Organic farming is not anti-science

Hell’s Kettle is hardly the most soft and fluffy of names for an organic farm, but that’s the name of the river that runs through Gavin Lynch’s organic beef and agro-forestry farm at Donard, near the Glen-of-Imaal in Co Wicklow.

“We were farming dairy intensively up until 2005. We used to fill 60,000 gallons of milk quota with 30 acres of grazing ground around the parlour. Our farm is at the foot of the Wicklow mountains, so we’ve a shorter grazing season. The milk price then was quite low, when got out of dairying and into suckler farming. We’ve had a small suckler herd since then, of 20 cows. Three years ago, we decided to go into organic.”

Like many Irish farms, Hell’s Kettle is fragmented. “There are three main blocks of land, we’ve another 30 acres a mile in one direction, and 40 a mile in the opposite direction. That also didn’t suit dairying.”

The move from extensive to organic was easy, according to Lynch, as was the move from selling suckler-weanlings to finishing. “Now that we are finishing, we would like to start selling direct, online, from the farm”.

This plan is based on the farm’s advantages of location and skills. Wicklow is close to south Dublin and large Kildare towns like Naas. “My father used to be a butcher in Dundrum in Dublin. We’d hope to sell some beef through Lynchs Butchers there. Longer term, we’d like to butcher our own heifers on the farm. We’d need to invest in a building to do that.”

The farm stocks Aurbac crosses at present. “We have an Aubrac bull, and cross heifers. We’re equal opportunity employer when it comes to breeds, it’s a bit like liquorice all sorts here. Hereford Aubrac crosses would be most of what we have, though we have a Belgian Blue crossed with British Friesian, and that’s a great suckler mix. She’s brilliant!”

“In general though,” he says, “you don’t want the bigger, heavy animals. Slower maturing breeds are better for beef quality.”

“There are a good few organic farmers in the area, they are always there to call on. Ernest Mackee is just up road. We saw his Aubrac cattle on a farm walk, and that’s partly how we thought they would suit our farm. John Hussey, across the road, does belted Galloways.”

“There’s a sense of community among organic farmers. I’d ring someone out of the blue whom I’ve never met, and they are more than willing to give me their time.”

The lack of research on organic is seen as a significant issue. “I end up trawling the internet at night for research on different aspects of organic production. There is very little research out there that’s relevant to Ireland. It makes things difficult.”

And the worst bit?

“Having to defend yourself! You get this argument that organic is anti-science. I’ve a degree in Agricultural Science, and I can tell you that organic couldn’t be more scientific. It’s not the brute face of science, it’s more nuanced. Its about how everything interacts together, there is a lot of observation, I find that organic heightens skills”.

Lynch achieved his full organic symbol only in March of this year. “Farming more sustainably was close to my heart. I find it’s a lovely way to farm, it pushes you to be a better farmer, because you don’t have that few bags of nitrogen, or dosing an animal, to rely on. You have to think a lot about everything that you do, and think more long term. My dad was reluctant in the beginning. He took quite a bit of convincing, but he loves it now. It’s even simple things like, yesterday evening’ we stumbled across a hen pheasant nesting in the hazel. He was a child living here when he last saw that”.

Next week: the agro-forestry elements of the Hell’s Kettle enterprise.


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