Prospecting in the oil fields of Laois as an old crop is given a new use

A small but increasing number of farmers have started to grow seed crops, to produce oils for consumer use.

Rapeseed oil is grown and bottled for culinary uses in three of the four provinces.

A new arrival to this market is Adora flax oil, produced and bottled on the farm of Kate Irwin in Ballyroan, Co Laois.

As we will find out, this oil is unique to Britain or Ireland in a number of ways.

* Oliver Moore: How and why did you get interested in not only growing flax, but in bottling your own flax oil?

>>Kate Irwin: Our home place used to be a flax mill, 100 to 150 years ago. The house, in Vicarstown, Co Laois, was originally beside a river that powered the mill. So, growing up, there were lots of stories about flax. In those times, it was grown for the linen from the stem, and was very tall.

I’d also studied nutrition, came across flax oil as one of the healthiest for the body. And it was familiar to me from home, so myself and my husband, who’d inherited a farm, decided to start growing it. Very few people were growing it or talking about it three years ago when we started. Now, we have 30 acres under flax, six under oats. So it’s not a big farm, but we are already replacing an import. We’re now going to get other farmers to grow flax for us as well.

* It’s not just the growing and producing of your own flax oil that’s unusual, you also do this on an organic farm. I notice one oil sold in the UK, and certified by the UK organic certification body, the Soil Association, is from Kazakhstan.

>>No one else in Britain or Ireland is growing flax organically. In England, there are some who grow it conventionally, but none organically. People kept telling me it couldn’t be done, but I knew it could be, as years ago, it was grown organically.

* It must be very challenging to grow flax organically? What are the main problem areas?

>>We grow the shorter, three-foot variety for the seed, unlike the older, taller variety that was grown for linen years ago. The taller one, which grew up to six feet, can block out the weeds, but the shorter one is sprayed a lot in conventional farming. Flax is a beautiful, slim, elegant plant with a blue flower, but doesn’t compete with weeds at all. For example, lamb’s quarter would be about 10 times wider. So you have to try and find methods of growing it without disturbing it. It also only grows 2-3cm into the ground. Mechanical weeding solutions have to be careful not to disturb the plant too much.

* So what do you do?

>>A lot of trial and error! What we’ve found is that if you plant heavily, you leave less room for weeds to come up. That’s the most successful method for us so far. So, when you are finished planting seed in rows, you go back the other way as well. We plant a bigger seed population on the ground, on a stale seed bed. The stale seed bed is idle over winter, then ploughed and tilled in February or March. We let the weeds come up, get out the rotovator, dig up the weeds, leave them to rot, and do the same again three weeks later. After that, we put the flax out around the second week of April, if the soil is warm enough. We plant double the recommended seeding rate, and certainly don’t get the number of weeds we got in the first two years.

* So what did you try those first two years?

>>We used the recommended seed rate, planting in drills. The first year, a start from grass, was a good crop. The second year was the problem: We had to plough a lot back in, there were too many weeds.

We grow oats too: oats work well under organic. It grows higher than the weeds, so you don’t even have to clean the grain, the head is above the weeds. We grow a breakfast oat, called Firth, and people buy it direct. Some farmers buy it for feed, some consumers just buy it for home consumption. For animal feed, it can be mixed with the flax seed expeller. That makes an incredibly nutritious feed. We make a compressed shell, it’s very healthy for farm animals, it’s about 30% protein and high in folic acids.

* You mentioned that your studies into nutrition led you to flax, also known as linseed, over and above other oils. What did you learn, and why was this relevant to growing flax in Ireland?

>>Flax really suits Ireland and our growing conditions. When you grow it in a cold, dark climate, the seed retains a lot more omega-3 in the shell. 60% of the oil is omega-3, an essential fatty acid. Omega-3 wraps itself around your blood cells and insulates your cells. This helps slow down degeneration. Any populations that consume a lot of oily fish, or anything with a lot of omega-3, don’t tend to have joint issues, and show other health traits, like the Eskimos. They consume Omega-3 through blubber.

Nature puts Omega 3, 6, and 9 together, but flax, especially flax grown in cold damp Ireland, is the highest natural source.

* Tell me about the process from field to bottle, Kate. Was it possible to source all the equipment in Ireland, or did you have to travel elsewhere, where flax is a more common crop?

>> Harvesting is done with a standard combine harvester. We might have to make some slight adjustments, but it’s fine, it takes it all up. Harvesting is usually late September, and we get up to a tonne per acre. It’s dried mechanically in a grain drier, then cleaned in a machine we had to travel to the Czech Republic to find. This machine separates the weed seed from the main seed. It’s like a big vibrating sieve with tables. So we’re left with clean seed after this process.

We bought an oil presser in Germany and our filling and bottling machine in Italy. Bottling, actually, is quite a delicate process; we’ve developed our own mechanical system that works, but it’s a very sensitive oil. Any rough handling or exposure to light would damage it. The bottles are dark brown to prevent light from getting in. In the end, one third goes into an oil and two thirds into animal feed.

* Where do you sell this oil? Do you plan to expand?

>>It’s available through Independent Irish Healthfoods in Cork, who supply a lot of the health food shops. So it’s already in health food shops and some delis in Leinster and Munster. It retails for €10 for a 250ml bottle, and has been available since September of last year. Our new labels, with our organic logos, will be rolled out after the next harvest.

* Is flax oil for culinary or health purposes? I know some health supplement products use it as a main ingredient.

>>I’d see it as a bit of both! It’s a very good type of product for our climate. If you take the oil with yoghurt or other high-protein, low-fat foods, that’s the best, health-wise. It’s also good to avoid heating it. Pouring it over cooked food which is at body temperature is fine. Some use it as a salad dressing, honey mustard and flax salad dressing is very popular. Or to make hummus, or pesto, or blended into smoothies.

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