Where we left off: In our last edition of In Conversion, our entrants were preparing for the hungry months of winter after a summer with some drought, but mostly good yields and profits. Now that we’re into spring, how are the farmers preparing for another busy summer?
Farmers and parents to John Henry and Aoise, Una and Dan of Larkins Hill Farm will tell you they have further complicated their lives by throwing a new build into the mix. They say the progress is going slower than expected, but that can hardly be surprising when they have been so busy with their farm business. The last few months have seen them sowing seeds in their polytunnels and making plans for the summer.
“The season has kicked off for us already – we have a tunnel full of seedlings waiting to be planted,” Una says. “It’s been quite cold with heavy frosts. It was -5°C the other night, so instead of planting out, we’ve been fleecing and trying to protect seedlings and waiting patiently for stable temperatures. Next week should be the first of our big plantings in the tunnels. We’ve got spinach and salad leaves, spring onions and beetroot ready for indoor planting and we have leeks and brassica seedlings coming on for outdoor plantings – if it would just stop raining!”
The ongoing invasion of Ukraine, is having effects on all farmers – both organic and conventional. Una and Dan both agree, however, that agricultural actions to mitigate climate change shouldn’t be waived as fears of food insecurity increase, though that doesn’t change the crisis itself.
“Climate change isn’t going to go away just because of the crisis we’re having in the world right now – input costs, diesel and all of those things – it’s going to be a big readjustment to all sectors and we’re not fully in the picture yet of how big it’s going to be.
“The figures across all enterprises – organic included – are going to change for sure. As organic producers, we have diesel and other costs also, all sectors are going to be impacted hugely. However, it doesn’t take away from our responsibility towards the environment, it’s probably going to become even more important.”
An additional cost is the compost they use, which is Klassman brand and is peat-free. Una says although it doesn’t use peat, it is imported and expensive so still perhaps not the most sustainable option at scale.
Una and Dan are now in their second year of conversion and say by May 2023 they will have more of a market for their produce. They are feeling stable with their existing markets – which includes supplying their local SuperValu (they get a good price here, for being local suppliers, but do not get an organic premium), Harvest Day vegetable boxes and The Urban Co-op in nearby Limerick – but are always looking for new opportunities.
“We’re planning to open a few more channels. We won’t be expanding our growing area massively, just pushing our system to be more efficient, especially with the vegetables,” Dan says.
“We will be considering more tillage (currently we only grow for our own needs) especially with what’s going on at the moment and we’re fortunate we can do tillage on our land with low inputs. We did soil samples recently and our indexes are good, so we’re in a positive position to do more tillage crops if we need to.”
As they are still in conversion, their beef is being sold in conventional channels. They hope to have a good system in place by the time they are fully organic to sell their beef to Good Herdsmen, based in Cahir, Co Tipperary.
Kevin is extra busy these days, with his own mixed farm at home as well as the dairy farm he manages in nearby Co Wexford. In December 2022, the stock will go into conversion for six months (they are converting the land before they convert the stock) and after six months, both farms will be fully certified. As the conversions here aren’t happening simultaneously (meaning the stock and land are converting at different times), animal feed does not yet need to be organic - but it does have to be non-GMO (a stipulation for those doing this type of conversion).
“It hasn’t been too bad,” he says. “We keep our receipts for everything and I record any time dung and slurry go out. But that’s simple enough; we follow the cows from January to April and every paddock gets 1,500 gallons of our own slurry. I haven’t had to administer any antibiotic in a long time, so no paperwork there either. I’d say there’s a bit more paperwork [in organics] so far, but it’s not excessive.”
At Marie’s farm, Kevin is currently milking 90 of the 170 head Friesian/Fleckvieh/Norweigan Red herd. The remainder are due to start spring calving any day now. Their milking platform is approximately 150ac. “There’s 80 to calve in five or six weeks,” he explains. “There’s a few of us working on the farm, though, so the work will be divided. The cows have been out on grass (by day) since 1 January and we’ll finish the first round of grazing the first week of April.”
Kevin and his team are continuing to grow fodder this year. While they are increasing self-sufficiency in many ways, they will still have to buy in organic feed once the cows convert, which will be a cost increase. While their projections for profit still outweigh their input costs, Kevin and Marie will also have to consider both their nitrates situation (starting 1 January, 2023, organic farmers will not be able to exceed 170kg of nitrogen per hectare) and the price of feed before deciding whether to keep their herd the same size or reduce it slightly.
“We’ll put in eight acres of lupins for home protein – or, I should say, we’re going to try,” he laughs.
As far as milk yields and protein are concerned, Kevin remains happy with the output on Marie’s farm. “They’re holding perfectly at the moment at around 27l and about 2kg solids per day – we’re well happy with that,” he says. “It was 540kg of solids we did last year so hoping we should be at that or a little bit more this year.”
Billy Jo received her full organic status on 1 March, which means she is officially no longer in conversion. She takes time off each winter to plan for the year ahead, so she is now feeling well rested and ready for a busy summer. Like Una and Dan, she uses peat-free Klassman compost for potting but mainly uses her own compost, as needed.
“With the tunnels we can have fresh greens again in April and we open our veg boxes with early spring greens in May,” she says. “It is a challenge to educate the customer about the seasonality of food (like why we don’t have tomatoes in April) but they soon get into the swing of it.
“Right now, it’s full steam ahead with preparing and re-shaping the beds for direct seeding or planting into,” she continues. “I [use a] broadfork to aerate and run string lines to standardise bed sizes. The fields are still a bit wet to be worked on, so the tunnels are a hive of activity.”
Over the winter months, there were times when Billy Jo was concerned for her farm infrastructure due to stormy weather.
“Storm Barra (back in November) was a real worry,” she says. “Wind speeds were very high and it lasted a good 16 hours. That’s a lot of hours with a knot in your stomach hoping the polytunnels hadn’t been damaged, ripped or warped! Thankfully, they were all fine apart from some loosening of plastic. They are expensive bits of kit and one bad rip of plastic and gust of wind can be €2.5k-€3k damage in seconds.”
As it is now seeding season, Billy Jo is busy in her polytunnels – she plans her seeding schedule carefully to ensure she will consistently have a variety of vegetables for harvest from May to October. She was also busy landscaping this past winter – but not for aesthetic reasons.
“We received native bareroot whips this year to put in native hedging, so we’ve been busy putting all those in to increase our biodiversity,” she explains. “They also offer wind shelters for field veggies. Our fruit trees and bushes keep us busy pruning in late winter, too. I added to the orchard this year with a few more apple, pear and plum trees.”
Billy Jo plans to expand her field growing space to complement the new polytunnel that she added in last year. She also plans to offer more wholesale options, now that her status has changed to certified organic.
“I also hope to grow our veg box subscriptions – and may expand into more towns in terms of deliveries, if there is demand,” she says.
“Our website launched last year but was more of a brochure site, so I want to make that an ordering platform to hopefully streamline the order process.”
All of our organic entrants are being certified through the Irish Organic Association.