By Dermot McNally
“Be sure to take all your organic information with a pinch of salt.”
Farmers are, among other things, business people – they produce products to sell, hopefully at a profit.
So with this in mind, it puzzles me as to why more farmers won’t consider switching to organics?
The question occurred to me in our local supermarket. I noticed that the rashers in my hand were imported from Denmark. Surely we can satisfy the market for rashers ourselves? The answer is ‘no’. But why?
Is there a shortage of pigs in Ireland? Not a chance. We’ve about 1.3 million pigs being fattened for slaughter in Ireland. That number includes the pink porkers in the farm up the road. I try not to stand down-wind on warm summer days.
Was there something special about the Danish rashers? Not particularly. Just the fact that they were organic, more expensive, and had a higher percentage of pork than the Irish rashers.
The truth is, we can produce run-of-the-mill, conventional pork until the pigs trot into the concrete fattening houses, but not enough organic pork.
It’s a statistical fact that, at a third of the European average, we have a dismal percentage of organic farmers versus other European nations.
It is also surprising because organic farming is generally more profitable than other models – an important starting point.
There are other positives too. Organic farming is generally less intensive, enjoys better margins, attracts better grants, and demand for organic products is outpacing supply – except perhaps for lamb, where there’s little, if any, price premium.
Perhaps it’s because we’re slow to change our ways in Ireland and the transition from conventional to organic farming is challenging. Without doubt organic farming isn’t a cure-all and may not work for many farmers – just as ostrich and deer farming never caught on. Still, none of this explains the low uptake of organic farming in Ireland.
Why won’t farmers go organic?
One answer is that some are happy with their return on investment – the effective wage-per-hour when calculated against income. These are farmers who have found a niche or vast economy of scale.
These farmers exist and they are doing fine by farming conventionally, using intensive systems and doing everything that the environmental movement hates – using lots of fertilizers, pesticides and antibiotics.
It works for them so why would they change?
However, for every farmer like the one above, there are many not doing so well. The average farming income is stagnant or falling. Many farmers are working long, unsociable hours and making a negative return on investment.
Of course, lack of profits isn’t affecting the meat factories, the food processors, the suppliers to the farmers or the supermarkets selling on the end product. They all make profit almost every year. If they didn’t, they would go bust.
However, the average Irish farmer would be financially better off putting the same amount of working-hours into stacking shelves in a supermarket and putting his/her land up for rent or into forestry.
Or they could consider a new farming enterprise – one of which might be organic farming.
The thing is, many won’t even consider organic farming as an option. Many seem aware of the pitfalls and drawbacks and none of the advantages. And here’s the crux.
What surprises me, more than anything else, is that many farmers have never considered that there are plenty of people in the farming industry who would prefer if the average Irish farmer didn’t rock the boat by going organic.
There are those who would lose out financially if more farmers went organic. They include:
- Agro-chemical companies that supply pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, which are heavily restricted in organics;
- Petroleum-based fertiliser manufacturers would lose out, as farmers maximise on-farm sources of manure and natural nutrients to improve soil condition;
- Local farming cooperatives would see a drop in sales;
- Vets are generally busier in conventional farms as large numbers of animals are pushed through more intensive systems;
- Drug companies supplying the medicines to cure sick animals would also see a fall in their sales.
So, for any would-be organic farmers, be sure to take all your organic information with a pinch of salt and remember to make the decision that increases your bottom line, not someone else’s.