The Irish Seed Savers has just opened a state of the art seed bank on their 20-acre site in Scarriff, Co Clare.
This building will house over 700 varieties of heritage seeds, a crowning glory on 21 years of graft and growth for the group.
Jo Newton has been with the Irish Seed Savers for 12 years. She is the curator of the seed bank as well as the gardener who manages growing the heritage collection on site. The visitors who arrived for an open day earlier this month were the first to experience the building.
The open day had draft horses working the fields, open air traditional music and acapella singing beside the wood-fired pizza oven, Japanese cookery demos with some ingredients grown on site, foraging walks, traditional crafts like Sugán chair making, and of course tours up and down the rolling hills of gardens and orchards.
“Here, it’s all agricultural crops,” says Jo. “The collection encompasses living things, trees and other plants, as well as the seeds that are harvested. We probably have about 150 to 200 different varieties of apple trees and fruit trees, we have 50 to 60 potatoes varieties which we grow out every year, from living tubers, then also grains and vegetable plants.”
The new building is certainly impressive. Built from sustainable materials, with viewing areas, lots of natural light, and with a passive heating system, it is something of a flagpiece for sustainable farming. As we stood in the building, Jo explained the changes from the early days.
“We started in the little blue hut,” she says, referring to the dinky, slightly dilapidated cabin up the hill. “Everything was done there: Drying, threshing, and packing seeds, putting them away for storage; it was a reception area, that’s where we did everything really.
“We now have this amazing big seed bank with a huge conservatory that can be used for solar drying of the seeds. We have lots of space for threshing and hanging our seed, as well as storing in proper controlled conditions, as you would have in a gene bank. So the seed will be kept in great condition.”
To trace the origins of Irish Seed Savers you have to go all the way back to trad rock fusion music of the 1980s. Really.
Tommy Hayes said: “I’m a traditional percussionist, have been forever really. I started out playing with bands like Stockton’s Wing, moved to the States, played in a couple of bands over there, and that’s how I met Anita. We moved back to Ireland, to Carlow originally, and bought some land there. Anita went for a walk one morning, came back and said: ‘I want to start a seed saving organisation’.”
Anita’s interest in seed saving stemmed from there being very little heritage seed saving in Ireland in the late 1980s. “I was really interested in genetic conservation work in America, and I realised there wasn’t a formal organisation here to do this conservation work. Tommy and I decided that we would put our efforts into creating one.
“We had seven or eight acres in Carlow, we put the word out through various publications, seeds began to come in, and we began to grow the plants.”
From such metaphorical small seeds did the Irish Seed Savers grow. The organisation relocated to Clare in 1996 and has been, as it were, growing ever sense. Now dozens work and volunteer there, from all over Ireland and the world.
What’s most impressive about the organisation is how it interacts with growers all over Ireland. “Members donate seeds to us, [and] give us feedback on the seeds we supply them,” Jo says. In a way, this means the Seed Savers isn’t just in Scarriff, it’s nationwide.
* www.irishseedsavers.ie or call 061-921856.
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