'I had to change - the way I was farming was simply not sustainable'

Fergal Byrne has swapped the stress of a '24/7' workload for a more manageable organic tillage and sheep enterprise, writes Grace Maher

Converted: Fergal Byrne switched to organic farming five years ago and says it’s been the best decision of his farming career
Converted: Fergal Byrne switched to organic farming five years ago and says it’s been the best decision of his farming career
Grace Maher

Grace Maher

Five years ago Fergal Byrne reached a crossroads in his farming life.

He was working the home farm in Calverstown, Co Kildare and also renting land in four different locations around the county, farming livestock and growing conventional malting barley.

"I was working 24/7 and essentially not making money so I decided that I had to change what I was doing as it was simply not sustainable," he recalls.

"The way I saw it I had three choices - lease out my land, consider dairy farming or convert to organic farming. Five years on I am delighted that I decided to convert to organics, I feel it is probably the best decision I have made in my farming career."

Fergal has been farming full-time for the past 30 years. Five years ago he converted to organic production and is certified by the Irish Organic Association.

He currently works 62ha of land, 40ha of which he owns. One of the reasons he converted to organic was the greater control it would give him over inputs.

"I liked the idea that as the farmer you are responsible for building the fertility in the soil naturally and growing the maximum amount of forage crops to feed to your animals.

"Now obviously there are times when it would be good to have the option of going out with a bag of fertiliser and having a flush of nutrients added to force growth, however on the whole, I really like the organic approach which is working more at nature's pace," he says.

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He uses an aerated compost tea solution which he makes himself to increase soil biology and act as a biofertiliser to stimulate crop growth.

This worked particularly well last year in the drought conditions and it is something that he will be applying to crops this month.

He operates a mixed farming system with sucklers, sheep and arable crops.

The crop production is central to the operation. A month ago he sowed 3.6ha of red clover, which will be baled for silage and also grazed throughout the year. The aim is to produce 500 bales of silage from the grassland annually.

On April 9 he sowed 4.4ha of organic Combicrop, which is a barley/pea mix with seed sourced from Western Seeds in Wales.

He also sowed 3.6ha of Barra organic oats which will be sold to Flahavans.

"My strategy is to maximise the crops grown on the farm in order to supply as much feed as possible - this is not only a regulatory requirement, but also reduces reliance on buying in expensive organic feed," says Fergal.

"Oats are the only crop that are sold and I do keep some oats back to feed to the sheep.

"When I look at each enterprise at the end of the year, the cereals are the most profitable for me. If I had the opportunity I would rent land and grow more organic cereals as there is a real shortage of them here in Ireland."

Lamb sales

Last year he finished 325 lambs that were sold primarily to Irish Country Meats in Camolin. He also sells eight lambs a week from May to September to Coolanowle Organic Farm in Co Carlow who are involved in direct sales to customers.

"While the organic lamb trade has been slow over the last few years, I think there is still opportunities to be explored," says Fergal.

"In Ireland we produce top quality meat products and when it is produced organically that is an even bigger mark of both quality and environmental sustainability.

"In my opinion we need to market our organic products better, both as farmers and processors supplying retail markets.

"We should be promoting the fact that it is produced without GM feed in order to access more markets because not all consumers are aware that organic production prohibits the use of any GM ingredients."

Fergal is a member of the Board of Directors of the Irish Organic Association, and he also sits on the Organic Strategy Implementation Group and is Chairperson of the Organic Committee in the ICSA.

"For me as a farmer it is important to be involved in these groups as you cannot just sit back and expect others to develop the sector, farmers need to be involved to drive it forward, as at the end of the day our livelihoods are at stake," he says.

A new venture on the farm this year is a project with Vibes and Scribes in Cork and Donegal Yarns to market Fergal's sheep wool as organic.

"We have had a production crew on the farm to record us shearing the sheep and they will follow the process as the wool is taken to be washed, spun and dyed," adds Fergal.

"It is an exciting project and great to see a growing demand for environmentally friendly textiles as more than ever we need to look at how every aspect of how we live impacts on the environment."

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

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