'Conventional farming wasn't paying the bills - then my eyes were opened to organic'
'We are so far behind Europe in our organic farming practices," says Monaghan-based organic beef and tillage farmer Mark Gillanders.
This is not something new, and it was a topic discussed in depth during the Bio Farm 2019 conference in Portlaoise last week.
"It's a no-brainer - organic farming - yet there is still such a small uptake in farmers converting to organics here in Ireland," Mark adds. "I don't understand it."
Ten years ago Mark, 44, made the switch from conventional farming after a tough few years struggling to make ends meet. He says he has no regrets. In fact he says it was the best move he ever made.
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"Conventional farming wasn't paying the bills and my kitchen installation business was in trouble during the recession. Plus I had just built a house and a lot of new sheds and I was needlessly spending a fortune on fertiliser."
It was thanks to the sound advice from his Teagasc advisor Jane McConlon that he plucked up the courage to switch.
"She started to open up my eyes as to what could be done."
Financially, he says, it was well worth it. The process began in 2009 and by 2011 he was fully compliant.
Much has changed since then and Mark now feels so much more positive about farming into the future.
"Yes it was restrictive at the time but now I find it invigorating. It has given me a new interest in farming."
Mark is married to Tanya and together they have three daughters, Lana (10), Clara (8) and Martha (5).
Mark's father Joe ran a small dairy farm on 47 acres until 2004 when he took early retirement. That year the dairy herd was sold off and Mark concentrated solely on beef.
"For a good few years the farm was only a sideline, but when the kitchen business - which I operated from the farm - took a hit it was time to think outside the box.
"My father had reservations at the beginning, but he is impressed at the way everything has worked out."
In 2011 Mark began to grow his own organic grain. He started out with two and a half acres of winter wheat which he could feed to his own cattle.
"I would sell off yearlings in the spring so by growing my own meal I could save a lot of money."
Organic tillage farming now accounts for over half of his business, thanks largely to the fact that the abundance of shallow soil in the area does not make it suitable for large-scale operations.
"In fact there's little or no tillage here so in the past few years I've been expanding to grow more and more to sell to local farmers."
Initially working off those 47ac Mark now farms almost 140ac 90 of which is leased, in three blocks.
"Presently I have about 65 cattle between sucklers, calves and stores. I will still buy in cattle each year but overall I intend to reduce those numbers. Organic tillage is accounting for a lot of my day now."
Mark has been finishing his own organic beef since 2016. That year he decided to close his kitchen-making business.
Mark prefers to grow all spring crops and this year has sown 32ac of a combi-crop, with the remainder in spring oats which he will supply to Flahavans.
"I find that this has worked really well in recent years and there is a big demand for a combi-crop of wheat and barley with peas," he says.
By rotating crops regularly Mark ensures the soil stays in good condition.
"Combi-crops when rotated are resilient to disease and they balance the soil," he explains
Having seen the benefits of converting to organic, Mark is keen to spread the good word. He recently completed a masters in organic farming through Scotland's Rural College (SRUC) and this, he said, has opened doors to a lot of ideas.
"I completed my thesis on milk in Ireland and a plan for organic farming for 2025. Realistically by then 7pc of Irish milk could be organic," he says.
Mark says that more research farms operating without nitrogen are needed in Ireland.
"We now see students who are completing their Green Cert looking to get into organic farming but there's not enough information out there for them."
For Mark, the future is bright and he now has a stable income for his family.
"I can have a regular income by selling grain all winter and beef in the spring with a lot less expense. I am glad to say my gross margins are well up," he says.
"At the end of the day every farmer wants to get paid for what they do - subsidies are only a band-aid."
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