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.
General Manager of Seed Savers, Jennifer McConnell, is eager to point out that Seed Savers is not a museum for Irish seeds.
"Some seed banks are base banks that freeze the seeds to protect and preserve them. We seek to preserve and promote them as the living seeds of living plants and we want as many people as possible to engage with us in propagating Irish seeds because these are the seeds that have developed naturally as part of the indigenous biodiversity," said McConnell.
Walking around the Seed Savers farm it is certainly a living and breathing place. There are orchards, polytunnels, seedbeds, planting-out areas and plenty of people with soil on their hands and boots. Three people are employed full time with up to 17 others employed on a part-time basis and on schemes. There is also a regular complement of volunteers.
Engineer turned apple specialist Eoin Keane looks after the orchard and its 165 varieties of Irish apples. Like the other experts at Irish Seed Savers he works closely with a range of partners including UCD, the OPW, the Botanic Gardens and Kildalton Agricultural College collaborating on everything from DNA research to propagation techniques.
Through research Irish Seed Savers are constantly refining what constitutes heritage seed particular to Ireland. Eoin explains that when they started they had hundreds of varieties of Irish apple trees and now, through research, they have established that many of these originated in other countries, so they are now down to 165 Irish varieties. "And with more research, we expect to refine that number even further," he said. The work of Seed Savers is far from insular and exclusive - they co-operate with like-minded organisations throughout the world seeking out seeds and plants from other countries that are suitable for our local pollinators and local conditions. Plants from the other side of the globe are known to settle well in Irish conditions.
The term 'indigenous seed' is a misnomer, according to McConnell. She explains that seeds, like humans, are carried or move from one place to another and become formed by local pollinators such as bees, birds or flies. They thrive and respond best in the conditions where a number of factors combine to help them settle.
"Rather than indigenous seeds, we are about heritage seeds, seeds that traditionally do best in our conditions and produce food that is appropriate for who we are and where we are," she said.
"We are trying to protect and preserve the seeds that respond best to local conditions and the local pollinators that are part of our indigenous food chain - it's what we call seed sovereignty."
This, according to McConnell, is a cornerstone of our sovereign capacity to feed ourselves.
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