Every year on the first day of summer, Iceland’s Horticultural School (part of the country’s agricultural university in Hveragerði) opens its doors to the public. Visitors pour into this education and research facility to see exotic tropical plants thriving—including bananas. About a ton of these fruits, which tend to prefer hot climates, are cultivated here annually. In fact, Iceland’s as close to the Arctic Circle as bananas grow, thanks to the university’s greenhouse.

Although they’re only produced here for students, teachers and guests to enjoy, the world’s northernmost banana plantation is a prime example of how Iceland’s greenhouses have revolutionized the country’s agricultural industry. 

Growing in the Cold

In a place known for its glaciers and lava fields, short summers, and cold climate, the fact that Iceland can produce a wide variety of food crops is impressive. This is in large part thanks to greenhouse horticulture. Iceland’s produce is fresh and tasty, qualities that it owes to a combination of factors, including the country’s clean air, pure spring water, and volcanic soils—a whole wealth of renewable natural resources.

The consistently cool weather keeps away bugs and insects, eliminating the need for pesticides and other chemicals. At the same time, the island’s small size (about the same as Kentucky) is also an advantage, since vegetables can be freshly harvested and then sold at the markets in just a few short hours. 

With the ability to control environmental factors like temperature, sunlight, water, and nutrients, Iceland’s agricultural greenhouses are incredibly sustainable. They also help produce nearly half of all vegetables consumed in the country and have even become a popular stop among visitors. They’re one of the many factors that make “the Land of Ice and Fire” (which you can experience thoroughly on Nat Hab’s Iceland: Circling the Land of Fire & Ice and Iceland Full Circle: A Photo Pro Expedition trips) so unique, and their history is equally as fascinating. 

The History of Iceland’s Greenhouses 

Farmers in Iceland have been harnessing geothermal heat to grow agriculture for centuries. It’s a technique that began out of necessity: to supply food to the country’s inhabitants in a place where the weather can be volatile and the landscapes unforgiving. They’d plant hardy crops like potatoes and grans on land directly heated by geothermal steam, a method that helped provide a bit longer growing seasons. 

Turf house and geothermal hot pot in Hrunalaug, Iceland. Hot spring in the open air with a gorgeous view of the mountains.

Iceland’s first greenhouse came about in 1924 when farmers figured out that they could heat greenhouses with geothermal water, which would also sterilize soil against pests and diseases, and that these enclosed structures could extend the growing season year-round. Over the years, the greenhouses have evolved from enclosures made of natural materials to later plastic. Today, the majority of them are glass covered, which allows in as much light as possible. 

How Have Greenhouses Transformed Iceland’s Food System? 

In the almost century since Iceland began utilizing greenhouses for its agricultural production, crops previously unknown to the local landscape have started to thrive. They’ve not only increased the country’s annual crop yield but have also added to its food security. In addition, growing food indoors is now a significant contributor to the country’s economy. 

iceland greenhouse crop yield vegetables produce leafy greens agriculture sustainable farming aerial photo of massive greenhouses in iceland vibrant yellow lights winter snow night

Iceland’s greenhouses use renewable energy sources like hydropower, which gets its power from running water—namely, the meltwater rivers flowing off of its enormous glaciers—and geothermal energy, derived from the Earth’s heat, to provide supplemental light and regulate inside temperatures to keep growing conditions constant. Some also employ supplemental carbon dioxide, a byproduct of geothermal power, to help plant growth. 

Today, there are more than 45 acres of greenhouse growing spaces throughout Iceland. While the country still sources the majority of its produce externally, what it does grow internally promotes sustainability, alleviating dependence on fossil fuels and cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions while benefiting consumers with locally grown foods that are nutrient rich and flavorful. 

What Grows in Iceland’s Greenhouses?

The main products of Icelandic farmers include cucumbers, strawberries, lettuce, red and green peppers, mushrooms and herbs. Hardier produce such as carrots, potatoes, cauliflower and kale can be grown outdoors in naturally, geo-thermally warmed soil. 

iceland greenhouse crop yield vegetables produce leafy greens agriculture sustainable farming

Cut flowers, potted plants, and even microgreens are also flourishing, the latter in part due to technology advancements in things like hydroponics—which involves growing plants in nutrient-rich, water-based solutions rather than soil—and vertical farming, basically stacking crops in vertical layers, rather than horizontal rows. 

Experiencing Iceland’s Locally Grown Produce and Greenhouses for Yourself 

The majority of Iceland’s greenhouses are located in the island’s south, most notably in the town of Hveragerði, the country’s “greenhouse capital.” This is where you’ll find Friðheimara popular family-run farm specializing in greenhouse-grown tomatoes. Pre-booked tours of the facilities are available year-round and include an exhibit on geothermal heating as it pertains to horticulture and gourmet souvenirs such as jards of cucumber salsa and tomato jam.

Friðheimar also has an on-site restaurant that serves up bowls of housemade tomato soup with fresh herbs and sour cream, dishes of Icelandic mozzarella burrata with heirloom tomatoes and basil olive oil, and even tomato beer. It’s open every afternoon, daily. 

iceland greenhouse crop yield vegetables produce leafy greens agriculture sustainable farming

Nat Hab travelers will also be able to try Iceland’s farm-to-table fare, including its fresh fruits and vegetables, firsthand at stops like the South Coast’s Drangar Restaurant. In this traditional-meets-modern Icelandic eatery, menu items include a starter salad with baked tomatoes and cashew cream and coffee-cured salmon with cucumber.

Or north Iceland’s Fosshotel Myvatn Restaurant, cooking up Nordic cuisine utilizing local ingredients from area farmers and fishers. Examples range from roasted tomato soup using fruit from the greenhouse in “Hveravellir” to Arctic char paired with pickled red cabbage and potatoes. Complete your meal with an order of Skyr posset, a thick, creamy yogurt topped with citrus fruits and blueberries.  

iceland tomato stand fresh produce

One of the best ways to support Iceland’s greenhouses is to purchase locally grown produce while visiting. If you’re in a market, look for the word “íslenskt” identifying the produce or its packaging. This means it’s Icelandic in origin and extremely delectable to boot. 

Experience the Land of Fire and Ice on Nat Hab’s Iceland adventures!