Nearly 20 years ago we purchased our land located in the forest and lakes region of Bayfield County in Northern Wisconsin that had a very modest home and little else. We were looking for a little place in the country where our corgi, Ben, could romp and play and a halfway spot for the two of us to commute to work. My partner, Tom, was working at an area hospital in behavior health and just starting graduate school while commuting to Duluth, Minnesota 50 miles to the west. I'm an artist, but was commuting 40 miles to the east working as a 4-H Youth Development Agent for the University of Wisconsin in Extension. We were young, stronger, had more time than money, so we focused on the things we could do: cleaning up debris left by previous owners, clearing land, planting fruit trees, berry plants and putting in gardens.
In time, our little piece of land began to resemble a farm. We named it Whippoorwill Farm after a migratory nocturnal bird native to the area which has a loud rhythmic whip-poor-will song. Somewhat rare, we felt fortunate to have them nesting on and around our property.
Due to living in an area that had been settled by Scandinavian immigrants and Tom, being of Norwegian and Danish descent and more connected to his Scandinavian roots than I was to my Northern Germanic roots, we made the decision to build our little farm inspired by the Scandinavian heritage around us. It was clear to me, though it took a little longer to convince Tom, that our little Scandinavian farmstead was missing livestock. Tom was a city boy from Duluth, but I had grown up on a farm with sheep, cattle and horses. I decided early on that we needed sheep on our farm, but I was going to have to ease Tom into the idea so we started with chickens - the gateway livestock.
We bought a mixed flock of chicks from a hatchery and eventually started raising and breeding French Marans chickens, though not very Scandinavian. Tom was not yet convinced but starting to warm up to the idea of sheep so I began doing some research on Scandinavian breeds of sheep, which eventually led us to Icelandic sheep. They were still quite rare in the U.S. with just a small handful of breeders. They were expensive and difficult to obtain, but as luck would have it we found a shepherd north of town who had a small flock of them and we arranged a visit. The artist in me was immediately drawn to the colors and patterns, I thought they were the most beautiful sheep I'd ever seen and thus began my obsession of Icelandic sheep. I began saving money from the sale of a few paintings eventually scraping enough together to purchase three bred ewes the following spring from a breeder in South Dakota. We soon added Norwegian Fjord horses to our growing Nordic menagerie, fulfilling yet another vision of the farmstead.
With Tom now finished with Graduate School and on a new career path, we decided I should resign my position with the University of Wisconsin to focus on my artwork and manage our growing little farm. We built a small painting studio and painted it Falun Red. The paint was a gift from a good friend visiting from Sweden. It was the most perfect red for our Scandinavian inspired farm. Eventually, I designed and built a Swedish-inspired farm house and so it, as well as all of our out buildings, sheep shed, hen houses and even chicken tractors, would be Falun Red.
I had primarily been a traditional landscape painter, but soon found myself drawn to painting scenes of our farm and its residents. The sheep, with their captivating eyes and luxurious wool, were fantastic painting subjects, but my French Marans were really quite dull and not very inspiring. I started to miss our mixed, colorful hatchery flock, but I also wanted to work with a rare breed and contribute to a preservation effort. I decided to look into acquiring some Icelandic Chickens; at this time they were estimated to number just around 3000 birds worldwide. I was aware of them through fellow Icelandic sheep breeder, Lyle Behl, who I'd met at a fiber show and knew through our Icelandic Sheep Breeders Association, a small group of friendly and enthusiastic shepherds. In 2003, Lyle, along with a handful of other Icelandic sheep breeders, had attended a VAI (vaginal artificial insemination) seminar in Iceland and had arranged to import some Icelandic chicken hatching eggs. Just eleven chicks had hatched from those eggs and his flock had now grown large enough that he was able to share them, which he did freely throughout the Icelandic sheep breeders community.
I acquired my first hatching eggs from Lyle in 2006. I think I traded some French Marans hatching eggs for them. I don't recall how many chicks actually hatched from those eggs, but enough to tell that these were the colorful farmstead chickens I had been longing for. They were feed efficient, good mothers and they seemed right at home free-ranging and scratching around and among the Icelandic sheep. I re-homed all of my French Marans and was on a mission to put together and breed the most colorful, artist's flock of Icelandic chickens I could, destined to become my new painting subjects. The next year I acquired more hatching eggs from Lyle, and have for nearly every year since. Soon the landrace had a small but dedicated following in North America with most of us keeping birds originating from Lyle's import from the Kolsstaðir farm in Iceland. We became aware of Sigrid Thordarson's flock of RALA birds in California from Steinar II and Syðstu Fossum farms, who shared hatching eggs with Lyle. Then a friend gifted us hatching eggs from Hlesey in 2012 that added new colors and genetics to my flock. In 2013 Vala Withrow imported hatching eggs from Husatoftir farm and generously shared her excess roosters with the Icelandic chicken community. I was able to obtain one of her import roosters, Fjalar, a fiery red rooster with a walnut shaped comb, who (I believe) has become one of the most influential birds of the North American flock. Over time I had put together one of the largest genetic pools of Icelandic landrace chickens in North America, purely for personal use and preservation.
In the early years, not much was actually known in the U.S. about Icelandic chickens, their history, management, or the farms in Iceland where they are said to originate. Many also were not aware of the ERL or their efforts to preserve the landrace in Iceland. Thanks to our native Icelanders, Sigrid Thordarson and Vala Withrow and board members of the ERL who shared information, stories and translated for us, we were now able to put some of the missing pieces together to tell the story. Their information helped our preservation efforts, breeding goals and strategy and set the tone for friendly discussions and mentoring of anyone interested in working with the landrace. Also around this time, Lisa Richards, of Mack Hill Farm, breeder and owner of a large preservation flock of the landrace, had started a Facebook group for all of us Viking Chicken enthusiasts to gather, network and share photos of our birds. We would comment on each others beautiful chickens while we enjoyed our morning coffee and by 2013 we numbered a little over 200 members.
Upon the publishing of Harvey Ussery's 2014 article on Icelandic Landrace Chickens in the October issue of 'Mother Earth News' our little group of around 200 grew to well over 2000 in just a few months, as readers learned of this new landrace chicken from Iceland. We were quite overwhelmed. It became clear that we needed to quickly organize further so a small group of us long time breeders, founding members and importers put together a mission statement for our group, FAQ (frequently asked questions), Breeder Directory, and Guidelines. We started a mentoring Facebook group for new breeders of the landrace in an effort to preserve, provide resources, educate and ensure pure, quality chickens from the landrace were made available to those interested in starting flocks.
The main problem with all of the new interest in the landrace was a shortage of breeders and birds. Frustrations grew and became apparent as people looking for chicks had difficulty locating them. They were still quite rare with few flocks numbering more than 25 birds to supply the now hundreds of people looking to start flocks of their own. In retrospect, it's ironic that for years we could barely give our chickens away. People didn't know what to make of the small rangy chickens that laid medium white eggs and looked like a backyard mix. We used to give them to our customers who purchased sheep from us. We had spent 8 years breeding, collecting genetics, growing our flock and we, along with a few other longtime breeders and importers, stepped up to help supply the growing number of people trying to obtain these Viking Chickens. I think much of the interest in the landrace has been driven by their 'look' of the different color and pattern combinations, the fact that they're feed efficient, and they still retain their natural instincts. I also believe their 1000+ year history captivates the imaginations of others. They have proven to be very adaptable with flocks existing and thriving in a wide range of climates and management styles all over North America.
I'm an avid photographer and take hundreds of photos of my chickens, often posting them on our farm's Facebook pages which generated a lot of the interest in our birds. The color variety we have along with the genetic diversity we've put together has attracted the attention of dozens of people interested in our hatching eggs and chicks. Were it not for the mentoring by Lyle, Sigrid, and Vala and how graciously they shared their beloved Viking Chickens, our flock would not be possible. When we acquired our first Icelandic Chickens from Lyle, now 10 years ago, the landrace, estimated to have numbered just a little over 3000, has now increased in numbers by the thousands. In 2015 we alone hatched well over 1900 chicks and in 2016 are set to hatch and ship over 4000 chicks across the country. These numbers do not even include the dozens of hatching eggs we've shipped to nearly every State in the U.S. I'd say they are well on their way to having their future secured.
We currently maintain 4 flocks numbering 25-40 individuals each, based on all 4 of the 'lines' (as we refer to them in the U.S.), or imports, and allow them to free-range for much of the year as one large flock. They are protected and guarded from predators by our livestock guardian dog, Freyja, and our Icelandic sheepdog, Finn. Contrary to how it may appear, we are not a hatchery. We're simply doing our part to preserve and share this genetic treasure of eclectic looking chickens that we gain so much pleasure from. We happened to be in a position and had the resources and time to devote to their preservation. One of my great joys is putting together colorful boxes of chicks for new flock owners, the likes of which were not even imaginable just a few years ago. Now, if I only had the time to paint them.
David Grote’s Icelandic Chickens – A Painters’ Flock in a Palette of Colours