Special Report: Organic farmers are leading the charge to spark a green revolution

Special Report: Organic farmers are leading the charge to spark a green revolution
‘Over the long term, organically-farmed soils emit 40% less greenhouse gases than non-organically- farmed soils,’ says Grace Maher of the I OA. Picture: Julien Behal Photography.

With the UN urging us to change our ways in the face of climate crisis, Joyce Fegan meets producers who say going organic isn’t just good for the environment — it’s also good for their bottom line.

We all need to eat and farmers need to make a living. However, the most recent UN climate report said we must change the way we use land and produce food if we are to save the planet.

The climate crisis is now impacting the ability of land to sustain human life on earth, read the report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in August.

It focused on the role of agriculture production and land use and their impact on emissions and rising temperatures.

Written by 107 scientists from 52 different countries, and including 7,000 academic studies on climate change, the evidence is indisputable.

So how we do change our ways? And even before that, is there any will to?

In Ireland, agriculture accounts for a third of our greenhouse (GHG) emissions, yet just 2% of our farmers are organic — a form of farming that emits 40% less GHGs than traditional farming, protects soil health and does not use chemical sprays.

“Our membership is made up of over 1,500 farmers, growers, processors and retailers. In Ireland, 2% of our farmers are land certified organic, that’s lower than the European standard of 6%.

“Irish famers have been slow to convert. In Austria and Sweden about 20% of farmers would be organic,” said Grace Maher from the Irish Organic Association (IOA).

In Budget 2020, it was announced that €12m was being provided for the Organic Farming Scheme, a scheme that is currently closed, but which supported traditional farmers to transition to organic farming.

It was last open for one month in November 2018, when 225 farmers applied for the scheme.

This is despite strong market evidence, that there is growing demand for organic food.

“To meet market demand for organic food and [animal] feed here we’ve had to import. That’s against a backdrop where sales of organic food in Ireland have increased by 34% in the last two years. There are tremendous opportunities there,” said Ms Maher.

The IOA’s role is to certify organic farmers as the term “organic” is legally binding under EU law.

The transition to organic farming has taken Irish farmers approximately two years, during which period they received extra financial support from the State, and reduced support thereafter. In order to be fully certified, a farmer must adhere to certain standards and practices, which the IOA will inspect.

“If you’re farming organic crops this means you don’t use any artificial chemicals, so no pesticides or insecticides. So instead of spraying insecticides, organic farmers use garlic oil to repel flies from carrots for example. Others would use netting,” explained Ms Maher.

“Organic famers would also rotate, so every growing season they move crops around. It’s a different system of production. It leads to healthier soil, healthier plants and animals and healthier humans. The healthier you can make your farming system, the more resilient it is,” she added.

When it comes to animals there are also different standards to adhere to in order to be certified organic.

“For animals, if you’re an organic farmer, this means that no genetically modified feed can be used. You use organic feeds. If you have chickens for examples, your animals need to be free to range — that’s the other major difference. More space is required, so in the winter when you bring cattle inside they have more space,” said Ms Maher.

There are two key benefits to farming organically Ms Maher explained. One is economic, and the other relates to climate change.

“There are several positives for going organic. Economically, there is market demand for organic products and the price has been stable.

In terms of climate change, some farmers come in for economic reasons and then as they do more research they’ll discover that organic farming contributes to the mitigation of climate change.

“Over the long term, organically-farmed soils emit 40% less greenhouse gases than non-organically-farmed soils. It also supports biodiversity in a time when one million species are at threat,” she added.

However, Ms Maher acknowledged that agriculture is a big part of the Irish economy, but said the opportunity is there to grow our organic farming alongside conventional farming, in a way that does not harm the environment.

The Irish Examiner spoke to three large farmers who have all gone organic, noticing not just improvements to their soil and animals, but to their back pocket too.

All three said they would never go back to traditional farming.

It’s not just up to farmers to make positive changes

By Paul Murphy

Cows belching greenhouse gases (GHGs); fertilisers leading to algal blooms in lakes; pesticides affecting insect pollinators — it can sometimes seem like modern farming is incompatible with a healthy environment.

File image.
File image.

And yet, our farms are actually an integral part of the environment. As scientists we refer to them as the agro-ecosystem.

These ecosystems are strongly influenced by humans — we like to say that we manage them — but, ultimately, they are ecosystems and an integral part of the wider environment on which we depend. This is all captured in the concept of ecosystem services — provisioning services (eg food, fibre, fuel, clean water), regulating services (eg climate regulation, flood regulation), and cultural services (eg aesthetic value of a landscape, tourism).

Our food production is underpinned by these agroeco systems. Soil is a whole hidden world beneath our feet. And all of the biological and chemical and physical processes that go on in soil underpin global food production.

And, thankfully, there are ways of farming that can improve sustainability. Sustainability is defined as a system that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs — economic, social, and environmental.

But first, back to the problems and challenges — and there is no doubt that many “conventional” farming practices, as have come to dominate across many regions of the world since the green revolution (1950s), face very significant sustainability challenges.

Perhaps most pressing, and challenging, is the impact of agriculture on GHG emissions and climate change. GHG emissions from ruminants (cows, sheep, methane); from nitrogen fertilisers (nitrous oxide); from the ploughing and drainage of soils (carbon dioxide); from deforestation to clear land for agriculture (carbon dioxide and methane) — all tie our food production to GHG emissions and climate change. In Ireland’s case, agriculture accounts for a third of our GHG emissions, placing further pressure on the sector to be part of the solution.

Agriculture has also been a key driver of biodiversity and habitat loss. It is the main suspected cause of pollution in rivers in Ireland. It is the source of most of our ammonia emissions — a threat to air quality.

And, if not practiced well, it can degrade soil quality/health — something that undermines the ability of soil to support agricultural production in the long term. Many of these impacts are, of course, interrelated.

It can be difficult to grasp all of these, sometimes competing, demands. And, remember that, for a farmer, these are only one set among many other demands — the ability to earn a good living (economic sustainability) and support their family and wider community (social sustainability) being, of course, paramount.

But there are things that farmers can do to make farming more sustainable. There are a whole range of existing best management practices; some already included in regulations, such as the Nitrate Regulations, some included in voluntary schemes, others not.

There is not space here to go in to any detail, but the following is a brief, non-exhaustive list:

  • Reduce N (and other) fertilisers to only optimum levels
  • Make good use of organic fertilisers (slurries, manures)
  • Use clover and multispecies grass swards
  • Rotations and cover crops
  • Conservation tillage
  • Organic farming
  • Integrated pest management
  • Precision agriculture (use of smart technologies)
  • Diversification — crops and animals
  • Manage hedgerows and other non-productive spaces for nature
  • Constructed wetlands
  • Agroforestry
  • Forestry

To give just one example, in the recent DAFM-funded SmartGrass project, we found that there was potential to reduce GHG emissions from fertiliser nitrogen, per tonne of grass grown, by an estimated 90% through the use of grass-clover and multispecies (grass-clover-herb) swards, rather than perennial ryegrass monoculture.

The nitrogen that is biologically fixed by clover in these swards replaces fertiliser nitrogen.

And the good news is that environmental sustainability can go hand-in-hand with economic and social sustainability. In fact, in the recent EPA-funded AgriBenchmark project, we found that the top farmers are both more profitable and generate a lower environmental pressure (in terms of nitrogen).

These farmers were more efficient in their use of nitrogen and so saved on input costs, improving profitability, while also reducing environmental pressures.

But, it’s not just up to farmers. We need a wider conversation among all society around food and how it is produced and consumed. How much are people willing to pay for their food? How much are farmers being paid for what they produce?

This has certainly come to the fore in recent times in the beef sector in Ireland.

Ultimately, if Irish people want the clean water, reduced GHG emissions, habitats for biodiversity, cultural landscapes, etc, are they prepared to pay for those ecosystem services through the price they pay for food or through taxes and farm payment schemes?

The Common Agricultural Policy (Cap), that provides payments to farmers across the EU, is essentially a social contract.

Yet, only a small fraction, over the decades, has gone to encourage more sustainable farming. That is changing (the “greening” of the Cap), but many would argue that it has not gone nearly far enough in that direction, yet.

In Ireland, we have an excellent example of a scheme that is paying farmers to maintain habitats, biodiversity, and a unique cultural landscape, in the Burren Programme in Co Clare, that is providing a template for other schemes.

There can be a bewildering array of information and opinions in this area. Ultimately, I would argue that we should be guided by a fact-based scientific approach with a healthy degree of caution. There are unlikely to be “silver bullets” that will easily solve issues such as methane emissions from cattle, for example.

And yet, we already know many practices and approaches that work and we should be implementing them now.

It was former US president FDR that said: “a nation that destroys its soil destroys itself”.

We have soils in Ireland that have sustained farming for thousands of years by farming more sustainably, they should be able to sustain farming for thousands of more years to come.

Dr Paul Murphy Assistant Professor, Soil Science School of Agriculture & Food Science, UCD / UCD Earth Institute.

Case Study: ‘Cloughjordan operates under an honesty system’

Cloughjordan in Tipperary is the first farm of its kind. Set up 10 years ago, it sells its organic produce to about 80 local families twice a week, who each pay a weekly subscription.

Cloughjordan is a model that could be replicated right around Ireland and further afield. Picture: Eoin Campbell.
Cloughjordan is a model that could be replicated right around Ireland and further afield. Picture: Eoin Campbell.

It is what’s known as a community subscription farm (CSA).

“We have a full-time farmer, we have about 80 paying adult members, we’re feeding over 100 people per week and we deliver a harvest twice a week that people collect.

We operate under an honesty system. We deliver food to the coach house. We deliver all vegetables up in crates and you take as much as you need, not what you want.

"This happens twice a week, on a Tuesday and Friday and the subscription is €16 per adult per week in a household,” explains Eileen Brannigan from the community farm

And what would a local be likely to find at the coach house that they could use for the lunch and dinners?

“We farm over 80 varieties of vegetables, there is lots of salads and herbs and fruit. We try to create awareness around seasonal food. So at the moment there is a lot of root vegetables so carrots and parsnips, onions and shallots. We’ve developed our own Cloughjordan onion,” says Eileen.

In 2019 so far they have grown a lot of courgettes and peppers, beetroot, kale, curly kale, chard, broccoli, mixed salads like rocket, chives, coriander, sparsely, dill and tomatoes, which were late this year. There is also fruit in the form of blackcurrants, strawberries and raspberries.

There are also lots of apple trees at Cloughjordan.

“We’ve 70,000 trees in the community,” says Eileen.

In terms of how the community farm works, there are eight volunteers and one full-time and paid farmer, whose salary comes from the subscription fees.

Eileen describes the farm as very productive.

“We save a lot of seeds from our plants so we don’t have to buy them in again, and we save seeds from our own best crops too. We’ve salads all year ‘round as our poly tunnels are highly productive, and we do preserving if we have a glut,” says Eileen.

Their overall aim is develop a model for sustainable food production.

They do not use any chemicals or sprays, instead “complementary planting” is used to keep predators at bay. Flowers are planted between crop rows too. They also rotate crops to allow land to recover after its given a lot of its nutrients away.

There is also an oyster mushroom and hen business on the farm, which says Eileen, is one way of helping the resilience of the local economy.

While the farm, on a small scale is feeding a local community, on a larger scale Eileen says that Cloughjordan is a model that they hope can be replicated right around Ireland and further afield.

“It’s very, very evident we can’t keep throwing chemicals on to the land and expect nothing to happen, that’s finite. We need to farm at a smaller level and to feed people well.

“We’re providing a solution to the intensive agri-business model, we don’t deplete our soil, instead we foster the richness of the soil, therefore securing its future production,” says Eileen.

“We promote an ethical and sustainable food model that could be replicated, we’d love to reach more people and see could this be replicated around Ireland.

The farm has already proven its resilience. Last March, when Storm Emma hit, the farm still had access to fresh vegetables because their crop was “remarkably frost resistant”.

While there has always been plenty of interest from abroad, especially from Germany, in this Irish operation, Cloughjordan is getting political interest now.

Eileen sees this as a “tipping point” for the farm after 10 years, however, she does not see enough urgency when it comes to moving towards a more sustainable food model nationally.

Case Study: ‘Organic was the best decision we ever made’

Pippa Hackett runs a 200-acre organic farm with her husband and four children near Geashill in Tullamore.

Special Report: Organic farmers are leading the charge to spark a green revolution

With everything from beef cattle to chickens and forestry, their farm wasn’t always organic, but with better profit and an improved lifestyle, Pippa says she would never go back to conventional farming.

“We went organic about seven years ago, I personally liked the idea of rearing children on an organic farm, farming with nature and trying to mimic nature

“Financially we’re more profitable, your input costs are lower, you’re not buying fertiliser. People say you will have less output, but we haven’t found that, and we also get a premium for our produce,” said Pippa.

There are other positives to going organic that the farming family has discovered along the way. They have more time together now, and the work system is less reactive. “You’re not under so much pressure — it’s not so reactive. You plan slightly more long-term when you’re organic farming, because you’ve thought further ahead you have plans, it might not matter if weather is particularly bad, we don’t have that sense of urgency.”

In terms of how their organic farm works, they have a mix between forestry and livestock.

“We have suckler cows, which are beef cattle and the mothers rear the calves themselves up until eight months. We have about 200 sheep. About a year ago we diversified into hens, that lay organic eggs, we have a few horses and do some forestry,” she explains.

The idea behind the forestry is to contribute to biodiversity by planting native trees. Transitioning from traditional farming to organic farming is a two-year process, but Pippa said the transition period was not hard for them.

Changes they had to make, in order to get official accreditation, included farming without artificial fertilisers and pesticides, not routinely worming animals (they are now only wormed on a needs’ basis), and any livestock feed has to be from an organic source.

Pippa also explained that the welfare standards for animals is higher when you farm organically. If animals are in during the winter, for example, they must have a straw bed and they are allocated more space in a shed.

When it comes to organic eggs, hens need to have access to an outdoor space as opposed to being in a shed all their life. Confined hens, on a non-organic farm, could have their beaks clipped to stop them from fighting with one another.

Despite the two-year transition process, Pippa said going organic was the best decision she ever made.

We wouldn’t go back, it’s the best decision we ever made, it’s really ignited an enthusiasm for farming and we were losing that. It gave us control and financially we’re more secure. We still have bills to pay but they’re not at the same level as they were, it’s weight off our minds.

“We make savings in time and resources. So we’ve a bit more time to ourselves, and that’s important, quality of life has been a big change for us,” said Pippa.

As well as being an organic farmer, Pippa is a newly elected Green Party councillor for Offaly County Council and the party’s spokesperson for agriculture, food, forestry, heritage and animal welfare.

She believes that farmers are very environmentally aware and that more and more of them are “coming around to the idea” of organic farming. However, only a few farmers will consider changing without a Government scheme in place.

“Hardly any will consider it without a scheme, the scheme is crucial, the scheme was shut from 2015 to 2018, and then only reopened for a month. It’s just about political will. It could also be perceived as undermining the conventional sector.

“I don’t know why it isn’t open, crying shame we don’t have more organic farms when the potential for it is so big in Ireland.”

Pippa believes that with or without State support, or without even being an official organic farm, farmers are currently trying to do things differently.

“A lot of farmers are trying to do it differently, while not officially organic, farmers are experimenting with different grasses. They see the benefits and they different root depths bringing up more nutrients.”

She says the extra income and time that organic farming can provide, needs to be highlighted. “Time is wealth, farmers don’t even factor in their own working hours.”

Case Study: ‘I would never go back to conventional farming’

You might not know organic farmer John McHugh, but chances are his produce feeds you on a daily basis.

Special Report: Organic farmers are leading the charge to spark a green revolution

From his mixed farm in Portlaoise, with 160 cows, 20 acres of oats, forestry and pigs, he provides milk to Glenisk for their yogurts and milk, and organic oats to Flahavan’s for your morning’s porridge.

While his farm was profitable before he transitioned from traditional farming three years ago, going organic has seen his livelihood become far more resilient. For example, he was not affected by last year’s drought.

“January 1 2016, was the start of my conversion, I knew what I was getting into, I was eager and happy to get going with it. For me, I couldn’t get away from the conventional system quick enough because of things like the environment, the total lack of resilience in the system, climate change, economics and that whole commodity system. It was a huge mix of things,” he explains.

Going organic came after the birth of his first child, something that was a turning point for him. However, before that he had been “quite happy” as a conventional farmer.

“I was quite happy as a conventional farmer, milking 160 cows, I was always profitable and expanded a lot in the years. I never really questioned the sustainability, I never went down the rabbit hole too far.

“I was relatively happy and had belief in the system and that it wasn’t destructive. That derived from not having thought too much about it and trusting others and the establishment —kind of abdicating your power,” explains the father-of-two.

However, his turning point came like a “sledgehammer”.

“It was possibly having children. At the end of 2014, we had our first son, that did trigger a reaction, a change of thought process, and I started looking into organic. It all spiralled pretty quickly and the more I read — all of a sudden all the problems with what I was doing became apparent.

“You can draw a direct line between what I was doing and the environment,” he added.

While he did rely on external means such as vaccines and worming to ensure the health of his animals, going organic means he has taken a more preventative, rather than curative approach.

“Now I put soil first and foremost, everything goes back to the soil. You’re looking at soil health and how everything impacts that. I could see year on year, every time as I was spraying fertiliser I was killing nutrients in the soil, affecting all the beneficial fungi and bacteria in the soil,” said John.

Nowadays, he is “stock lighter”, meaning he has fewer animals. But in order to reduce his livestock, meant he had to diverge from a common human mindset — that of “keeping up with the Joneses”.

“The emphasis was on more output, which doesn’t always mean more profit, I could see this pressure to stock higher for very little reward. It’s very subtly done, it’s filtered through discussion groups — keeping up with the Joneses, that was the mindset,” sais John.

While he was profitable before he went organic, changing how he farms has made his farm more resilient.

“My financial resilience has improved, in a year like last year when there was a drought it didn’t affect me, I mightn’t get the highs, but I’m still profitable,” he said.

However, the biggest win for him comes in the extra time he has on his hands, as well as the benefit to his mental health.

I’ve a young family and it’s a much more relaxed and enjoyable way to farm. This pressure to push things to the limits is gone.

"You were pushing to breakdown and then you lose more time in the breakdown. With organic, you’re not pushing things to the last, your own mental health improves and you’ve a lot more time with a young family,” said John.

The health of his animals has improved too. His livestock is far more resilient, with “zero worming” needed and practically no mastitis treatments. Milk fever, caused by a deficiency in calcium, used to be a “huge thing”, and since he has gone organic he has had only one case of it.

So would he ever go back to conventional farming?

“Even if I was given a life time supply of free fertiliser I wouldn’t go back, that system is going to completely collapse. I want to build up this land and make it more profitable,” answers John.

His answer to fostering more sustainable farming in Ireland lies in the soil.

“The solution is treating soil right,” said John, who added that farmers have gone from “producing food” to “producing commodities”.

“Commodities are to feed an industry, not a people, and when we change that view it’s probably a lot easier than we think to feed the world,” he said.

Case Study: Gap in market led sparked decision to change

Brian O’Regan has identified a huge business opportunity that organic farming can fix.

Special Report: Organic farmers are leading the charge to spark a green revolution

“About 70% to 80% of all organic feed in Ireland has to be imported,” he says.

Any organic livestock farmer in Ireland needs to feed their animals organic grain. However, the vast majority of it has to be imported. This is where Brian comes in.

Originally a conventional farmer, he went organic after experiencing too many years of not having anything left over after paying the bills. Now that he has been farming organically for more than a decade, he is building a mill to produce organic feed for farmers.

“I’m moving out of farming to an organic feed mill. It is dedicated to producing organic animal feeds. We aim to create organic feed, with as much Irish organic grain as possible. Anyone who sells organic beef or dairy has to feed their livestock organic food,” he says.

His own decision to go organic predates the recession.

I’m organic since 2006 on the farm and I’ve seen the demand for organic increase ever since. All through the recession organic was growing, if you buy organic food and don’t waste it, it is no more expensive than conventional food.

“I went organic after 2005, because I’d no money left after paying the bills. Now I’m on a better price per tonne, and the price more than compensates for the yield loss once you’re fully organic,” he says.

Like many organic farmers he was spurred to change for financial reasons. However, he saw the environmental benefits afterwards.

“I did it from a money point of view at first, now I can see the environmental aspect.

“I would not go back, and I’m glad I did it. With conventional farming their costs have risen exponentially,” he says.

Brian said at the core of the transition from traditional to organic farming is “going back to basics”.

“There are no pesticides or herbicides, it’s more preventative than curative, you’re trying not to cause a problem in the first place,” says Brian, who was farming 10 years before he converted to organic.

He currently farms 50 acres of land in Ballincollig, Co Cork, and his mill will be fully up and running in about a year.

This year he grew winter barley, winter rye and a small bit of winter oats.

At the moment, his day-to-day work involves building the mill, growing his own organic feed and selling it to organic beef and dairy farmers, and buying in Irish organic grown grain or importing it, and distributing here.

However, in order for other farmers to follow in his footsteps, he believes more drive” is needed from a State level.

“I don’t think there is any real drive from the Government side.

“I don’t think there is any drive to organic production, there is a lack of support,” he added.

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