Farm Ireland

Sunday 24 March 2019

'We felt we had to do something different' - why this couple turned to organic

Reaping no rewards from conventional farming, this couple turned to organic

Alan Ward and Emma Hennessy are hopeful of their future in organic farming
Alan Ward and Emma Hennessy are hopeful of their future in organic farming
Grace Maher

Grace Maher

Alan Ward and Emma Hennessy switched to organic farming this year as conventional farming was just not lucrative for them.

"Simply put, we were not making any money growing conventional barley and oats for animal feed," said Alan.

Farming in Ballylinnen just outside of Castlecomer, in Co Kilkenny, the couple joined the third tranche of the OFS at the end of 2018, and began farming organically on January 1, 2019.

While it is still early days the young pair are enthusiastic about the journey ahead. Having both grown up on farms they are keen for this new venture to work.

They farm approximately 70acres of land, a combination of bought land and a small portion of rented land. Alan also works off-farm in engineering.

Emma, who is currently studying a post-graduate in finance, explains their reason to switch. "There was no return at all once costs were accounted for, to us that is not a sustainable system of farming. You need some rewards for farming the land," she stated.

In addition to the cereal crops they also had Friesian and Angus bullocks, which were bought in spring and sold in autumn. Alan grew up on a mixed dairy, beef and tillage farm just down the road.

Having attended a talk by organic dairy farmer Brendan Gildea from Tuam, who milks a large herd of cows using three robots, his interest in the potential of organic farming was stimulated. "I felt that if he could do it then it had potential for us on this land.

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"Last year I attended some of the Field Talk walks held by the IOA and saw first hand how farmers were managing individual organic farms. I have to say I was impressed both in terms of grassland management and overall farm output versus input costs," said Alan.

When they bought the land in 2014 there was no accompanying sheds so they intend to put up a purpose-built shed later this year to finish approximately 50 animals.

Like all new entrants to organic farming there is a two-year conversion period where you must farm organically but cannot sell into the organic market. Once you have your full organic symbol then you can access the organic market.

Alan and Emma intend to buy in organic animals in March for finishing later in the year. Aware that they will be supplying into the organic market in two years, the couple are watching the development of the organic market with interest and researching the best options for them.

Initially in the cereal ground Alan wants to grow a barley/peas combination and wholecrop it for livestock feed.

Then in his third year he will grow organic oats for the expanding porridge market.

"I plan to maintain fertility by growing red clover and perennial ryegrass. I have access to farmyard manure and slurry from my brother who is a dairy farmer so that should work well. If I look after the soil then I am hoping that it will look after everything else.

"I have done some research mainly online, and can see how organic farming can work well. For me I think the biggest challenge will be weed control, so if I can control them with a good robust rotation and management practices then I will be happy.

"It has to be better than conventional farming, we felt that we had to do something different anyway to get a different result," he said.

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