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How specialist support and advice is boosting the viability of organic farms

A Department of Agriculture and EU partnership is delivering tangible results for organics farmers, reports Grace Maher

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Collective: The shared knowledge from  the MOPS project is improving quality and profits for its member, says Liam Ryan

Collective: The shared knowledge from the MOPS project is improving quality and profits for its member, says Liam Ryan

Emmet Dunne

Emmet Dunne

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Collective: The shared knowledge from the MOPS project is improving quality and profits for its member, says Liam Ryan

Moyleabbey organic farm in Ballytore, Co. Kildare is one of the 11 farms participating in MOPS - a European Innovation Partnership (EIP) project that is co-funded by the Department of Agriculture and the European Commission (see panel below).

It grows approximately 20 different seasonal fruit and vegetable crops. The business model is based on selling directly to the customer via their farm shop on Fridays and at the local Carlow Farmers Market on Saturdays.

"As a full-time grower, you face many challenges, and our priority here at Moyleabbey has always been the taste and quality of what we grow," says farm owner Liam Ryan.

"Being part of the MOPS project has really helped us to further improve on that. The level of crop recording required for the project has been really beneficial to us as a small farm business because it has enabled us to really understand what we are doing on a day-to-day level.

"We now choose specific varieties based on our market requirements and follow a dedicated cropping plan to ensure our supply meets demand. It has resulted in us becoming more efficient in our approach as we no longer make decisions on the run - everything is recorded allowing us to make informed decisions.

"The result is better-quality food and improved yields, while also significantly reducing crop waste. By using this approach we have demonstratively improved the economic viability of our small farm.

"Working with the crop agronomist and the MOPS team to carry out soil, compost and leaf analysis, and using refractometers to test for crop sugars has radically improved our approach to growing fruit and vegetables.

"Having that specialist advice available to us has really improved our overall crop agronomy.

"I think that is the same for all of the 11 participating farms. There is a lot of sharing of information regarding organic production among the growers, which is very useful and practical - it's really rewarding to see people trying to help each other out.

"Being involved in a project for three years really allows you to monitor your progress at farm level and gives you the opportunity to work closely with other growers and scientists, and then you can take that knowledge to really improve what you are doing on your farm."

Dunne Organics

Liam's views are shared by Emmet Dunne, who followed his father Leo into the horticulture industry in Durrow, Co Laois where they grow and supply organic and non-organic vegetables for the major multiples.

Emmet (pictured below) runs the organic aspect of the business, taking care of everything from crop planning to distribution.

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Emmet Dunne

Emmet Dunne

Emmet Dunne

 

"Being part of the MOPS project has really opened my eyes to the potentials in the organic sector. The growers on the operational group of MOPS are from big and small vegetable farms, and the transfer of knowledge has been really excellent," he says.

"We are so busy on the ground that it is often difficult to keep up to date with new developments in terms of varieties and technical issues, so to have access to best practice in the organic sector both in terms of theoretical and practical information is very valuable.

"As a company that supplies into the larger retailers, we know our market in terms of matching supply to demand.

"Some of the other growers on MOPS are supplying into a greater variety of retail markets and are more closely linked to consumers and therefore the emerging trends in the sector. This sharing of knowledge within MOPS is really beneficial for all the growers.

"For us in particular it has prompted us to look at expanding our crop range and include crops such as garlic and celery, thereby increasing Irish supply into the organic market.

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"I can also share information with growers with regard to supplying some of the bigger markets, and collectively it has resulted in keeping supply moving and avoiding flushes and shortages during the season.

"This has worked very well while at the same time dramatically improving farm efficiencies for growers.

"Access to the technical and practical knowledge from the rest of MOPS has enabled us to introduce new aspects into the business, such as our glasshouse production which is a very welcome addition to the business.

"MOPS has encouraged us to push our production levels as much as possible."

Despite the different volume, scale and markets that the 11 farms supply, working together on MOPS has highlighted some common problems.

These include balancing the costs of labour and mechanisation of crops, the importance of managing crop nutrition in organic production and challenges of adapting to changing markets such as those presented by Covid-19.

Having access to MOPS has ensured that these growers have a network in which to identify, share and solve problems at farm level, thereby helping to achieve some of the aims of the overall EIP-AGRI programme.

Grace Maher is development officer with the Irish Organic Association, grace.maher@irishoa.ie

 

Putting the theory into practice at ground level

The EIP-AGRI programme was launched by the EU Commission in 2012 to move towards smart, sustainable and inclusive growth in the agricultural sector.

It was envisaged as a coming together of expertise in academic institutions, researchers and farmers to form partnerships working from the bottom up to solve issues in the agricultural sector.

In Ireland the Department of Agriculture has approved and funded 23 EIP projects which are working in a diverse range of areas all over the country.

Maximising Organic Production Systems (MOPS) is one such project that works with 11 certified organic horticulture farms of varying sizes and cropping capacity.

“MOPS as a project concept took fruition when a group of our farmers contacted the Irish Organic Association with concerns about their individual farm capacity to meet the increasing demand for organic horticultural products,” explains Gillian Westbrook, project Manager and CEO of the IOA.

“This was the key reason we decided to engage with the EIP-AGRI initiative, and two years on we are really seeing improvements at farm level.”

One aim of the project is to shorten supply chains by encouraging the farms to work collaboratively and improve farm viability.

Research and development in organic farming production methods is almost non-existent in Ireland.

This means that many farmers are keen to get involved in projects such as MOPS, as they see the benefits that it can deliver to them and their individual businesses in terms of knowledge intensification and practical efficiencies.


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