When Madeline McKeever’s dairy farm proved uneconomic, she started saving her own seeds out of financial necessity. Now her company, Brown Envelope Seeds, sells a wide variety of organic seeds, all saved on her west Cork farm. She talks to Caroline Hennessy about turning adversity into opportunity. Read the interview on SilverCircle.ie.
“I was farming down here in west Cork and, just because I was poor really, I grew my own vegetables and I started saving the seeds.”
There was no great scheme when Madeline McKeever set out on the path that led to the successful Brown Envelope Seeds company. Although she was originally a dairy farmer, with just a 9,000 gallon milk quota, McKeever found that she was too small to survive in that industry. After she finished milking the cows, in her efforts to avoid getting what she calls “a real job”, McKeever found her own sustainable niche.
Seed of an idea
In 2002 she was involved in starting Skibbereen’s Farmers’ Market where, alongside her own organic vegetables and beef, she also sold seeds that she had saved from the garden. While doing this, McKeever realised no one – apart from Irish Seed Savers in Clare – was producing vegetable seeds in Ireland.
“So,” McKeever says matter of factly, “I decided I’d see if I could make a go at selling organic seeds.”
It wasn’t long, however, until it turned into a real job, which now employs two full-time people as well as a part-timer. McKeever laughs: “We’re very busy. I’ve become a victim of my own success!”
From little acorns…
From a few packets on a market stall and a photocopied one-page list, Brown Envelope Seeds now sells more than 120 different varieties of organic vegetables, salad and herb seeds. There are plenty of the usual peas, beans and carrots but Brown Envelope is the go-to place for different vegetables, such as the productive, delicious Ushiki Kuri squash, gloriously coloured Painted Mountain corn and an intriguing selection of unfamiliar oriental greens.
Its annual catalogue is eagerly awaited by gardeners around the country and, in the 2010 edition, McKeever has included instructions on how to save your own seeds. Is this not counterproductive? She doesn’t hesitate: “It’s like giving away a pack of cigarettes to people,” she says playfully. “They’ll get addicted and they will want more. I buy more seeds than ever because the more you grow, the more you want to try. And nobody – normal people who have lives and jobs and things – can save everything they need. They could form themselves into groups and save and swap, and I hope they do, but I think they’ll still be going ‘I wonder what she has new this year?’”
Something a bit different
Gardeners do love trying out different varieties and McKeever’s latest introduction to her catalogue is an unusual winter brassica called February Orchid. Brought from China by gardener Joy Larkcom, it can either be used in salads or cooked as a green vegetable.
McKeever also has plenty of recommendations for people wanting to start off growing their own, the most important of which is to plant what you like to eat. “If you have a polytunnel, I don’t think you can get any better value than tomatoes. If you’re growing outside – and I think we have to plan on not having a good summer,” she notes, “I’d be thinking of growing a few salads and peas for the summer, leeks and kale or chard for the winter.”
For McKeever – and it is the Brown Envelope Seeds mission statement – the most important thing is to enable people to grow their own food. “I think that Ireland has the capacity to be quite self sufficient and that’s what we need to be aiming for. I suppose,” she adds thoughtfully, “doing seeds is my own little contribution to that.”