The fact that the Organic Farming Scheme has been “substantially undersubscribed” in the latest call for applications “must serve as a wake-up call that more needs to be done to entice farmers to switch to organic methods”.
The Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers’ Association (ICSA) organics chair Fergal Byrne has said it is clear that the sector “is being failed at a time when we should be doing everything in our powers to make organic farming a more viable option for greater numbers of farmers”.
317 applications were received in respect of the 2021 Organic Farming Scheme, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine confirmed last week.
When opening the scheme, Minister of State Pippa Hackett said that the “significant level of funding provided for this new scheme” would facilitate the entry of 400 to 500 farmers into organic farming.
‘Heavily weighted against cattle and sheep farmers’
Byrne said that first and foremost, the application process for the scheme “must be overhauled”.
“The scoring system for applicants has been weighted heavily against cattle and sheep farmers in recent years,” he said.
“We now see that this policy has not worked, and the application process must be opened up to actively encourage less intensive drystock farmers to sign up for the scheme.
“Our ambition as far as organics goes is far too narrow and just does not line up with EU policy in terms of prioritising a massive shift towards organic methods.”
Opening of REAP ‘unhelpful’
Byrne said the opening of the Rural Environmental-Agri Pilot Programme (REAP) in the run up to the closing date for applications for the organic scheme was unhelpful.
“Farmers were forced to choose between the two schemes as those in the organics scheme were excluded from applying,” Byrne continued.
“Many are worried that going forward they will not be able to reap the full benefit of other agri-environment schemes if they are participating in the organics scheme.
“This is a big stumbling block and one that must be addressed if farmers are to be persuaded that they will not be at a financial disadvantage if they switch to organics.”
Bonuses on organic produce ‘contentious issue’
Byrne said that bonuses on organic produce “is another contentious issue”.
“As it stands, organic farmers who are quality assured – and who must also present organic certification when presenting cattle for slaughter – do not receive a quality assurance bonus,” he explained.
“This is inherently unfair, particularly when farmers need to be achieving around 20% more than commercial cattle to sustain organic production.”
The ICSA is calling for consideration to be given to increasing payments for participants “to prevent further undersubscribed rounds of the scheme”.
Currently, farmers entering the scheme could qualify for yearly payments of up to €220/ha during the conversion period and up to €170/ha when they have achieved full organic status.
“In addition, the current payment for protein crops is too limiting and out of step with the current practices of organic farmers,” Byrne continued.
“ICSA has proposed that both mixed cropping and combi-crops with pea, barley and oat mixes are included under protein payments.”
‘Organic farming is not a hobby’
He also said that Teagasc and Bord Bia need to “step up to the plate”.
“Organic farmers and production systems have been marginalised when it comes to education, training, and also in the marketing of organic produce,” he added.
“Organic farming is not a hobby, it is a serious business in terms of the economic potential and the environmental good it can deliver.
“It represents the best of what we can produce in the most environmentally sustainable way, yet it has been consigned to no more than an afterthought by these agencies and it’s just not good enough.”