Organic farmers Barney and Christopher McDonnell.

Family business flourishing organically

After switching from dairy farming to organic tillage in 2020, Barney McDonnell along with his son Christopher are proposing a more back-to-basics approach to farming. They view modern food systems as overly-complicated and unsustainable.

“A lot of it is marketing”, claims Christopher, who also works part-time for Clarke Machinery.

“Years ago people fed a lot of things like straight barley and straight oats and things like that.

“I think the modern generation has lost a lot of common sense because there is a big label on a bag of meal that tells people that this is the best mix for beef weanlings or dairy cattle etc. But it goes above a lot of people’s heads.

“It probably is the best thing to give cattle, but when it comes to value, there’s a lot in it that you don’t need. At the end of the day, you want to have an animal in as good a condition as possible. The simple ingredients are best for this.”

The McDonnells exited dairy at the end of 2019 as they felt it was unsustainable for their cow numbers and organic tillage offered a more attractive lifestyle.

“We started last September,” recalls Barney.

“We hadn’t enough land and it [dairying] wasn’t viable for Christopher to take over. There’s a lot of commitment with milking. It can make money, but it’s a lot of work for the returns that you get.

“In tillage, there are a few busy periods but you have more time to yourself. You’re not set to a rigid schedule. This year is wet and it’s more difficult, but usually it’s not.”

They now sell organic grain directly to their customers.

“We grow our own organic grain, we dry it and store it in the shed, and we sell it rolled or whole as the customer wants it,” explains Christopher.

Neighbours who had run organic systems persuaded the McDonnells of its merits.

“With conventional tillage, there aren’t high enough margins. After you buy the seed, fertiliser and sprays you have very little left to yourself. With organics, there are better payments and the grant structures are trying to encourage more people to get in. After we grow over a tonne per acre, everything we have is our own.”

While there were expenses in switching from dairy to organics Christopher says that not everything they bought had to be brand new.

“When we got out of cows we had to invest in a lot of concrete, drying facilities, a shed for a dryer, two combines a tractor, a plough a sower, nothing was too flashy. It’s nice having new tractors but you don’t need them. There’s a lot of older equipment that will do.”

Barney believes there needs to be more emphasis put on organic farming but it can work more in conjunction with conventional methods.

“There is a place that suits both types of farming. We have to land in the middle somewhere. The way we’re intensively farming isn’t sustainable.

“We’re going to have to become more self-sufficient, where we grow more of our own grain instead of importing it from abroad. The number of people getting into organics doubled over the last while. There were 2,000 organic farmers last year and another 2,000 getting into it. A lot of organic tillage is growing oats for Flavahans, there needs to be more supplying livestock farmers.”

Organic farming has given Christopher a real sense of pride in his work.

“It makes me very proud to be doing what we are.

“Last July we were combining in a field and neighbours came to look at what we were doing. Their kids were able to pick bits of grain and eat it and because it was organic we knew it was perfectly safe. It was great to see.”