Friday 30 September 2016

Organic schemes pave way for farmers converting farms

Support programmes are essential for converts to organic farming

Grace Maher

Published 10/02/2016 | 02:30

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Gavin Tully

Two tranches of the Organic Farming Scheme opened in 2015 resulting in an unprecedented number of farmers converting their farms to organics.

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The second tranche closed on December 31 and while no figures have been released by the Department, current estimates are that 2pc of all Irish farmland is now farmed organically.

Global demand is increasing every year. The EU organic market alone is valued at €23bn and Irish organic produce represents a tiny percentage of that market.

We can and should do better to claim a bigger slice of the growing organic global market.

As processors bid to increase productivity, farmers who have converted are faced with a different set of challenges from switching farming systems.

While the majority of new entrants have done their homework, organic production can be very different to conventional farming methods. To quote one farmer: "you don't have the bag of fertiliser to fall back on".

The obligatory two year conversion period can be challenging so it is important that farmers have access to as much information as possible for a smooth transition.

Supports

While both the Organic Farming Scheme, and Capital Grants Scheme are vital financial supports for farmers, there are limited additional resources available.

In Ireland research in the organic sector is practically non-existent, and this needs to change if we are to have meaningful support for organic farmers. Teagasc run a series of organic farm walks, which many farmers find particularly useful.

The new knowledge transfer groups have the potential to ensure that organic farmers discuss technical issues. However, like the BTAP and STAP discussion groups, the geographical spread of farmers can make it difficult to sustain a regular discussion group.

Field Talk programme

Given these issues, the IOFGA is again running a Field Talk programme, designed primarily for new entrants to the sector. Farm walks have been an important part of informal information exchange in the organic sector for many decades.

In many ways organic farming relies a lot on instinct and farmers are anxious to get it right, so it can take a few months before people get confident with the new production methods. Being able to see how others cope with problems and find workable solutions first hand is a real advantage to new farmers.

The field talk programmes over the next few months will allow farmers talk directly to one another. Highlights will include a visit to Mary and Gerry Kelly in Mullingar.

Mary will speak about their new farm partnership, and something which is a core aspect of organic farming - animal welfare.

She will discuss the success she has had using natural medicines in treating and maintaining herd health.

Organic cereals

With increased numbers of beef farmers now farming organically there is a growing demand for home grown organic cereals especially for finishers. Conversion to organic remains low for cereal producers with many farmers reluctant to make the switch. Gavin Tully from Wexford (see panel) was one of the farmers who took the plunge in 2015.

He is more than happy with his first year in organics, so much so that he is converting the rest of his tillage ground in 2016.

Gavin will also hold a Field Talk event this year, outlining his experiences as a newcomer to the sector. He will be joined at this by Trevor Harris, an organic tillage producer for over 20 years.

Overall, the sector remains small and under-resourced.

But if we are to reach the target of 5pc as laid out in the Organic Farming Action Plan, and subsequently gain a larger share of the EU food market, it is imperative that stakeholders build on the momentum gathered in 2015 and provide as much support as possible to farmers converting to organic.

Grace Maher is development officer with IOFGA, www.iofga.org

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