It says something of the isolation of rural living that I first heard about The Wild Irish at the Dingle Food Festival in north Kerry.
The Wild Irish is Sharon and Gordon Greene’s foraging and preserving business near Shinrone, on the Offaly-Tipperary border, and it won a silver medal at the Blás na hEireann Irish Food Awards in the Dingle Festival.
Yet, when I visited their farm, it was so close to my home, in north Tipperary, that I could cycle the seven miles. The Wild Irish make syrups, preserves, sauces and reductions, from the berries, flowers, herbs and crab apples they pick on the 50-acre family farm. The notion of making a living from foraging can seem incredible. All your crops are free (they are there anyway), but it can be time-consuming work, a scavenge around the fringes of real farming. Is it possible to make this enjoyable way to wander around your farm financially viable? I spoke to Sharon Greene.
Oliver Moore: How did the business start, Sharon?
Sharon Greene: “We started our business about 18 months ago, but have been making the syrups for about seven years for family use. Our farm is fifth-generation, a very small holding in the Irish midlands. I started making rosehip syrup seven years ago, after being out picking blackberries with my daughter, Emma, who was then seven. On that walk, she had looked into the hedge and asked ‘what is that’? It was a rosehip, and she had no idea what it was. I was stunned because I presumed that she would know, but how could she? I was raised knowing some of what was growing wild, but she hadn’t been, and a tradition was being lost. From there, I began making rosehip syrup and my interest in all things wild, and in our Irish food heritage, was sparked. During the harvesting seasons, all the family get involved, and many a night can be spent topping and tailing berries, picking through gorse flowers and the like.
OM: You don’t seem to have planted any fields of berry trees. Do you actually pick it all from what surrounds the fields?
SG: Yes, it’s all from hedgerows, a small, uncut bog, and some small, wooded areas. We don’t pick by the side of the road. One neighbour allows us to pick on the inside of one of his hedges, too, in exchange for some bottles of syrup for his porridge. As regards the mileage of hedgerows we harvest from, it is difficult to fully measure... we would estimate that on the 50 acres we would have a little over 20 miles of hedgerows.
OM: Do you exclusively harvest wild food, or do you include farmed ingredients?
SG: From what we know, we are the only people actually producing an exclusively wild product in Ireland. We do not use our name to promote, say, a rhubarb syrup, or any other bought-in ingredients, and intend to stay that way. What we do is hard work, and the income takes a while to build, and in order to keep respectful and true to protecting the wild on the farm, we will remain small. However, we intend to add other strands to the business this year, and will be running foraging courses on the farm, as well as, hopefully, opening a farm shop and tea rooms.
OM: Tell me about what you pick and produce.
SG: We only picked last year what we estimated we might need, as we were only starting out, and, having said that, judging by the demand, we could have doubled or even tripled our harvest. In September and October, our elderberry harvest was 150kg, which yielded 1,200 bottles of syrup. Our rosehip harvest of 110kg yielded 630 bottles of syrup. Hawthornberry gave 53kg, which yielded 1,020 syrup bottles. The shrub-vinegar yields from the above would have been the same.
Crab apple is a difficult one to quantify from last year, as we would have picked about 100kg. This cooks down to a lot less, but is used by us for the pectin in our jellies and fruit cheeses. Sloe, blackberry, rowanberry, honeysuckle, dandelion, clover, elderflower, meadowsweet were all picked last year in very small quantities, as we were doing them on a product trial run. What we picked last year in elderberry, rosehip and hawthorn was only a fraction of what was available. We can increase harvest, and need to do so this year, to meet demand.
OM: How do you make sure that there will be enough for next year?
SG: This kind of produce has to be picked by hand, and with careful consideration for the surrounds it grows in. It would be a terrible thing to see this wildness being exploited, like much of the land has been in the past, and we are adamant in what we are doing that it will not happen.”
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