Dyeing roots, leaves and seeds offered to participants in the Feeding Ourselves natural dyeing workshop © Adèle Violette
From March 22 to 26, 2023, project coordinator Adèle Pautrat travelled to Ireland for a series of visits to projects led by various partners.
From re-enchanting pride for local crops and know-how to real world solutions to help relocate historical production sectors, Adèle could explore from different angles how best to instil self-sufficiency and resilience in rural territories. Throughout the journey, one common thread emerged: the crucial role that agrobiodiversity plays in driving territorial transitions and rural revolutions.
In this third and last part tof the, we look back on a round table we organised at Feeding Ourselves 2023. Questioning the motivations and obstacles encountered by alternative players relying on agrobiodiversity to offer “Irish-grown textiles from seed to fiber”, that discussion led to the idea of creating an Irish social cooperative specialising in the production of raw materials needed for textile manufacturing.
The Feeding Ourselves event was born from the desire to share and question issues related to the construction of local development models based on sustainability, self-sufficiency and resilience.
It takes place every year, in the ecovillage of Cloughjordan at the end of winter, and is organised by the local association Cultivate in partnership with Cloughjordan Community Farm, ARC2020, and other organisations active in fair food systems, environmental advocacy and rural revitalisation.
Over two days, participants are invited to take part in various breakout sessions, online discussions with international panels as well as participative workshops, addressing agri-food topics considered as entry points for moving towards fairer, more caring communities.
Presentation of the Feeding Ourselves by Davy event, from the Cultivate
association © Louise Kelleher
One highlight of ARC2020’s contribution to the 2023 Feeding Ourselves was the organisation of a Seeds4All roundtable on "Irish-grown textile from seed to fibre: challenges and opportunities". We invited four of our partners to speak on this occasion:
Tristan Lienhardt from the Irish Seed Savers and Apple Oak Fiberworks, who we introduced in the first part of this Irish article series.
Malú Colorín, who’s the co-founder of Fibreshed Ireland, a network working for a textile system in Ireland with a more sustainable and locally-based approach. Fibreshed is interested in a variety of materials, including flax, wool, hemp, and alpaca fibre.
Malú is also the founder of “Talú Earth. From seed to second skin”, a business offering dye services and participative workshops to promote natural dyeing from indigenous plants mostly. As part of the Feeding Ourselves event, she gave us a workshop which attracted around twenty participants who were introduced to various natural dyeing techniques.
Deirdre Lane, a former financier who became involved in matters related to wool production after returning to Ireland and discovering that there was a very little focus on using the country's extensive sheep production for wool-based products. She co-founded two working groups, the ‘Irish Wool Discussion group’ and the ‘Buy the Wool Direct from the Farmers’ group, to address this issue.
Kate Carmody, a farmer who founded the Irish Cooperative for Hemp and Flax in 2018. With over 170 members today, the cooperative was established to help farmers overcome the many legislative and logistical hurdles associated with growing hemp and flax in Ireland. It also conducts advocacy work at EU level, particularly in the context of debates around CAP reforms.
Discussions tackled a series of questions related to the emergence of an alternative industry for Irish textile production, drawing on the speakers’ experience leading projects that give pride of place to agrobiodiversity as well as the knowledge, skills and needs of Irish communities.
If restructuring the textile industry primarily involves recovering lost expertise and raw materials, as we analysed in a previous article, this cannot be done without legislative developments tackling broad issues such as R&D, finance, the movement of goods, or waste management. Unfortunately, legal restrictions often prevent or demotivate farmers and other operators from producing specific varieties and breeds for textile industries.
Take hemp for example. The production of industrial hemp is legal in Ireland but in practice, legislative obstacles make it very difficult to access funding, leading to a lack of infrastructure, coupled with a lack of research and development of varieties.
Hemp plantation © Roland Marder via iStock
Kate Carmody believes that solutions must be found at the EU level. In March, she participated in a workshop organised by the EU Committee of Agriculture and Rural Development, exploring hemp cultivation support under the CAP reform. She reported a general consensus on the need to promote hemp cultivation in a context of significant growth of the sector at global scale.
The 2023-2027 CAP already provides some solutions, notably by improving the financing possibilities for agricultural cooperatives within which it may be easier for farmers to engage withunder-grown crops, like hemp, that demand experimentation and adaptation. According to Kate, this model should be made accessible to farms of all sizes and given strong additional support to be effectively implemented on the ground.
As for seeds, the obstacles are those we regularly analyse through our Seeds4All publications. Although the supply of seed varieties specifically developed for organic farming has included so-called "organic heterogeneous material" since January 2022, the diversity and competitiveness of these varieties still lag behind demand.
The high price of organic seeds, which is often prohibitive, is a major challenge faced by many farmers, as evidenced by an Irish farmer and seed saver attending the round-table. In his experience there is a lack of access to varieties of endemic plants that are adapted to local pedoclimatic conditions and climate change. This makes it difficult for operators to find the right seeds for their farms and crops, leading to lost opportunities and wasted resources.
Native Reseda Luteola used to dye textiles yellow © Adèle Violette
As a laudable objective can have negative effects, the other important questions to ask regarding the promotion of Irish-grown textiles from seed to fibers, are those of land use and sharing, and the impact of the increase in crops dedicated to textile production on environmental protection and food production needs.
However, the versatility of the raw materials discussed here (flax, hemp, wool), which are used in various bio-based sectors such as agriculture, construction, and medicine, may contribute to diversifying land use rather than monopolising it.
Hemp, for example, is a low-waste, multi-purpose crop with very high potential. All its parts are useful – the plant being harvested for the stem and seed, while the leaf and flower can be sent to a biorefinery – and it requires minimal pesticides, fertilizers, or water.
Being very high in protein, hemp seed could also be recognised as a substitute for imported soya and included in the protein scheme as urged by Kate Carmody. Like flax, hemp is used as rotational crops and green manures, providing additional benefits to a sustainable agricultural system.
Regarding sheep farming, the current system leads most farmers to specialise either in the production of meat and dairy products or wool. A more sustainable approach would be to promote sheep farming that caters to multiple production sectors simultaneously, as promoted by Deirdre Lane. This would offer numerous benefits, including the avoidance of precious raw material waste, the potential for breeders to derive 100% value from their activity, and support for the protection of native breeds that can meet a community's diverse needs, from food to textile production.
Last but not least, as meat consumption in Europe tends to decrease, diversification offers breeders the opportunity to proactively seek out new outlets. By embracing this approach, sheep farmers can remain competitive and adapt to changing market conditions.
Left, speakers and participants discussing after the round table / Right, exhibition of raw materials, textiles and a photo report alongside the round table © Adèle Violette
To mitigate any negative externalities associated with the textile industry's development, implementing medium-scale infrastructures at the county level is the other solution promoted by the speakers we gathered. The example of AppleOak illustrates how this approach limits development to what the land and resources can support. However, financing and supporting medium-scale projects remains a challenge, hindering local self-sufficiency. This is were the idea of a cooperative arises again.
Very early in the discussion, Kate Carmody put forward a compelling idea: the creation of an Irish social cooperative dedicated to the production of 100% locally-sourced fibres. She drew inspiration from the French CUMAs (Cooperative d’Utilisation de Matériel Agricole, i.e Cooperative for the Use of Agricultural Equipment); an approach she discovered during a rural resilience gathering hosted by ARC2020 and partners in Brittany, France in September 2022.
CUMAs' principle is simple: to help farmers reduce their costs by sharing machinery and equipment, as well as promoting collaboration.
The cooperative works by pooling resources and purchasing or leasing equipment needed by their members. The members then pay a fee to use the equipment based on the amount of time they use it.
The fees collected are used to cover the costs of maintaining and operating the equipment. CUMAs also provide a range of services to their members, including training, advice, and assistance with administrative tasks.
Last very interesting aspect: the CUMAs are open to all types of farms, conventional or organic, large or small. They are therefore spaces for sharing ideas and experiences between professionals, helping the emergence of solutions to accompany transitions designed by and for farmers.
This risk- and cost-sharing model has a number of advantages in relation to the problems previously mentioned concerning the (re)structuring of an Irish textile production sector.
According to Kate, one of the most interesting is the possibility of obtaining more substantial funding. The cooperative would bring together a wide range of players spread across the country (associations, companies, farms), giving the project a national scope that would be more likely to attract public and private funding.
Another advantage is of a more political nature, linked to the need to invent new agricultural and rural development models. The cooperative would provide a space for collective reflection and action on the issues of growing, processing and waste associated with textile production. It would also be part of an approach promoting the sustainability of small and medium-sized production units, located in a specific area and respecting its specific needs and limitations.
Last but not least, the cooperative would be based on a priority concern for local cultivated biodiversity, thus acting in favour of its regeneration. In fact, all the speakers invited to take part in our round table at the Feeding Ourselves event were involved in textile production projects that precisely had their roots in a commitment to plants.
100% Irish-grown textiles, from seed to fibre: that’s what’s at stake. And once again, seeds are becoming the driving force behind a movement for rural regeneration.
Next October 27, on the occasion of the 18th Let’s Liberate Diversity Forum in Dublin, we will be discussing further the project of creating an Irish textile production social cooperative, with Irish partners and others.
An exhibition will introduce attendees to some of the native dye plants grown in the gardens of the Irish Seed Savers, as well as traditional dyeing techniques preserved by Apple Oak Fiber Works.
We will be happy to welcome anyone interested in the project and will of course talk about it in a future article!