded by green vines laded with ripe winter tomatoes towering toward glass ceilings attracted to grow lights like a summer sun
The cheerful banter of newly warmed, fed and rested tourists was temporarily broken as staff at Frioheimar treated us to an intriguing presentation to explain how we happened to be sitting in a greenhouse filled with plump ripe red tomatoes while outside the landscape with a mixture of snow and ice.
To my surprise greenhouse farming has been practiced at Frioheimar since the 1940s and tomatoes now grow all year around among the frozen snow fields of Iceland. The current owner Helena Hermundardottir and Knutur Rafn Armann and their family have managed Frioheimar since 1995.
At Frioheimar, tomatoes are grown in 5,000 square metres of electrically lit greenhouses. Greenhouses which appeared out of a snow capped winter land as a welcome glow of shimming light in an otherwise harsh environment. The facts are hard to believe in conditions that seemed impossible at first Frioheimar harvest around 300 tons of tomatoes annually. A feet that must keep the family business busy as tomatoes are harvested every day of the year, despite the challenges the Icelandic climate and their long cold winters can throw up.
It seems Iceland’s temperature and location does offer some advantages for the farming community, set in the middle of the North Atlantic there are few plant pests to worry farmers and weeds tend not to flourish in these harsher climates. Warm ocean currents from the south give the country a deceptively warm temperature, considering Iceland’s latitude.
But as literature provided at Frionheimar explains growing high quality tomatoes in Icelandic conditions requires a more scientific and technologic approach to framing then in other locations of less harsh environment.
Iceland is rich in geothermal energy and there is plenty of hot water to be found underground a resource which the farming community has looked to harness. At Frionheimer from nearby borehole 100,000 ton of hot water is pumped per year into greenhouses providing the heat necessary for a continual growing session. Air temperature maybe freezing but the water enters the greenhouses 95oC.
The geothermal energy is used to heat and sterilize the soil and greenhouses, and produces carbon dioxide, and electricity. At Frionheimer they utilizes “green electricity” generate by hydro-electric and geothermal power stations to power their grow lights which are to ensure year-round production.
Carbon dioxide is derived from natural steam at Haeoarendi in Grimsnes, where it is then pumped into a tanker truck and delivered to farms, where it is used to improve photosynthesis. Frioheimar uses well over 100 tons of carbon dioxide annually.
Volcanic products such as pumice from Mt. Hekle are used as a growing media instead of soil pumice can be continuously used for several years and allows for better control of moisture and fertilization than if soil was used.
Every advantage possible is use at Frioheimar, the traditional idea of staff tending vines, watering, fertilizing fades by the end of our small introduction to greenhouse framing in Iceland, each greenhouse is managed by a computer, information is fed from weather stations on the roof, tracking the temperature, sunlight, wind speed and direction. Data inputted is used to control the heat, humidity, carbon dioxide and lighting for each greenhouse as the computer manages the watering and fertilization of plants.
Greenhouse computers are connected to the internet and can be accessed from anywhere in the world, my mind bring an image of a sun kissed beach the gentle swaying of a hammock and an Icelandic framer enjoying morning coffee, managing 5,000 square metres of greenhouses far away from the snow and ice where only the imported bumble bees are kept busy as they strive to pollinate over 2000 tomato flowers a day!