Demand for organic produce in Europe could be a real opportunity for Irish organic farmers, according to Grace Maher.
The development officer for the Irish Organic Association discussed organic farming and the reopening of the Organic Farming Scheme by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine last week.
Speaking on tonight’s episode of FarmLand with presenter Claire Mc Cormack, Maher explained that organic farming delivers on a number of fronts which satisfy consumer needs as consumer awareness for food production grows internationally.
“On climate change, organic farming delivers,” she said.
“And I think consumers are becoming more aware about that and the question of delivery of public goods from consumers, demanding delivery of public goods for food that’s being produced in the EU.
“That’s what a lot of the subsidy system is based on, so I think we have to seriously address our climate change targets.
“At the moment we’re not managing to decouple our emissions targets with regard to what we’re actually producing.
“I think we need to seriously look at climate change and organic has lots of options to offer on climate change. And that alone it delivers; it’s what consumer wants.
We look at the European market; the European organic market is growing exponentially – it’s currently valued at €33 billion. And I think Irish farmers need to actually step up and claim a little more of that market.
“In Germany the organic market is worth €10 billion; in France it’s worth €7 billion, the Danes are up there as well.
“And those countries are open for business; they want product, they want organic product, and I think Irish organic farmers have a real opportunity on their doorstep.”
Maher acknowledged that this is challenging with Brexit looming and the uncertainty this brings, but highlighted that there is a market there nonetheless.
“In terms of the market it’s there for organic product and also as you say delivering on environmental benefits, and I think the organic ticks a lot of boxes in those contexts.”
Potential pitfalls of organic farming
When asked about potential pitfalls of organic farming, particularly for new converts, Maher noted that farmers in recent years are coming in quite prepared.
“They’ve done their research; they’ve gone to visit organic farms, they’ve spoken to organic farmers, they’ve spoken to us – so they’ve done a lot of their research and converting to organic production isn’t something that can be done overnight and that actually stands to a lot of farmers.
“So once they come in, they know where they’re going to sell their product but one of the challenges is actually on the production side.
It’s a different mindset to be producing food organically; you can’t go out with a bag of fertiliser, with the pesticides, so you need to be very organised on everything.
“On the crop side of things you need to employ quite a strict rotation system which will help with your soil fertility, which will also help if you run into problems with pests or disease.”
The development officer stressed that organic farmers are always trying to reduce exposure to problems on the farm.
On the livestock side of things good preparation is key, she noted, adding that a herd health plan needs to be drawn up for when animals are sick.
The old saying of ‘you have to be a really good conventional farmer to be a good organic farmer’ still holds true.
In spite of this, Maher claimed that there is a very low fall-out rate among organic farmers, pointing out a drop-out rate of 3%.
“Once they come in they really like the farming system and very few of them actually leave – even though initially they might be a bit sceptical,” Maher said.