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Organic farming: an option now?


For those considering the change to organic farming there are many factors to take into account. Martina Donnelly, Teagasc B&T Drystock Advisor, discusses these factors, including fertiliser, meal and sprays, here.

Is organic farming something I should consider now? This is a question a farmer asked me recently after reading the headlines across the national media that has been focussed on COP 26, the challenge facing agriculture of climate change, CAP 2023 and the more recent headlines about high fertiliser prices and its availability in 2022.

It is often viewed as a system of farming that is not productive with lots of regulation. This is not true and can be as financially rewarding and as productive as conventional farming. One of the best things you could do is to speak to someone who is farming organically and find out what the change to organics has meant for them on their farm, where do they sell their produce, what are they doing differently now from before and  has going organic changed their daily farming operations?

Organic farming in Ireland adheres to the Organic Food and Farming Standards in Ireland. These standards detail the regulations around the production of organic food in this country. These standards set down the requirements of producing organic produce, what is allowed and what is not. 

During this conversation the farmer asked the question about fertiliser, meal, sprays, how do I manage without them? While conventional fertiliser is not allowed, lime and rock phosphate are permitted and the incorporation of clover into swards will return a supply of nitrogen. The addition of red/white clover to swards can fix between 100-200kgs Nitrogen/ha annually. Sprays for pest and weeds are not allowed. Weed control can be achieved by management practices and mechanical methods though maintaining good levels of soil fertility and soil pH, regular topping, and rotation of silage and grazing ground. A dense, well managed sward will minimise infestation since seedling weeds are poor competitors to grass-clover swards.

Another question asked was can I dose or treat animals under organic rules?

All entrants to organics require an animal health plan which is written up in conjunction with your vet and submitted as part of the conversion plan prior to conversion. Animals are treated if a treatment is required but under more formal arrangements. Withdrawal periods may have to be doubled or trebled under organic standards for veterinary medicines. The emphasis is on prevention rather than cure.

What are the rules regarding the housing and bedding of animals?

Housing animals under organic standards is slightly different to conventional and may require alterations so as to meet these standards. More space is generally required over conventional standards. In organic farming, animals must have access to a bedded area and a 100% slatted area is not permitted.

What's involved in making the change to organics?

So if you are still interested in making the change to organics, how do you go about it?  You must register with one of the organic certification bodies, complete a 25hour organic farming principles course and make an application to the Organic Farming Scheme.

In Ireland the conversion period from conventional to organic farming takes two years before the farm produce can be sold as organic. It is important to note that an in-conversion farmer must comply with all the standards while in-conversion. There is no lead-in time with regard to housing and feeding. It can be advisable to buy stock before going into conversion, as it may sometimes be difficult to source enough breeding stock once in conversion.

What supports are available?

Grant aid under the Organic Farming Scheme (OFS) has been available for a five year period. The payments available under the Organic Farming Scheme offers an in conversion payment of €220/ha during this period so as offset the costs associated with the conversion to organics such as adjustments to animal housing, certification and inspection costs. After this two year period the farm has full organic status and the payment is €170/ha.

Increased funding for the Organic Farming Scheme was recently announced by government and it was confirmed that the scheme will reopen in January 2022.  The Minister for Agriculture is quoted as saying that “this increase is very welcome and addresses the growing demand from both farmers and consumers for this type of production”.

Your Agricultural Consultant can provide you with further details of the conversion process and the grant aid available. There are many farm walks and information meetings going on throughout the year run by the DAFM organic unit, Teagasc, Farming for Nature and the various organic associations. (www.teagasc.ie/events)