Farm Ireland

Sunday 25 February 2018

Attitudes changing as farmers see the value of going 'organic'

Pat Barry

In the not so distant past conventional farmers would have looked down on their organic farmer colleagues as a bunch of ideological, tree-hugging, sandal-wearing hippies whose aim was to religiously pursue the green agenda.

This thinking has changed over the past number of years thanks in no small part to the Organic Demonstration Farm Open Days held during the summer months. These open days, which are organised by Teagasc and Department of Agriculture, showcase what is best about organic farming systems. All enterprises are covered and many conventional farmers leave these events with a changed attitude to the "green" option.

Organic farmers will tell you that when they convert they are often viewed with scepticism by their neighbours, but this quickly changes to admiration when the animals continue to thrive, crops continue to grow and the farm is not overcome with weeds.

Indeed, neighbours are often envious when they are told that the system is more profitable than it was in the past as the gap between input costs and products sold widens.

In order for an organic farming system to be profitable and to maintain levels of production as high as possible the farmer will need to be aware of the nutrient value of animal manures, the importance of clover and the need for high levels of animal welfare.

As well as that, the farmer needs to be able to produce products which are in demand and at times of the year that consumers are willing to purchase them. The farmer needs to always have an eye of the person that is purchasing their product and paying a premium price for it.

Conventional farmers can definitely learn from their organic colleagues who farm with no artificial fertilisers, no sprays and reduced veterinary inputs. Remember, none of us has a monopoly on knowledge.

Markets for organic produce have held up well despite the recession -- this will be examined in more detail in later articles. National Organic Week (September 13-19) will allow people the opportunity to see what organic produce is available locally. Events are organised nationwide and times and venues can be found on

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Organic farming is a system of farming which avoids the use of soluble fertilisers, pesticides, growth regulators, feed additives and other chemicals. The organic farmer relies on the use of crop rotations, animal manure, clover, low stocking rates and good animal husbandry for producing outputs. The natural immunity of plants and animals are used to combat disease whenever possible.

The organic tillage farmer and vegetable grower aim to have a high level of organic matter and a high level of biological life in the soil. Excellent husbandry, farm management and planning skills are required as quick-fix chemical and pharmaceutical solutions are no longer an option.

There is a perception that organic farming is difficult, contains a lot of red tape, demanding on labour and only returns low levels of productivity. The reality is different. The best organic farmers using good husbandry and management skills can achieve stocking rates up to 1.8lu/ha. In terms of paperwork, detailed records must be kept, but most farmers in REPS are already familiar with this type of record keeping.

There are several factors which make organic farming profitable:

  • Premium price for produce -- need to produce what the market demands;
  • Maximising organic farming scheme payments;
  • Maintaining current levels of productivity;
  • Minimising the use of expensive inputs.

Basic principles of organic farming are:

  • Maintenance and enhancement of natural soil fertility and soil biodiversity;
  • Minimum use of non-renewable resources and off-farm inputs;
  • Efficient recycling of nutrients around the farm;
  • Maintenance of animal health by encouraging natural defences, and the selection of appropriate breeds and practices;
  • Observance of a high level of livestock welfare;
  • Maintenance of plant health by preventative measures, eg choice of species and varieties resistant to pests/diseases.

These principles will be considered in greater detail in future articles.

Considering the switch?

If a farmer is considering making the switch to organic it is vital that they gather as much information as possible and make an informed decision.

Prospective organic farmers should first consult their REPS planner or advisor to determine suitability. Farmers should visit some of the organic farming demonstration farm open days where one will see organic production systems at first hand and meet other organic farmers, personnel from the organic certification bodies, the organic unit of Department of Agriculture and the Teagasc Organic Specialist Advisory Team.

Teagasc also run a series of 25-hour courses entitled "Principles of Organic Farming" which give basic training for organic farmers, who are now required to join the Organic Farming Scheme. Teagasc also has a range of literature available and publishes a regular newsletter with timely tips for organic farmers.

Irish Independent