Meet Heiða, the sheep farmer at the end of the world – The people we met on the way

I met Heiða Guðný Ásgeirsdóttir in August 2017, with photographer River Thompson, while doing a story on her for BBC Travel.

When we meet Heiða Guðný Ásgeirsdóttir, we’re exhausted. We’d thought the drive from Reykjavík would take just a few hours, but it’s taken more than four, with the last hour crawling up a gravel road, trying not to damage our tiny, uninsured hire car. The landscape – specked with a farmhouse here and a church there – is green, glacial and quietly beautiful.

At the end of all this is a nondescript pebbledash bungalow. And when we knock on the door, Heiða hasn’t been expecting us. The lights are off and everything’s quiet, except for the murmur of a television in the room next door, where Heiða’s mother is sitting. As Heiða makes a cup of coffee, and River goes to scout places to shoot, I realise I’m struggling for small-talk. So I get out the notepad, a kind of defence against awkward silences, and start asking questions.

Chit-chat with visiting journalists, it turns out, isn’t really Heiða’s thing. She’s the farmer on the Ljótarstaðir sheep farm in southern Iceland, a place so remote that even Icelanders think it’s remote. She was once a model, and she has become quietly well-known in Iceland for opposing plans to build a hydroelectric power plant that would have cut across her land and flooded much of it.

After agreeing to help with a book by environmental journalist Steinunn Sigurðardóttir, Heiða was mortified to discover that the book – called Heiða – Fjalldalabóndinn (which translates as “The Farmer in the Valley”, her local nickname) – was more about her as a person than her “ugly fight” with the power plant.

“A few years ago, Steinnun called me up and said, Has anyone written a book about you?” she recalls, now sitting with a very black coffee. She talks in an earnest monotone, and rarely makes eye contact, though there’s an obvious steeliness to her.

“I said, Er, no, why would they? I wanted attention for the fight, but I didn’t realise the book would be about me. When it turned out it was all about me, I was like: what the Hell? I went to the publishing party, but I wanted to disappear. All these people were here for a book about me, and I thought I’d have a heart attack.”    

Now 40, Heiða was a model for a few years in her teens and early twenties. “I’d been this tall, skinny, awkward kid, and one day this woman told me I could be a model. Suddenly it was good to look silly.”

But it wasn’t an entirely life-affirming career choice. “Something felt wrong just standing there looking pretty, or competing against 50 other girls to look the prettiest. It was stupid, and it wasn’t me.” She quit modelling, and had stints as a teacher and a policewoman in the area. An old agent lost her book, but she shows me a few framed pictures of her from her modelling days. They bear little resemblance to the woman I’m talking to, without makeup, wearing one of her many Faroese knitted jumpers.

Something felt wrong just standing there looking pretty. It was stupid, and it wasn’t me.

At 23, with her father’s health failing, and her sisters not interested, Heiða took over the 6,464-hectare family farm, with its 500 sheep, which she manages by and large alone. When we visit, in the summer, the sheep are up in the hills, so she is taking the chance to fix up the farm, and get the hay bales ready for the winter. In the spring she makes a bit of extra money scanning for foetuses, and she’s also a handy sheep-shearer, causing a stir at this year’s world sheep-shearing championships in New Zealand. 

It’s tough work, lugging bales and driving a 20-tonne digger – but one of the aspects of the book Heiða appreciated was that it showed the realities of life as a farmer. “I would never say it voluntarily, really, but I’m a huge feminist,” she says. “I want to show other women that you can do anything you want. To me, it’s always been that way – I grew up with a female President in Iceland, and I had similar toys and haircuts to the boys. In some ways, I think we’ve gone backwards in that way, with social media and all the pressures on girls to look good.”     

The land here, which she takes us on a little tour of, is the main love of her life. She describes the river that runs through the farm, where she used to play as a kid, as “like breathing”. It’s little wonder that she was so opposed to plans, which first aired in 2012, to create a power plant in the area. “They were so sneaky about it all,” she recalls. “Obviously, they offered money to poor local farmers, who were tempted, but they told lies and played people off against each other. It created a lot of tensions in the area.”  

Heiða’s decision to hold firm at all costs wasn’t always popular, and she admits that “wounds are still healing locally”. But after the book about her was published in 2016, she says she often finds notes of encouragement, and bottles of booze, in her letterbox. A recent bottle of Cognac, she says, was signed “With love, your readers.”

And the plans for the power station are off, though Heiða says “I’m too scared to say we’ve won.”

Still, it must get lonely, in this quiet house, with just her mother. A serious relationship, “has just never been a priority somehow,” she says. “The life of a sheep farmer doesn’t provide for two, and I like having no one to argue with or tell me what to do.”

“Besides,” she says, “I have this.” She looks around, past the river and up the rolling green hills where the sheep are presumably frolicking – and, this time, the silence isn’t at all awkward.  

See the video River and I made about Heiða here.

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