'Farmers are pushed to the limit and in different directions all the time'

Farmer, Graham Harris and dog Ruby
Farmer, Graham Harris and dog Ruby

Siobhán English

'Tillage farming has changed so much. I think it's the way forward," says Graham Harris of his reasons for converting to organic farming on January 1 of this year.

It will be a two-year process before the conversion is fully complete, but Graham is optimistic about the future. "I believe I have moved into a more sustainable and environmentally friendly way of farming," he said.

Graham farms some 174 acres near Donadea, Co Kildare. The 40-year-old has been farming at home all his life, but took over the running of the business from his father Ronnie when he died in 2003.

Graham now runs the farm with the assistance of his mother Barbara and his wife Denise. Together, they have two sons, Morgan (7) and Matthew (5). Denise works part time, so Graham also looks after the boys two days a week, making for a very busy household, especially during lambing season.

In the early days, there was sheep, beef and tillage, but for financial reasons, Graham sold off the cattle and now keeps approximately 160 ewes - some of which are Belclare - and Vendeén and Charollais rams.

"Whiteface sheep seem to have a better resistance to worms, so I will probably increase my numbers now that I have switched to organic. I will possibly get more from my brother Trevor, who has been an organic farmer for the past 20 years."

Farmer, Graham Harris with his wife Denise and their children Morgan and Mathew and dog Ruby
Farmer, Graham Harris with his wife Denise and their children Morgan and Mathew and dog Ruby

Graham's lambs are currently sold to Kildare Chilling, but that will change once they are fully integrated into the organic system.

Graham said the workload with the cattle was also one of the reasons he sold off the herd. "There is such a high output in tillage and also with cattle, as well as the extra work with them, so they had to go. With sheep, they pretty much mind themselves."

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Just last week, Graham harvested 45 acres of winter barley thanks to the help of his cousin Philip Harris. "Philip has his own combine and comes here every year," he said.

This year's crop yielded just over 2t/ac and will be sold to Quinns, with the straw being sold to neighbours. "I hope to get some of the dung back to use on the soil."

The transition from conventional farming to organic takes two years and so Graham had to put together a detailed plan going forward.

"There is now a lot of record keeping between soil fertility, soil testing and animal health."

Graham also has a small arable silage crop, mostly of peas, and another 30 acres of spring oats, which should be ready in a month or so. "The weather has been fine for the oats and the crop looks clean." Graham uses a three-way mix from Western Seeds in the UK.

Weed suppression

Graham says that oats work well in organic farming as they have natural weed suppression. "There is also a good demand on organic oats," he says, adding that, in time, he would like to supply to the likes of Flahavan's.

Graham intends doing regular crop rotation as part of his conversion to organic status. It is an effective way to control pests and diseases, along with a variety of other benefits.

Last year, Graham joined the Danú Farming Group and is one of 16 farmers who have been awarded funding through the European Innovation Partnership to carry out a five-year Biological Farming Transition Programme. The project aims to educate farmers on how to implement the principles and practices of biological farming by developing programme systems for transitioning from conventional to biological farming. Soil health and mineral balancing are among the key areas.

In order to make the transition to organic, Graham joined the Irish Organic Association and signed up for the Organic Farming Scheme, for which he had to undergo an inspection. However, it will be September before he knows if he is eligible for a grant.

The Organic Capital Investment Scheme (OCIS) is funded by the Department of Agriculture Food and the Marine and is based on a points system.

"I am going into this a bit blind, but it was time to do something different. Farmers are being pushed to the limit all the time and in different directions. There needs to be profitability on my crops now," says Graham.

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