The number of farmers operating under an organic farming system will exceed 5,000 holdings in 2024.

This follows 1,050 new farms accepted in to the Organic Farming Scheme (OFS) in the latest tranche and brings the total area which will be farmed organically to approximately 225,000ha, or 5% of utilisable agricultural area.

The announcement was made this week by Minister of State Pippa Hackett, who described reaching 5,000 participants as a “really significant milestone” which shows the organic sector in Ireland “continues to grow at a significant pace”.

Minister Hackett said: “Many farmers in Ireland are at stocking rates where they can easily replace expensive chemical fertiliser and imported concentrates with multispecies grass and red clover.

"It takes a high level of skill and understanding of how healthy soil works to trust yourself to farm organically and Irish farmers are well able for this challenge.”

The total number of applications received in the December tranche was approximately 1,200.

Within this, 1,050 were new applications, 20 were existing OFS participants whose contract finished in December 2023 and who have now opted to enter the new scheme, while 130 applications were ineligible to participate.

Farmers joining the OFS must attend a 25-hour mandatory training course in their first year of farming organically, comply with organic standards and submit an annual BISS application.

Organic opportunities

The area of lands farmed organically has tripled since 2020, with payments following an even steeper upward trajectory.

The average OFS payment is in the region of €11,000 to €12,000 per holding, meaning the level of payment is likely to lie in the region of €50m to €55m in 2024.

Minister Hackett is optimistic about future growth in organics and is encouraging farmers considering making the switch to explore how organics could work for them.

“Although input prices have fallen, farmers have experienced serious price inflation and bad weather for the last number of years.

"For those who have not yet made the change, I would urge them to attend one of the many organic farm walks that will take place later this year and see for themselves on the ground how an organic farm works.”

The 5% of utilisable agricultural area now farmed organically has achieved the target set in the Climate Action Plan for 2025.

The question which will arise as we progress through 2024 is if the scheme will move to continue to capture current interest and open for more applications in 2024.

The target area farmed organically is 7.5% by 2027 and 10% by 2030. The pace at which applications are submitted is likely to reduce after the initial spike and, as such, it is likely that there will be pressure at Government level to strike while the iron is hot and continue to increase participation.

Research and market development

One of the big concerns from organic producers is developing market opportunities for organic produce which will deliver a premium price back to the producer.

Minister Hackett also addressed this topic in her briefing, citing: “Teagasc is commencing research this year, which will set out blueprints for organic beef and lamb production and I am confident that Bord Bia will continue to open markets for Irish organic produce.”

Payments update

The latest scheme payments update published by the Department of Agriculture shows €0.5m paid to farmers under the OFS in the last week. This brings total payments under the 2023 scheme year to €37.7m paid to 3,715 participants.

There are approximately 4,000 farmers participating in the scheme in 2023, meaning there are over 250 farmers still to receive payment. Payments are said to continue on a weekly basis, as cases are cleared for payment.