Irish seeds in safe hands - 20ac farm dedicated to storing and preserving plants and vegetables
Neil Young's After The Gold Rush was playing in my head as I drove to visit the Irish Seed Savers Association. The apocalyptic ballad imagines a scene where Earth is doomed and a certain select few are leaving the planet, "flying Mother Nature's silver seed to a new home in the sun".
I was wondering if this is what Irish Seed Savers are about and, like all heresy, there was a bit of truth in what I was thinking.
I arrive at their place, an amazing 20ac farm at Capparoe between Scarriff and Feakle in East Clare. The Association began life in Carlow 27 years ago and in 1996 its founders, Anita and Tommy Hayes, moved to East Clare where they acquired, over time, the 20ac at 'Ceapach Rua', the red tilled field.
Tommy is a well-known master bodhrán player and traditional percussionist of Stockon's Wing fame. He also hails from the same parish as my good self. His wife Anita is American and coming to Ireland, she was amazed at the absence of an Irish seed bank dedicated to preserving Irish seeds. And so the Irish Seed Savers Association was established and dedicated itself to saving what it calls "heritage seeds" for generations to come. She and Tommy made Seed Savers their life's work for the next quarter century until they retired from front-line activity recently.
In the café and shop at Seed Savers, the seed co-ordinator, Jo Newton, explains that in its early years, the association discovered Irish seeds were being preserved elsewhere thanks to the efforts of various individuals. Typical of these was Barry Murphy, a horticultural adviser with ACOT, the predecessor of Teagasc, and an expert on brassica, the family of vegetables that includes cabbage, turnip, cauliflower, kale, Brussels sprouts and broccoli.
He saved a wide collection of these seeds and meticulously recorded the localities and farms they came from. Having nowhere to store them in Ireland, he sent his seeds and his notebooks to a seed bank at Wellesbourne in the UK. The seeds and his notes have been repatriated thanks to the efforts and very existence of Seed Savers.
An even more celebrated case was the return of the Irish onion known as the búan (forever) onion. It was part of a series of Irish seeds that ended up in the Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry at St Petersburg in Russia. The seed was originally developed and saved by Barney Crosbie, an onion enthusiast, and is especially suited to Irish conditions. Newton explains that the onion was repatriated and propagated by Seed Savers and is now sold by a local grower at the farmers market in Ennis.
The farm at Capparoe and the seed bank are home to over 600 varieties of organic, open pollinated heritage seeds. It is also home to the full native apple tree collection and has Ireland's only self-rooting orchard. Many of these seeds and the various varieties find their way to Seed Savers through their open days and outreach events and publicity.