The Irish Seed Savers Association celebrated its 21st birthday, in 2012, by opening a seed bank, at its base in Co Clare. Its purpose was to safeguard 600 varieties of heritage vegetable, 48 heritage grains, 50 types of heritage potato and more than 140 varieties of apple. But now, just 18 months later, the organisation is struggling to survive, after losing 40 per cent of its funding in the past few years.
“Our funding was previously as much as €250,000. It has been cut to €147,000, and this year we expect much bigger cuts from the Department of Agriculture,” says Geraldine Tobin of the association, a charity.
In our consumer culture, many people assume you just buy seeds each year to grow vegetables in your garden. But, as recently as half a century ago, things were utterly different. It’s worth noting the words of President Michael D Higgins at the official opening of the association’s genetic seed bank, in June 2012. There, on one of his first engagements, he was back near his home place, remembering how he and his wife, Sabina, had bought apple trees from the association’s heritage collection.
His remark about choices was prescient. “There are very few places where you get the opportunity to discuss the significance of the reduction of biodiversity on our planet,” he said. “We’ve lost a great deal. There will come a point in the current development of homogenisation of life where we become vulnerable.” And, he continued, “Stark choices are better. It’s the subtle and imperceptible ones that are dangerous.”
For people who remember the way farmers and gardeners saved seeds 50 years ago, this change in culture from open-pollinated seeds (those generated by the plants themselves) to filial 1, or F1, hybrids (seeds bred to perform well in controlled conditions and bought each year) is one of those subtle changes that might go unnoticed were it not for organisations such as the Irish Seed Savers Association.
On a visit to their headquarters in 2012 I met the charity’s workers, most of whom work part-time and some of whom have extensive agricultural training and expertise. People such as Jo Newton, its seed-bank co-ordinator, helped me understand the vital importance of saving seeds – in essence, the practical solution to food crises caused by flooding, drought or disease.
“Most people think of tropical rainforests when they hear about biodiversity loss, but agricultural biodiversity is hugely important. By growing different types of crops that are able to adapt and evolve to changing weather patterns, you can hold on to genetic elasticity. But if everyone is growing the same potato and it fails, this can have devastating consequences,” she said then.
The preference for the Lumper potato variety in the 1800s was one of the causes of the Famine. “People grew the Lumper because it was so productive on poor ground, but if they had been growing 10 different varieties of potato at the time, some of them would have been blight resistant.”
On the sloped eight-hectare site at Capparoe, Scarriff, in east Co Clare, the gardeners at the association plants its heritage stocks in rotation, letting some of them go to seed so that these seeds can be stored in the bank. More than 100 varieties are germinated and planted each year; the heritage seeds are packaged and sold to visitors and members.
It is this vital work that is under threat. Between 75 and 80 per cent of the varieties of fruit and vegetables in Ireland have died out over the past 100 years. Organisations such as the association are encouraging people to start planting them again.
“It’s not only the cut in Department of Agriculture funding. We have also have reductions from the Pobal payments and reduction in numbers attending our workshops,” says Geraldine Tobin.
So what’s being done to try to prevent the closure of the seed bank and heritage gardens? First, says Tobin, the organisation is hoping to persuade the Department of Agriculture that it needs more funding to pay staff. “In December we instigated a third round of staff cuts due to our financial crisis. Remaining staff are on a one- to three-day week. This means that some projects will have to be curtailed, and if we don’t raise €250,000 we will not be able to continue our work in a meaningful way.”
The organisation is also seeking public support through a campaign on its website and a crowd-funding appeal.
The Irish Seed Savers Association is also planning big workshop weekends – with sessions on bee-keeping, foraging, creating an orchard, and organic gardening, for example – on March 22nd-23rd and June 21st-22nd rather than spreading its courses through the year.
And it is encouraging anybody passionate about saving seeds to host a fundraising coffee morning on February 1st, the start of spring – a perfect opportunity, perhaps, to choose heritage seeds from the association’s new catalogue, to plant, save and share with your gardening neighbours in years to come.
061-921866, irishseedsavers.ie; for the crowd-funding appeal, search for “Save Irish Seed Savers” on indiegogo.com