'These animals essentially live with nature - there's no mass production'
My Week: Will and Joe Condon
Will Condon thinks his father Joe's decision to set up an organic Galloway herd on the foothills of the Knockmealdown Mountains in the mid 90s was ahead of its time and brave.
"What my father has created here over the last 20-odd years is something special. The animals essentially live with nature - there's no mass production," says Will, who farms with his father and mother Eileen while juggling a full-time job as a biomedical engineer.
Joe, who is originally from Ballymacarbry on the Waterford and Tipperary border, worked in construction in Manhattan in the 80s before returning to Ireland with his wife Eileen in 1992.
He spent the next few years working in construction, but having grown up on a typical mixed farm, he was keen to get back to working the land.
"Land came up in the area which I bought and I also got access to the commonage area of the mountains. I went in to farming full-time then, as it really does require serious commitment and I didn't want my focus to be split," says Joe.
He felt the decision to rear a Galloway herd made sense from the start as their hardy condition makes them suited to the mountain terrain.
"I did a lot of research on the Galloways and found that they would work the best. They've a double coat of hair, the longer outer coat sheds water off them when it rains.
"They graze continually and the diet the mountain provides them also works and they are able to trample the bracken. I bought them from all over the country from the likes of Leitrim, Donegal and the Burren to ensure that the herd would be constituted of the best of the breed in the country."
He also felt that organic was the best way for the farm to have a sustainable future. "I looked at the land and thought I could be using inputs for the rest of my days, but all the nutrients would just get washed away anyway as it's on a slope.
"The organic system allows us to stick as closely to the natural production cycle as possible and farm with nature."
In an effort to be "price makers, not price takers", Joe and Eileen set up the Omega Beef Direct brand in the early 2000s to sell their produce directly to customers.
"It really has stood the test of time for us now and we get great feedback. We supply local cafes and, most recently, the Urban Co-op in Limerick City, which allows us to reach a different type of consumer," says Joe.
Joe adds that the meat is butchered by the "top class" Michael McGrath based in Lismore.
"Customers are very interested in the healthy properties of grass-fed beef and its importance for gut health."
Joe was recognised by the 'Farming for Nature' initiative last year for his commitment to sustainable upland farming.
The recent challenges of a proposed Mercosur deal, climate targets and a possible no-deal Brexit could have the effect of "waking the beef industry up from a slumber" and mobilising farmers, says Joe.
"We saw from recent protests that farmers are ready for action and can gather themselves as a tribe. I think suckler cows are essential for Ireland.
"If the urban green agenda keeps attacking farming, the next one to come under fire will be dairy. People need to become more connected to where their food is coming from."
Joe is an advocate of the INHFA's recently published 10-Point Plan for the suckler sector which, if followed by the Government, it could provide a "tremendous future" for the sector.
"The INHFA has already launched their Atlantic Hill Lamb product. I think a branded suckler beef product is something the Government needs to look in to more," says Joe.
At present, only two per cent of Irish farmers are organic. Joe thinks there is definitely more scope for this figure to grow. "There could be a lot more organic farmers in Ireland, but there's scope for all types of farmers - extensive, intensive, dairy, beef. We should all stand together."
Both Joe and Will say working together in the organic system suits their lifestyle well.
"We might have to roar at each other sometimes, like all families working together do, but it works very well for us," says Will who works in the Munster region, fitting surgical equipment in hospitals.
"If it was another more intensive system, it might be harder because you're relying on one big sale or cheque each year.
"I come to the farm to de-stress because it is so connected with nature and what we do is very ethical."
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