Image source: Department of Agriculture

Profit the key to making switch to organics: Nolan

“Fantastic” is Jack Nolan’s verdict on the meteoric rise in organics in recent years, and he anticipates the numbers will double again before the decade is out to meet government targets.

Mr Nolan is the department’s representative from the organic unit on the National Strategy Forum.

He cites figures that show from an almost standing start of just 1,600 farmers in 2021, there was a hop to 2,000 in 2022, a skip to and 4,000 in 2023 and finally a jump to the 5,000 organics farmers today.

While Mr Nolan welcomes the hike in numbers as “fantastic” in the short term he concedes it may be less than fantastic if you are struggling to source organic cattle to meet the minimum threshold of 0.1 head of cattle per ha. Unable to source in Drumshanbo mart at a price she was willing to pay, one Cavan suckler farmer told the Celt she had to transport cattle up from Tipperary.

Another organic farmer, this time from the south of the county, agreed there is big pressure on supply of animals in this region. He noted that he paid “more than you would expect to pay” for a handful of cattle.

While sympathetic to the supply issue, Mr Nolan was surprised to hear it.

“We are not being told it’s an issue, people are sourcing them - they may have to go to more of an effort this year but numbers are increasing, so next year that shouldn’t be an issue at all.”

The 4,000 farms registered with the Organics Scheme in 2023 will have gone through conversion and will be producing stock from those sucklers and the ewes.

“By 2026 we’ll have doubled the number of suckler cows in organics, we’ll have trebled the number of ewes. To source organic livestock might be tight this year, but from next year it wont be an issue. “

He notes that those involved in the organic strategy have been more concerned about addressing possible problems coming from the “other side”.

“We’re more worried about leakage of organic stock into conventionals. Say, people who have organic sucklers, they go to a local mart and ordinary farmers are buying them - they don’t care if they are organic or not if they are lovely stock. We want to keep as much of the organic stock in the organic system as possible so it ends up being killed organic.”

He acknowledges that the number of factories catering for organic systems makes it difficult for farmers to have cattle slaughtered. Some have to travel lengthy distances.

For factories to view it as worth their while to devote days to slaughtering organic cattle, the processors advised the Department they would have to double the number of organic cattle produced.

“We are only killing at the moment about 12,000 organic cattle in the country - that needed to double, into the 20,000s for another processor to get interested.

“From next year on, that’s where we’ll be, when we double,” he assures.

Mr Nolan attributes the rise in Irish organics to a number of factors - an increase in payments from the Department, the spike in input costs for conventional systems, farmer lifestyle choice, and an improved support network.

For potential organic farmers who have yet to make the jump, Mr Nolan opines: “I think a lot of it is in people’s head - they are searching for an excuse why they shouldn’t be organic.”

He contends that many Irish farmers “are nearly there already” in meeting the organics criteria.

“Two thirds of Irish cattle are on one third of the farms, we are quite an extensive country. People don’t realise it, they think they are stocked to the hilt, but they’re not. With a bit of grassland management they could easily go organic, the majority of farmers.

“We hope it is going to continue to grow. There’s a huge push behind it in Ireland, and across Europe - that goes across Bord Bia, Teagasc, ourselves.”

He adds: “Five per cent of the land area is organic at the moment. We want to get to 10% by 2030 - we want to double where were at. Minister Hackett said at a farm walk recently the plan is to open again some time in October and take in more farmers.”

The Wexford man explains that he has travelled to trade shows in Germany with Bord Bia and saw huge demand for Irish produce.

“They’ll buy all the beef and lamb we can produce. Bord Bia got EU money to start a marketing campaign that’s going to kick off in September in Germany, Sweden, Austria and Belgium to market Irish organic pasture based beef and lamb - so the market is already being built in advance of all this stock coming into organics next year, being fully converted, we have a demand there.”

Thus he’s confident that price will remain robust when all this new supply of organic produce comes on stream.

“The safety net people sometime forget about is the conventional system - we don’t want to see it. But if you take cattle at the minute - I think they are at €5.20 or 5.30/kg and organics are getting €6.10, so worst case scenario you would go from €6.10 to €5.30 - you’d be getting the same as everybody else.”

While traditionally organic farmers may have been viewed as motivated by their heart, Mr Nolan is appealing to farmers’ bank accounts when deciding their best option for their farming enterprise.

To further swell the organics numbers and meet government targets, Mr Nolan is aware it will take time to undo the decades of indoctrination where farmers were encouraged to “increase, increase, increase” to be viewed as a “good farmer”.

Of the many people who are holding down full time off-farm jobs as well as tending to livestock he believes many of those are likely candidates to convert. He surmises they are using up their payment to keep farming.

“Their image of farming is I have to be bursting myself. If I have 20 cattle, well I should have 25 - that’s a sign of progress.

“They’re not thinking I have 20, but if I get subsidies worth 10 or 12 more, and I cut back by four cattle because of it, I make more money and I’ll have more time. It needs to be seen as the smart thing to do. That’s changing, I think it’s coming.

“I don’t think the next generation is going to go the way people are going now and burst themselves because they care so much about land.

“You can still care about land but you should be caring about yourself first.”

Mr Nolan appeals to farmers to look at their accounts from 10 years ago and compare them to their accounts from last year and put a value on their time.

“And then see if he’s making any more money?”

He observes that the average size organic farm is 45ha, drawing payments of €12,000; and with “significantly reduced costs” due to the absence of fertiliser; and the focus on red clover to feed livestock.

“Your costs are reduced, you have the subsidies from the state, and hopefully you are going to get a premium for your stock.

“They need to think through what they are doing - it’s not about turnover, it’s about profit at the end of the day and having a decent quality of life.”

That quality of life is coming ever clearer into focus.

“When you see the whole furore of prices going up and down with cattle, people are killing themselves and for who at the end of the day? Who is making money out of it? Is the farmer making money out of it or the processor and the factory or the supermarket. And it’s not changing.

“I’m 50 and I remember going on farm protests with my father when I was 14. It hasn’t changed in 30, 40 years. The situation is actually getting worse with farmers getting squeezed more.”