w r i n k l e d
ADVENTURES IN TRAVEL, WRITING AND AGING GRACEFULLY
When we were visiting the James Turrell Sky Garden, we were fortunate to be able to sit and chat with Cathy, the owner/baker of Liss Ard Cafe. We got to talking about food and I asked if she knew of a farmer in the area who might be able to utilize our energy. She suggested I email Madeline McKeever at Brown Envelope Seeds, and Madeline very graciously agreed to let us slackers tag along with her for the day. Madeline and her partner live on 30 acres of land 45 minutes from our house. Michael raises chickens, cares for the dog (Bob) Dylan, donkeys Nick (named after Madeline’s seed hero, Russian botanist Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov) and Ben (Ben-Hur, of course), and keeps bees on the property, but the bulk of the farm is comprised of winding forests, grazing fields, and some apple trees. We, along with Kevin and Penny, a vacationing couple from the UK, enjoyed a cuppa before touring the barn, used for drying quinoa and vegetable seeds; and the polytunnel, where Madeline grows tomatoes, herbs, lettuces, squash and carrots year-round. After that we wound our way through the forest, which opened to rows of corn, kale, cabbage and assorted greens. Organic farm = weeding by hand, so we got down to business, chatting as we weeded.
Madeline is great - a quiet, unassuming Johnny Appleseed, badass feminist, laid-back farmer and ambitious businesswoman all rolled into one. She was raised on a cattle farm north of Dublin, studied botany, and lived briefly in Maine and Boston before returning to Ireland to purchase her dairy farm on Turk Head 26 years ago. She does still own a few cows, but her real passion is growing fruits and vegetables to harvest and sell the seeds. How does one get started in the seed business? You know what they say about necessity being the mother of invention. Shortly after her marriage ended, she was a struggling single mom/farmer trying to save money by drying her own seeds. Now she sells them over the Internet to small farmers, market growers and every day city folk so anyone can produce their own food. You can find her catalogue at http://www.brownenvelopeseeds.com
The boom of large corporate farms has made it difficult for small farmers to compete; the banks are stingier with loans, requiring small farmers to raise more cattle, and work more land to stay solvent. But it’s back-breaking work and coupled with Ireland’s long history of young people’s emigration, many would-be next generation farmers (like Madeline’s two daughters) are opting for the “greener pastures” of white collar occupations in the large cities of Europe, Canada, Australia and the US. Nowadays the average age of an Irish farmer is 54. Madeline recalls the time when she would drive a modest 30 gallons of milk to the local creamery to see a queue of 5 other farmers doing the same. Now she says there are only a couple of independent dairy farms left and the queue has been replaced by tankards from giant dairy conglomerates. The EU’s guidelines on selling seeds are another of Madeline’s hurdles. The restrictions, originally created to discourage the spread of “bad seeds”, curbs seed breeding and sharing, and dramatically limits the varieties of produce that can be grown in Ireland. (The US, on the other hand has much looser criteria, which in part, accounts for the heaving bounty of options.) Despite the obstacles, Madeline remains steadfast - not surprising considering she’s a woman who runs an independently-owned farm, was single mom of two, and a self-taught online businesswoman. Oh, and 10 years ago she and another farmer jumped on a train to Dublin to file a last minute injunction to cease the sale of prime Skibbereen land to a supermarket developer. It’s a long, murky story that includes illegal produce sales, clipping of deadbolts and her arrest. But the story ends well: The land that she was able to save is now the location of West Cork’s largest outdoor mart, the Skibbereen Farmer’s Market, which she founded and where you can find us every Saturday morning.
By mid-afternoon, we had pulled several rows and in true conservationist form, Madeline invited us to stay for a late lunch of the migrating greens we had harvested while weeding. I would have loved to have stayed for the sautéed turnip tops and kale, but the kids were tired from a long day in the sun and when her friend dropped in unexpectedly, we took a rain check on lunch to give them a chance to visit.
I know in my last post, I did a sort of low grade moaning about traveling too slow and the isolation and boredom of rural life. But meeting Madeline was a highlight for me, and one I wouldn’t have been able to experience if I were merely a tourist blowing through. And there is a really wonderful sense of community that comes from small town living. Everyone knows everyone. Exhibit A: The guy who makes your pizza is the guy who coaches the soccer team. Exhibit B: On the morning we were heading to Brown Envelope Seeds, the caretaker, Ruth, popped by to check on us. Turns out that she was Madeline’s former assistant for 8 years!
Another thing, I had sort of secretly been complaining about composting. Back home, if Chris was out of town and it was snowing or raining (and I was clear of any witnesses), I would not recycle. I know what you’re thinking: Boo, Cheong! But I hated to see cans and bottles litter my counter as much as I hated to be cold or scared by animals in a dark alley, so into the garbage it went. I threw away ridiculous amounts of trash and non-trash. Leftovers we never got to because we were sick of the taste. Groceries we threw out because we opted to eat out instead of cooking. Clothes that didn’t fit. Shoes that were out of fashion. Paper scrawled carelessly on only one side. Plastic zip lock bags. Tin foil. Water down the drain as we waited for the shower to get to “just the right temperature”. While no one will ever accuse me of being careless with money, we had more food and “stuff” than we needed. Living here has made me even more mindful of waste. Our water comes from a well and is geo-thermally heated. In rural areas like ours, you have to cart your own trash to the dump and pay a fee of 5€/bag (roughly $6.50/bag). So we eat everything we can, compost the coffee grounds, shells and peels and then recycle the rest (recycling is also costly at 3€). Every corner of Oona’s drawing paper is used, and when she’s done, it becomes kindling for the fireplace (our only source of heat). There are no plastic bags at the supermarket. Electricity is a fickle beast.
Yes, when it’s dark and you are walking through the tall grass where Isoo saw the remains of a rat to compost the dinner scraps, you do find yourself whispering, “Go on. Be a big girl.” I may never be a country farmer, but after meeting Madeline, I know that I too, can be just a little bit braver.
Drying veg in the barn. On the right is quinoa in its original state.
Isoo, Kevin and Madeline in the polytunnel. The tunnel allows Madeline to farm year-round, protecting her crops form the harsh Irish weather and seeing her vegetables to fruition. Ripe veggies = ripe seeds.
Getting down and dirty.
Our would-be lunch. The turnips Madeline sent us home with were delicious, mild and perfect for a salad.
Madeline and Michael