Grower returns must increase to ensure the expansion of our organic food sector
This year's lower yields mean we should expect to pay more for Irish organic fruit and veg, reports Grace Maher
This year's unusual weather patterns have increased financial burdens on farmers, and with input costs rising, the months ahead will be challenging.
Vegetable growers are counting the costs from reduced yields in many crops and evaluating supply for winter markets.
Difficult questions will be asked as we try to ascertain whether this year was just an anomaly or if it is something that will be a regular occurrence in the future.
Building resilience into crop planning to deal with these scenarios is both risky and expensive. Irish growers will be looking for support from the retail chains and consumers, as prices must increase if growers are to continue to invest and expand in this important sector.
In June, a European Innovation Partnership (EIP) project started working with 11 organic growers nationwide. The EIP programme is funded and operated by the Department of Agriculture, along with the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development.
Maximising Organic Production Systems (MOPS) is working on many different focus areas, but key to the project is monitoring climate data.
Gillian Westbrook, Irish Organic Association CEO and project manager, explained: "By incorporating climate monitoring into this three-year project we can build a really accurate picture of what is happening on each of the participating farms around the country and correlate that information to what is being grown on farm.
"Using this information, the grower might choose to adapt their crop plan to their own climatic environment to maximise efficiencies at farm level, particularly in difficult years."
The combination of severe cold at the start of the spring, followed by wet conditions and then prolonged drought, have put crops under significant pressure.
John Hogan, crop agronomist on the MOPS project, said: "In extreme weather like this the plant becomes so stressed that it just shuts down and stops growing.
"Even when conditions do improve it is difficult to get the plant growing again and this has a high impact on yields.
"However, it is encouraging to see that growers with high organic matter in their soils (like some on the MOPS project) have fared better, as these soils have managed to retain higher moisture and nutrient levels and plants are less stressed, with the result that it can impact less severely on yields."
Bord Bia research shows that 34pc of organic food sales here before 2017 were fruit and vegetables, so it is vital that growers are supported by retailers and consumers in difficult growing years.
Consumption patterns during the hot summer altered as people ate more salads.
As autumn continues there will be a return towards more staple vegetable crops, and we should all expect to pay more if we want a continued supply of Irish vegetables on our shelves.
Grace Maher is development officer with the Irish Organic Association. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org