REYKJAVIC, Jul 8, 2010 (IPS) – “It’s unbelievable, the eruption has had a very good effect on the grass,” says farmer Finnur Tryggvason in Raudafell, just beneath the Eyjafjallajokull glacier that erupted in April and continued till late May.

The ash is thought to keep the soil warm, hence enhancing growth.

“It’s like putting fertilizer with potassium and phosphorous on the ground,” he says. But it was not an entirely unmixed blessing. “The species composition has changed slightly, and some species have disappeared.”

By the end of the eruption, the farm was covered by an ash layer of about 6-8 cm. “Although the grass is long now, it is a bit sparse. And there is more angelica than before,” Tryggvason says. Some of the ash is still around but grass has sprung up, and so the ash is not as obvious.

Many farmers in the area have already cut the first hay of the summer. Tryggvason is not one of them. “I don’t think I’ll cut any hay this year as it will be better for the ground if the dead grass forms a layer on top of the ash. The nutrients from the ash will then sink into the ground with rain.”

Not far from Raudafell, Olafur Eggertsson has a large farm where he cultivates various grains and keeps a herd of cows, which he has kept inside since the eruption. The ash at his farm, Thorvaldseyri, was coarser than the ash at Raudafell.

“I ploughed up 38 hectares of land after the eruption and sowed 15 hectares. The crop looks fine, though we need more rain.”

Asked why his cows are not outside, Eggertsson said “the weather lately has been bad, but I will probably let them out later in the summer.”

Fluoride in ash is poisonous to animals, so scientists from the Agricultural University of Iceland (AUI) are testing fluoride levels in streams, fields, crops and grass in the area.

One of the researchers is Gudni Thorvaldsson, who also has a hobby farm in the area. “We are trying to find out how long it takes for the concentration of fluoride to decrease. The levels seem to be decreasing very rapidly, partly due to growth and partly due to rain,” he says.

“When grass grows, the fluoride is spread over a larger mass and so the concentration decreases accordingly. Similarly, when it rains the fluoride is washed away. But the weather has been unusually dry since the eruption.”

Thorvaldsson and his colleagues are also looking at the concentration of other nutrients in grass and crops. “Even though it is only fluoride that is toxic to animals, if another nutrient such as phosphorus is present in exceedingly high amounts, that can have an adverse effect too.”

Gretar Hrafn Hardarson, a vet from the AUI, is examining whether cows eat ash-covered grass with lust or not. He and his colleagues are testing the animals with newly cut hay blended with ash, but Hardarson says it is too early to make any conclusions. “The cows seem to be ok about eating the grass, but whether it is healthy for them is another matter.”

There is no difference in the chemical composition of fine versus coarse ash, according to Niels Oskarsson from the University of Iceland’s Institute of Earth Sciences. “The only difference is the surface area.”

Not surprisingly, the volcano brought considerable hardship for farmers in the area, especially those on the worst-hit farms such as Raudarfell and Thorvaldseyri. This year, the Farmers’ Association is sending relief workers to allow exhausted farmers who have livestock to feed the chance to get away for a few days. The relief teams will repair fences, feed and milk cows and carry out general farm duties.

Tryggvason will not get any extra help, but a relief farmer has just started at Thorvaldseyri. “The relief worker will be with us for a week, and will work as a normal farmer. It means my son can get away for that time,” says Eggertsson.

Although the volcano is currently quiet — scientists do not consider an eruption finished until three months have passed without activity — ash deposited during the eruption can still be blown around for years depending on weather conditions.

On the day IPS visited the area, the ash in the air was the worst since the eruption. “I think the animals are all right, though,” says Tryggvason, as we sit inside his house watching the ash swirling around outside. (END)