Flexible approach yielding a fine harvest for specialist organic grower

Wexford farmer Gavin Tully grows a diverse range of crops on his 100ac holding and is also diversifying into storage for other organic farmers

The spuds are up: Gavin Tully with is sons Luke (11) and Dylan (8) in a field of organic potatoes on the family farm near Camolin in Wexford.
The spuds are up: Gavin Tully with is sons Luke (11) and Dylan (8) in a field of organic potatoes on the family farm near Camolin in Wexford.
Grace Maher

Grace Maher

Gavin Tully farms 100 acres in Clonhenritte, which is just outside of Camolin in Co Wexford. He operates an arable farm growing a wide range of crops including 30ac of malting barley, 12ac of winter wheat, 12ac of rye, 14ac of winter oats, eight acres of red clover and ryegrass, and eight acres of wild bird cover.

Now in his fourth year of organic production, Gavin is certified by the Irish Organic Association (IOA) and last week he kicked off the IOA 2019 Field Talk Programme by hosting a walk at his farm, drawing crowds from near and far.

The typical profile of organic production tends to be a mixed farm where cereals and grassland are grown in tandem with livestock enterprises.

The livestock provide nutrients for crops and the crops are grown for animal feed and bedding, with both crops and meat products sold from the farm.

This system is very sustainable as there is less reliance on permitted inputs. However, that profile is changing as farmers opt for specialisation, particularly in cereals due to lack of infrastructure for livestock enterprises.

Instead, they often partner with a neighbouring farm and exchange farmyard manure for straw which works well.

Gavin said that to specialise in organic cereals, farmers must have relevant equipment including storage. "In conventional farming you can simply harvest the crop and the grain will be collected from the yard - you don't have that option as readily available in organic farming so adequate storage is important to preserve grain quality and ensure premium returns."

Spotting a market opportunity, Gavin is currently building a storage facility to store grains for other organic farmers. He also operates a grain rolling business.

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When queried about the market for organic cereals, Gavin is very positive and says that there is no problem selling good quality organic crops.

"I sell the barley, oats, wheat and rye off the farm and some of it is grown on contract, the barley goes to Boortmalt for organic whiskey production and the oats to Flahavan's for organic porridge.

"This year I am also growing the rye for Irish Organic Feeds. I also sell some of my grain crops to organic farmers and usually grow a pea and barley/oat mix as a protein crop for livestock. I like having several outlets for the grain as it gives me more security and flexibility," he said.

Many of those present at the walk were recent converts to organic farming. For farmers considering conversion to organic cereals the main areas of concern tend to be fertility, weeds and rotations.

With soil indexes of three and four Gavin is managing nutrients well on the farm. Rotations are also not a problem for him as he is growing a range of cereals.

"This year weeds have been a challenge with wild oats appearing in almost every field. I am putting it down to the very mild winter as we only had one night of frost. It seems to have triggered germination of the seeds," he said.

"Currently I use a scratch harrow but the proliferation of wild oats is prompting me to look at more specialised inter-row cultivators for weed control. When I was a conventional farmer, I liked growing winter crops but I am becoming more convinced that spring crops following a green manure is a better way to manage weeds in an organic system. For example, the winter oats were probably sown too early last autumn as the weather was good, and they did really well in the first few months and then stopped over the winter months. They were slow to take off again, it is almost like they are too long in the ground and weeds got the opportunity to establish themselves. Also, in the past few years I have grown Combicrops© from Western Seeds such as peas and oats or peas and barley and they provide a dense canopy smothering weeds, this year I did not have the space to include them in my rotation which has contributed to the wild oat problem. Every year is a learning year which makes it more interesting as a cereal grower."

Average seeding rates are 200kg/ha with yields averaging two tonnes an acre.

Gavin has added organic potatoes to his 2019 crop range, including the early variety Orla and main crop varieties Setanta, Dido, Mary Rose and Kingsman. Potatoes are a good break in the arable rotation, and a deficit in current market supply was identified by the IOA-led EIP-Agri project (MOPS).

Gavin is considering increasing acreage in the future but an increase in scale will require additional facilities such as cold storage and harvesting equipment, which this enterprising farmer will no doubt procure if the returns justify the investment.

Also featured on the day was the trial on naked barley conducted by UCD's Julio Isidro Sanchez, Assistant Professor in Crop Science. General organic cereal advice was on hand as was John Falconbridge from Western Seeds who supply seed to a lot of Irish organic farmers.

Organic demand far outstripping supply

One of the biggest problems in the organic sector globally is supply as demand threatens to outstrip production.

France for example is one of the largest European markets and according to Bord Bia it has experienced 50pc growth in the last five years making it a mainstream choice for both farmers and consumers.

This presents obvious opportunities for Irish organic farmers.

At the end of 2018 a third tranche of the Organic Farming Scheme (OFS) was opened.

The OFS is a scheme under the Rural Development Programme 2014-2020 to support organic production on Irish farms. Following recommendations from the Organic Sector Strategy Group the OFS was opened on a targeted basis to increase supply for identified market deficits in organic horticulture, cereals and dairy.

While the organic market in Ireland is substantially smaller than other countries there are already problems with supply, with significant quantities of organic food imported to meet current demand.

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