The Irish food industry sells itself as the home of green, environmentally-friendly farming. Yet it is home to only 1,787 certified organic farmers – around 2pc of the total number of farmers and well below the European average of 5-6pc.
Tthe General Secretary of the Department of Agriculture recently said there are “significant market opportunities” for Irish organic produce and cited a recent Trade Mission to Asia where one high-end supermarket said the demand for organic produce is growing by 30pc a year.
Yet, with just 1,787 organic farmers in Ireland, our ability to export extensive volumes of produce is limited. One infant formula producer which uses Irish milk powder cannot source enough volumes of organic milk powder in Ireland and sources it abroad.
However, Grace Maher, of the Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association (IOFGA) said part of the problem with the low number of organic farmers lies with the Department of Agriculture.
She said that there is currently no organic scheme for farmers to join, despite over 500 farmers joining the Organic Scheme last year.
“Last year there was a 60pc increase in payments under the Organic Farming Scheme – which brought Ireland more on a par with the rest of Europe in terms of government support – and we had an unprecedented numbers come into organic farming. In total, 504 farmers came into organic farming in 2015.”
However, she said that five-year Scheme has now closed and there is no funding for new farmers looking to join an organic scheme.
Figures from the Department of Agriculture show that the number of organic producers in Ireland has rinse from 1,277 in 2013 to 1, 787 this year.
The Department also said that the current budget for the Organic Farming Scheme has been fully committed, if additional funds in the Rural Development Programme become available, it will look at the re-opening of the Organic Scheme.
Other supports which remain open include the Organic Capital Investment Scheme under TAMS II which provides grants for a very wide range of on-farm investments by organic farmers, offering a standard 40% rate of aid and 60% in the case of young organic farmers.
According to Grace, of the 504 farmers who entered the scheme in 2015, there was a wide geographic spread, but the vast majority are involved in beef and sheep production.
Keeping farmers in organic production is not an issue, she said, it’s getting them in that’s the problem.
“Very few farmers leave organic farming, people may initially be attracted to the sector because of the OFS payment but once they are in the vast majority of them stay as they like the system of farming.”
Farmers, she said, are very slow to convert to organic as many feel they are farming very close to organically, but don’t bother with the additional process and paperwork that is involved to get certified, and that directly affects the numbers of farmers converting to organic production.
But, for most farmers, she says turning organic would involve very little change except for a reduction in fertiliser usage.
“If the Government indicated that there was support for new farmers coming into the sector that would happen as there are farmers waiting in the wings to come into organics.”
The Organic Farming Scheme currently running in Ireland is a five-year scheme, with a two-year conversion period. During the two-year conversion, farmers must farm organically but their produce cannot be sold with an organic label on it.
To compensate for this possible as many farmers will initially reduce stocking rates and not receive an organic premium, farmers are eligible for supports of €220/ha for grassland farms and then €170/ha for the next three years.
Figures from Kantar show that in 2016 organic food sales grew by 23pc in Ireland in the large supermarkets.
The European organic market is valued at €24bn, according to Grace and from an Irish perspective if you have an organic logo on the Irish green image you have a massive market on our doorstep.
Ireland needs more organic tillage farmers, according to Grace as there is a big demand for organic cereals.
“Organically certified animals must be fed organic feed so if concentrates are fed they must be certified organic including protein crops, and at the moment we are heavily reliant on imports to meet this need”
Ireland though, she said, is very good at producing organic meat products, especially beef and lamb. Around 40pc of the organic Irish beef produced here is exported.
Because direct sales of organic produce command higher prices, many organic producers sell directly and not through supermarkets. According to Grace, the majority, around 75pc of organic fruit and vegetables in supermarkets are imported, and there are obvious opportunities there for farmers who wish to produce Irish organic products to meet the market demand for them.