Over 70% of Irish organic lamb isn't sold as organic

As production in the sector gets set to double, our reporter looks at what needs to change

The closest major organic processor to Roscommon farmer Kevin King is over 200 miles away in Wexford. Photograph: James Flynn/APX
The closest major organic processor to Roscommon farmer Kevin King is over 200 miles away in Wexford. Photograph: James Flynn/APX
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

The figures could not be starker. Over 70pc of all organic lamb ends up in conventional channels, mixed in with the rest of the conventially produced stock coming off Irish farms.

It seems like such a waste given the 10-15pc premium that is available for organic sheep meat. The farms have borne the extra costs associated with the premium product, but have failed to clear the final hurdle required to claim the dividend.

Roscommon beef and sheep farmer Kevin King fares better than average, but his figures still give pause for thought.

He estimates that less than half of his annual crop of 160 lambs make it into organic channels.

"There's really only one decent outlet in the country, which is Irish Country Meats (ICM) in Camolin in Wexford," he explained.

"To send lambs there I need to have a minimum of 30 in a batch, and meet a fella in Moate over 65km away, where a batch is assembled to head off to Wexford.

"Maybe we're spoiled around here, but for conventional stock we have Kepak Athleague, Ballyhaunis, and Roscommon mart all effectively on our doorstep.

"There is another outlet in Cavan but again that's a four-hour round trip, and the customer has a small set-up so he isn't able to weigh them then and there, which in turn delays payment," says Mr King.

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For this reason most of Mr King's lambs are sold through the local outlets, and make the standard conventional price, which equates to 45c/kg less.

The full-time farmer notes the absence of local abattoirs that traditionally catered to farmers with smaller lots of animals to slaughter.

"It's the same for the beef - it also has to be trucked halfway across the country to be slaughtered. I think it's because they've closed down all the local abattoirs, but where is the environmental sustainability in trucking animals all over the country to get them slaughtered?" he asked.

The importance of the proximity of slaughtering facilities close to farmers is borne out by a recent Bord Bia study of the organic sheep sector.

While there are over 400 registered sheep producers, closer to 300 represent the vast majority of the output, with close to 70,000 a head.

The counties that get more than 40pc of their stock into organic processing outlets are almost exclusively located along the east coast, the location of ICM's two slaughter plants at Camolin and Navan.

It is almost the opposite of where the production is located, with 40pc of the country's organic flock based in the four western counties of Galway, Cork, Kerry and Roscommon.

In these areas, where the highest proportion of hill flocks are located, only one in five certified organic lambs end up in organic outlets.

However, location of slaughter facilities is not the only issue affecting the sector. The massive costs associated with organic grain has steered most producers towards a highly seasonal supply system based on grass.

While conventional output is relatively balanced throughout the 12 months, 88pc of organic lambs are killed in the six months from June.

"If conventional oats are making €160 off the combine, organic oats are probably at €320/t, so it wouldn't be unusual for organic meal to be costing €500/t," remarked Mr King.

The prohibitive cost of feed is also a big reason why many organic farmers miss out on bonuses at the factory, where customers insist on carcases that are at least 18kg.

However, Kevin King, who has been organic farming for eight years, is keen to stress that he is not a "whinger".

"I'm not crying about the situation, but I'd love to see something being done. I still believe in the system and am happy to be in it. It just needs someone to take it on."

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