Kenneth Reid, a part-time farmer with a burgeoning interest in environmental science, embodies the modern young agriculturalist, juggling family with ongoing education and both on- and off-farm work. His many and varied commitments mean that he’s constantly seeking clever ways to streamline his on-farm responsibilities. This has led him to the world of organic farming.
Accepted into the Organic Farming Scheme (OFS) in January 2023, Kenneth has set out to redefine his farm’s calf-to-beef and contract-rearing practices.
Choosing organic farming wasn’t just a question of weighing up the financial benefits; it was a strategic decision to optimise his workload while maintaining a healthy income.
While “going organic” allowed Kenneth to qualify for a range of financial supports, the associated reduction in the intensity of production also means a reduced workload, which aligns with his busy lifestyle.
It is a decision that has brought with it both challenges and solutions.
One of the immediate practical considerations for many livestock farmers transitioning to organic farming is meeting the winter housing requirements of the organic farming scheme.
For Kenneth, 50% of his housing must be straw-bedded, a departure from his current slatted housing system.
The flexibility of the two-year conversion period in the organic farming scheme means that Kenneth has until winter 2025 to meet these housing requirements. He still receives the scheme payments during this period, although his “in-conversion” cattle, currently on the farm, cannot be sold as organic and he will have to wait until he is fully certified in 2025 to start selling organic stock.
“Handy enough” with construction projects, Kenneth has decided to take on the job of extending his current sheds himself, deeming it more cost and time-effective than seeking funding through a TAMS grant.
Shifts in perspective
Beyond practical aspects like housing, successful organic farming often also necessitates a broader change in perspective.
On a recent visit to Kenneth’s farm, he explained that he has come to recognise that every plant on the farm is there for a reason and as such “tells him a story”.
For instance, an abundance of nettles and thistles may signal elevated nitrogen levels, while the presence of docks, dandelions, or creeping buttercup in the pasture could indicate issues like overgrazing or soil compaction.
Instead of merely addressing the symptoms by resorting to chemical weed control measures, by reading what the plants are telling him, Kenneth can shift his efforts towards treating the cause, which often relates back to soil health.
Enhancing soil health can lead to a natural reduction in common weed species, without the need for chemical inputs. This is an example of how simple shifts in viewpoint can be instrumental in terms of success in organic farming.
This co-operative approach, working with nature rather than against it, also encapsulates the essence of organic farming philosophy.
Luckily, Kenneth’s ingenuity extends beyond construction projects to creative approaches to soil health. Entering the organic farming scheme meant that purchasing expensive chemical fertilisers was a thing of the past.
However, with his background in environmental science, Kenneth understood that he needed to kickstart his soil biology again in order to naturally boost the fertility of his pastures without the use of chemical inputs.
He has started experimenting with homemade soil conditioners, which he adds to slurry before spreading.
The ingredients he uses can be as simple as a concoction of treacle, clean water and a biological starter.
The cost-effectiveness of this method and its reliance on natural processes showcase Kenneth’s willingness to explore new, more sustainable avenues that allow him to make organic farming work for him.
Moreover, this year brought relief from concerns about market forces driving up chemical fertiliser prices, as his farm inputs are now generated within the farm gate.
As Kenneth explained, the journey into organic farming is not just about meeting certification standards; it’s a commitment to “working smarter, not harder”, and to creating a sustainable future for both the farm and the wider environment.
In the current agricultural landscape, where discussions often revolve around market trends and scheme payments, it’s important to remember that the benefits of organic farming can also extend beyond the balance sheet.
Organic farming is more than just a scheme; it embodies a rich history and philosophy. Rooted in the belief of working with, not against, nature, organic farming advocates for the responsible use of resources and the preservation of biodiversity and our natural environment for future generations.
One noteworthy aspect of the organic farming philosophy is its commitment to animal welfare.
Organic farmers prioritise the wellbeing of livestock, acknowledging that having healthy and contented animals not only contributes to the farm’s success but also aligns with the fundamental principles of the movement.
Taking a nature-friendly approach in organic farming can also benefit the health and wellbeing of the farm family.
Research among organic farmers has shown lower rates of depression, cholesterol, body mass index (BMI) and thyroid hormone levels when compared to their conventional counterparts, while nutritional health and physical ability was also found to be higher in organic farmers.
The reduced reliance on pesticides and herbicides in organic farming also translates to lower associated risks of exposure, which has been linked to cancers, asthma and allergies, among other chronic impacts.
Complying with the standards of organic farming is therefore about more than just box ticking, it’s about subscribing to a philosophy that, when applied in practice, can result in a happier, healthier and more sustainable farm environment.
Certifying bodies in Ireland
Think ahead – run the numbers carefully so you know where you’ll be in terms of any changes to farm income. Importantly, don’t forget to include your own time in the equation – organic farming is about working smarter, not harder: innovative solutions that work with nature can translate into reduced hours on farm and labour should always be considered in financial calculations.
The Organic Farming Scheme (OFS), administered by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is a five-year initiative aimed at providing financial support to organic farmers. The scheme reopened on 5 November and will close for applications on 8 December.
For drystock farmers, payment rates for up to 70ha are €300/ha during the two-year conversion period and €250 post-conversion. Dairy farmers receive rates of €350 and €300, respectively, while tillage farmers benefit from rates of €320 and €270, respectively. All farmers also receive a lump sum payment of €2,000 in the first year and an annual lump sum payment of €1,400 for each subsequent year of participation.
Recently, a new calculator was introduced to assess the value of transitioning to organic farming and to calculate payment rates. Visit this website for more.
Additionally, participating farmers are eligible for 60% grant aid under the TAMS On-farm Capital Investment Scheme and have tier one priority access to ACRES.