Inside track: Madeline McKeever, founder, Brown Envelope Seeds

‘Paperwork and slow broadband are the most frustrating things about running an SME’

Madeline McKeever: ‘It seems to me that those who use chemicals should be regulated, not the people who don’t’

Madeline McKeever: ‘It seems to me that those who use chemicals should be regulated, not the people who don’t’

 

Plant scientist Madeline McKeever sends organic vegetable seeds all over the world from her remote farm on the Turk Head peninsula in west Cork.

What is special about your business?
Seeds are special. They are the fundamental units of agriculture and it is a privilege to work with them. We produce around 100 varieties of seed and grow a mixture of old and modern varieties. We select those that perform well and further adapt them to the Irish climate. We grow unusual grains such as amaranth and quinoa and are also particularly interested in tomatoes and have about 50 different varieties.

We have stuck to vegetables because if you diversify too much, you can’t do everything well. We are a small family business so what we do is very personal and hands on. Producing seed is hard work. Our business is very much a labour of love.

What sets your business apart in your sector?
We are one of the only two farms in Ireland producing vegetable seeds. The rest are imported. Both of us are striving for the same thing – to supply good, organically certified, open-pollinated seeds to Irish growers. This is important because open-pollinated seeds are populations that carry a diverse mix of genes. The country of origin does not have to be put on seed labels/packets and many people assume that Irish companies are selling Irish seeds when they’re not.

We are passionate about organic seed and prepared to invest the time and effort required to produce it whereas the large seed companies are not. We see our mission as enabling people to grow their own food. Our seeds cost around €2.50 a packet which is not a lot for an Irish-produced seed with strong provenance.

You’ve been in business since 2002. What have been your biggest challenges?
Initially, learning about seeds and how to produce them successfully. However, I find all the paperwork and regulation around food and agriculture even more challenging. It seems to me that those who use chemicals should be regulated, not the people who don’t.

Madeline McKeever: ‘I don’t believe in borrowing money’
Madeline McKeever: ‘I don’t believe in borrowing money’

Also, seeds come from all over the world and are mostly produced in countries with low wages. It is very hard to compete on price. On a large scale, the challenge is to safeguard the seeds we have. Seeds of domesticated plants have been handed down from our ancestors for thousands of years and stewarded by ordinary farmers for most of this time. This has brought about a vast diversity of varieties, but it is decreasing all the time and old varieties in particular are being lost.

What has been your biggest success?
Adapting varieties to Irish conditions, building our mailing list to over 4,000 customers, being able to offer people rare or unusual varieties such as Donegal (black) oats, Tomatills and 10 varieties of quinoa. People might be surprised to realise that the Irish climate is quite suitable for South American crops such as Amaranth. West Cork is a bit like the climate half way up the Andes –wet and cool.

What have been your biggest investments in the business?
A secondhand polytunnel frame and a tractor.

What advice would you give someone starting a business?
Do what you love to do.

What has made the biggest difference to your business?
The arrival of the internet. Seeds are so light to send that they are ideal for mail or online ordering. That said, we still have to produce a printed list because not everybody uses the internet. We sell all over the world but our biggest single market is the Czech Republic and our biggest seller is mixed salad seeds.

Do you have business hero or heroine?
No, but I have seed heroes such as the Soviet plant breeder, botanist and geneticist Nikolai Vavilov, who created the first agricultural seed bank and came to Ireland in the 1920s to collect pea seeds. There is also Anita Hayes, the founder of the Irish Seed Savers Association, and the nineteenth century native American Buffalo Bird Woman, who based her gardening and growing on age old cultivation traditions. These names may not be very familiar, but we owe these people a huge debt for their efforts.

What two things could the Government do to help an SME like yours?
Provide better broadband coverage and invest in organic plant breeding, variety trials, and education about organic farming.

In your experience are the banks lending to SMEs?
I don’t know as I don’t believe in borrowing money.

What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in business?
Probably not borrowing money to buy things that might have made life easier.

What is the most frustrating part of running a small business?
The paperwork and the slow broadband. We have to fill in area aid forms, organic return forms, forestry forms, derogation forms, income tax returns and VAT returns. We have to be certified and inspected by the Department of Agriculture, the Organic Trust and Bord Bia. The cost of compliance is very high in comparison to our turnover.

What makes it all worthwhile?
The tomatoes and other really delicious things we get to eat as by-products and also the satisfaction of knowing that I am doing something of lasting value.

What’s your business worth and would you sell it?
Yes, I would sell it for a million euro so I could become a full-time plant breeder.