Graham Harris is happy to be ‘enhancing and encouraging life rather than trying to wipe everything out’ since switching his sheep and tillage farm in Kildare to organic
Graham Harris switched to organic on January 1, 2019 after 20 years of conventional farming, and he can’t understand why he didn’t do it earlier.
“Honestly, I don’t know why it took me so long to convert, particularly since my brother has been an organic farmer for almost 20 years now and has been a great repository of information and guidance for me,” says the Kildare man.
“I suppose when I was younger, I was focusing on big outputs and high yields, so organic did not appeal to me.
“However, over the years I realised that continually pushing the farming system to achieve big yields resulted in big off-takes and required more and more inputs to realise those yields.
“Also, I found it very disheartening to be producing products that essentially no-one wanted, and prices barely covered production costs.
“It felt like a big leap leaving chemical farming behind as that was all I had known, but I had been watching organic farming from the sidelines for a long time, and when the Organic Farming Scheme opened in 2018 it felt like it was the right time to make a move — it was the direction that I wanted to take the farm in.
“By converting to organics I hope I can access a market that is expanding and where people are prepared to pay a little more to farmers for the quality of the food they produce.”
Graham is halfway through his second year of conversion with the Irish Organic Association. All going well on January 1 he will have his full organic licence and can sell his products directly into the organic market.
Approximately 60 acres of his farm at Donadea is in grassland, with 70ac in tillage. Graham has 140 ewes and 160 lambs and is moving increasingly towards the Belclare breed.
“Converting to organic, one of the main concerns is stocking rates, which was not an issue for me as I am stocked relatively low, but this is certainly something that must be an important consideration,” he says.
“Grass productivity is another concern — you worry that you will not have enough grass. However, I have been amazed at how the clover has performed; whether it is the organic clover varieties I cannot say for certain.
“The clover/ryegrass fields are outperforming any conventional grass fields I had and pushed really hard to yield well in the past.
“The sheep just thrived this year and half the lambs are already sold.
“The only grass field that did not do well was a modern re-seed; my plan in the future is to sow herbal leys such as yarrow and chicory for their anthelmintic properties for the sheep.”
Arable crops on the farm include 34acres of spring oats that were sown on April 1.
“All of my spring crops were sown late this year due to the very wet spring,” says Graham. “The oats are a blend from Western Seeds and are doing well to date and not showing drought stress yet.
“On April 4 I sowed a combicrop of oats, barley and peas which looks well with a good colour. Then on April 9 I sowed oats, peas and linseed which have not done as well, illustrating the difference a week can make with crops.
“I am assuming that the root structure was not as well developed and therefore is suffering some drought pressure.
“Peas are a new crop for me so that has been interesting; the combicrop is harvested together so hopefully that will not present too many challenges.
“Finally, I sowed some spring wheat with the future option of supplying a local organic poultry farmer.”
Some of the oats grown are fed to the ewes, with the majority for human consumption as porridge oatlets.
The plan is to sell the combicrops into the organic feed market as there is a shortage of Irish-grown organic cereals.
As a certified organic farmer, you are subject to an annual inspection and additional paperwork for your licence, but Graham does not think this should put anyone off converting.
“Starting off, you are anxious that you will get something wrong, but there is help along the way,” he says.
“I do think that you need to be a certain mindset, and from what I have seen so far there is a more positive vibe in organics: farmers appear more upbeat and are happy to help with advice and information.
“You need to be passionate about what you are trying to achieve as a farmer, and farming in this way has forced me to spend more time planning what is happening on the farm, be that in designing rotations or fertility management.
“I think that is a good thing as I am aiming to build up the health of the soil and plants by enhancing and encouraging life rather than trying to wipe everything out —which is how I felt latterly as a conventional farmer.”
Grace Maher is a development officer with the Irish Organic Association
AS well as outlining ambitions in terms of reducing the levels of pesticides, fertilisers and anti-microbials used in conventional farming, the Farm to Fork document set a target of 25pc of EU land to be certified organic by 2030.
Ireland currently has just 2.4pc of agricultural land certified organic.
There are many misconceptions about organic farming in Ireland, some of which centre on the conversion process.
The conversion period is two years, and then you can receive your organic licence. All organic farmers receive an annual inspection to retain their organic licence.
As organic farming is a very different way of farming there are challenges with conversion.