Healthy profits: how this Laois couple are making a success out of flaxseed – Farm Ireland

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Kathleen and John Irwin’s small farm has never been a traditional one. The Co Laois couple produce one of the most important health food products in the country: flaxseed.

“We both come from farming backgrounds. I grew up on a farm that was once a flax mill where the stem of the flax plant was made into linen cloth,” says Kathleen.
“When we got married, my husband had some land and we decided to turn it organic and started to grow flaxseed.

“We also grow a small amount of oats, mainly for our own use.”
Kathleen and John also ran a water bottling business from the farm for 20 years, using water from their spring.
Kathleen became increasingly interested in health foods and superfoods grown naturally, as well as becoming more self-sufficient.

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Kathleen with dried flax

Kathleen with dried flax

“I was always interested in health and wellness and I discovered, from study, that the oil in flaxseed is high in Omega 3, which protects and insulates the body’s blood cells,” she says.
“When your cells have a full saturation level of Omega 3 around them, it’s difficult for infection to get into the cell.”
Flax likes moisture-retaining soil, making it perfect for the Irish climate.
“We decided to plant 10 acres of flax in the first year and built a production unit on the farm,” she says.

The first year, the crop grew well, coming off grass, and the second year was harder as they had a lot more weeds.
“Flax is naturally a slim, elegant plant which doesn’t compete with weeds very well. So, on the third year, we had to under-crop with another low-growing plant, to subdue the weeds,” she says.

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Kathleen with some of her products

Kathleen with some of her products

The business, Adora Farm, began producing three health food product: flax seed, ground flaxseed and flaxseed oil.
They use a grinder specifically made for seed. The ground seed is then packaged for retail.
The flaxseed oil is extracted by cold-pressing the seed using a mechanical press which does not heat. It is important not to heat the oil in the process as it affects Omega 3.
“Omega 3 can go rancid very quickly, so it has to be handled with care and never heated,” Kathleen says.
“The oil is sold in dark glass bottles to protect it from the sunlight and it must be kept in the fridge.”

Adora Farm’s produce can be purchased online at www.adorafarm.com and through selected health food shops, countrywide. Kathleen and John use a courier service to dispatch deliveries.
Because the Irwins were the first in Ireland to grow organic flaxseed and make products from it, they had to do all their own research before starting the business.
“We didn’t really have a huge reserve of knowledge on growing flax to draw from at that time because nobody else had been doing this.
“We’ve learned as we’ve gone along and got advice from local farmers on growing crops generally, which would have some similarities and has been extremely helpful,” says Kathleen.
The flaxseed is planted in the second week of April, when all chance of frost has gone, and is ready for harvest by mid-September.
“We don’t use any sprays or pesticides as we are totally organic, so this makes the need to monitor weeds even more important,” she says.

Challenging
“Although it’s relatively maintenance-free, it is a challenging crop to grow.”
It is just the top of the plant that is harvested, leaving the stem in the ground. Shortly after, a topper is used to top the remaining stem, which then decomposes back into the earth, fertilising the ground in turn.
Flaxseed isn’t the only nourishing crop the Irwins grow.
“We did a trial growing lentils this year in conjunction with another organic farmer who also grows other crops for us,” says Kathleen. “We’re still in the early stages of learning about the crop.

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Brown flaxseed at Adora

Brown flaxseed at Adora

“I’ve also been growing small amounts of herbs, fennel and sage mostly with more for next year.
“Sage tea is comforting for the soul and full of anti-oxidants as well as being anti-microbial in the body. Fennel tea is good for the nerves and for when the body has had a shock, which is useful for the times, we are living in.
“From this year on we will be growing a crop of dandelions — they have a vast array of health benefits, which I hope to explore in more detail.
“Every part of a dandelion is useful — the leaves, stem and roots.”
Q&A: ‘Since we started, it seems there has either been too much rain or too little’
What level of start-up costs did you incur?
It took around €350,000 to establish the business.
How long did it take to get your business off the ground?
All in all, it took two and a half to three years to get everything ready and start retailing our products.
Was financing available from the banks?
Yes, bank financing was readily available and is for various types of on-farm businesses.
What grant aid or other assistance was available?
We received support from the Local Enterprise Office.
What supports bodies/agencies were available to help?
Because we were the first to do this, advice was scarce for this sort of venture. For us, it was all about doing our own research and learning as we went along but we did find the LEO immensely helpful.
Was planning permission required?
Yes, for the premises. There were various requirements we had to meet in order to get the planning permission which is just all part of the planning process.
Was insurance required?
Yes, we needed business insurance and product insurance.
What has been your biggest challenge to date?
Navigating the weather. It seems as though, since we started, there has either been too much rain or too little.
The year of the drought was particularly hard on us because flax is a plant which thrives in moisture retaining soil.
When there isn’t enough moisture in the earth, less oil is produced by the seed.

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A range of products at Adora Flax

A range of products at Adora Flax

If you could go back in time, is there anything you would have done differently?
No, everything I did has been part of the whole journey of working with a rare and beneficial plant, the journey involved in anything that we do, is what makes us who we are.
What are your future hopes for your farm?
The fact that I get to produce products which are beneficial both physically and emotionally for people gives me a great sense of satisfaction.
My plan is to continue to integrate more of nature into our workings on the farm, making the farm a place for the soul to rejuvenate itself and heal, physically, emotionally and mentally.

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