A winning altitude to organic farming

Waterford man uses unique location to tap into high-end market

Hardy Galloway and Belted Galloway cattle breeds.
Hardy Galloway and Belted Galloway cattle breeds.

Caitriona Murphy

As consumer focus moves towards sustainability and environmentally friendly food production, organic farming is on the up.

Waterford farmer Joe Condon and his wife, Eileen, are well aware of what the consumer wants and are targeting the premium end of the market for their beef.

However, the pair have gone one step further by using their location at the foot of the Knockmealdown Mountains as a unique selling point.

In 1992, after returning from work in New York, the couple acquired a rambling tract of hilly land on which they have been raising and selling organic Galloway beef direct to the consumer ever since.

Steeped in tradition, the hills on which their farm is set have provided shelter for homesteaders and cattle alike since the Bronze Age.

Taking the cue from his surroundings, Joe has branded his meat as 100pc organic produce with added benefits from the omega 3-enriched native grasses on the hills.

The vigorous grass species his cattle graze on are unique to upland farming and have never been fertilised or sprayed with chemicals.

Using hardy Galloway and Belted Galloway cattle breeds, Joe has developed a unique style of farming that he calls 'upland grazing'.

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Originating in Scotland, Galloways are tough and hardy creatures with a double coat of hair that means they can live outdoors all year round and thrive on the tough mountain grasses on Joe's farm.

"These cattle are genetically designed for a place like this," says Joe. "I couldn't ask for better."

A special derogation from the Department of Agriculture allows the herd to be grazed outdoors all year round, but they also have free access to sheds for the harshest days of winter.

"But they rarely come in, even during snow in winter," he says.

Since he took over, the farm has been extended to include the original 100ac farm, as well as access to 2,000ac of commonage land.

The land carries 80-90 animals every year, between suckler cows and finishing animals. However, Joe plans to outsource the suckler cows to a network of other organic farmers to allow him to concentrate on the finishing aspect.

Heifers are finished at around 24 months, while steers are finished at around 30 months. The carcass weight is typically 240kg -- or the equivalent of a conventional butcher's heifer.

The animals are slaughtered by artisan butcher Michael McGrath in Lismore. To preserve the pure organic status of the meat, Joe's animals are slaughtered first on the day of slaughter, and, after butchering, are kept separate from conventional beef.

The meat is dry aged for 14 days, hand cut, wrapped and blast frozen before being delivered direct to the consumer, who can order the cuts online.

The meat is sold as 100pc organic Galloway steak burgers, steak mince, topside round stir fry, cubed topside round steak, fillet steak, striploin steak and sirloin steak.

Joe also sells at the Dungarvan Farmers' Market every Thursday and at Ardkeen, in Waterford, once a month.

Not content with creating a successful business, Joe has submitted a proposal to the Department of Agriculture to create a recognised standard for upland conservation grazing.

'Organics with Altitude' aims to create a network of upland farms producing beef, lamb and even honey that would have EU certification as being 100pc organic, environmentally friendly and completely sustainable.

If just 1pc of the upland area of Ireland was converted to this type of farming, Joe estimates that Irish agriculture would benefit to the tune of €20m in annual revenue.

"This land is under-grazed and underused but could be exploited to create a fantastic opportunity for farmers," he insists.

Joe Condon's website is www.omegabeefdirect.ie

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