“I think EU politicians have abdicated responsibility to a few environmental NGOs, who are deciding farming policy,” according to Jim McCarthy, typically shooting from the hip.

“Basically, a bunch of mostly middle-class German, Austrian and indeed Irish environmentalists are driving an environmental policy agenda where food production is a secondary priority.”

Having farmed in Ireland, Argentina and now Romania, his opinion is informed by a range of experience in food production that few can match.

“The ‘livestock farming bad’, ‘crop farming good’ is absolute nonsense,” McCarthy says. One of “the most widely eaten meats in the world is goat meat. Arid and semi-arid areas can produce milk, cheese and meat from goats across the huge grassland plains of South America and Africa.

“We farm 1,800ha of organic land, we’re in it because of huge subsidies,” he says. “I doubt we can feed more than four billion people without artificial nitrogen. Organic farming is an intensive cultivation system,” he adds. “Every time we mechanically hoe weeds, we release carbon and moisture. We have to do that up to eight times.”

“We” is Southern Harvest Romania Holdings, which farms almost 20,000ha, Jim McCarthy being the managing partner.

Born in Cloyne in 1957, Jim McCarthy pursued a career in farming despite not being from a farming background, which was unusual for his generation. He became manager of a farm in Kildare, transitioning it to tillage.

He then set up in his own right, leasing land in long-term arrangements rather than the typical owned land/conacre mix of the time.

A Nuffield scholar, he was an early proponent of min-till farming.

In 2006, Jim McCarthy set up a company called Fondomonte with London-based investor Mark McLornan. They established a large farm operation in Argentina.

In 2012, Fondemonte was sold to Almarai, the Saudi company best known for its dairy operation, for a reported €65m.

The Romanian project
“We started putting the business prospectus together in 2012 after selling the Argentina business,” McCarthy explains.

“We identified a number of key advantages that Romania offered. One was scale, because there are 9.5m hectares of cropping land. Romanian farming was still struggling for capital investment as it transitioned from the communist era, which only ended in 1990.

“Also, the land is freehold. Romania is an EU member, so EU law applied, as did CAP payments. Land was cheap, although it came in small parcels, which was a challenge but one that could be overcome.”

Two years later, it all came to fruition. “In April 2014, we did the first deal for 4,000ha. We secured another 2,200ha a couple of weeks later. We went from having no land to six weeks later having 55 employees planting crops into over 6,000ha.” That has now grown to 9,500ha owned, with another 8,000ha rented. Renting grants a right of first refusal under Romanian law should the landowner decide to sell, McCarthy explains.

“Also, we contract farm for two farming companies as well, one English, one German. In total we control about 20,800ha, but we rent out about 2,500ha of that, mostly grassland.

“About 15,500ha is cropped, with a mix of maize, soya, sunflower, OSR and sugar beet (they supply 12% of the national tonnage). Organic crops include spelt wheat, soya, sunflowers and a 14-way cover crop.

“It’s all a zero-till operation, with planting carried out by 12m planters, drilling at 50cm intervals.

“Tractors work round the clock, with teams of drivers shift working. GPS and yield mapping is central to the operation. Organic matter is up to 4.8%, with cover crops planted and all straw chopped. It gets very cold in winter, very hot in summer. Rainfall is increasingly an issue. Our wheat will be grown with 170mm of rainwater. There’s only been 220mm from last September until July.”

Ukrainian invasion casts a shadow

I ask how the Russian invasion of Ukraine has affected the area he farms in. “We’re in the northeast corner of Romania, only 60km from the Ukraine border and 35km from the Moldova border,” he replies.

Jim McCarthy.

“In the prospectus, I highlighted that Romania is in NATO and the EU. I didn’t realise how important that would become.

“Moldova is vulnerable, a section of Moldova (Transnistria) is under Russian control.

“Russia is not a normal democracy, it’s a kleptocracy,

but I cannot imagine they would risk invading a country that is under the protection of NATO.”

Repairing our soils

“Cardinal Newman said to live is to change and to live well is to change a lot.

“We must change, but returning to a century-old production style (organics) when we have eight billion people as opposed to one or two billion will lead to global food shortages.

“We’re driving our business forward, I have invested a huge amount of my personal net worth in it. But we need more technology. We need glyphosate and GM crops in the EU – what Argentinians and Brazilians have done in a decade is incredible.

“We have to spray maize for pests, or it would be devastated. There’s a derogation on neonicotinoids for this autumn, but we’d be much better off if the plant was bred to be resistant to it.

“In the last 10 years, microbiologists are discovering how plants feed themselves, the whole understanding of soils changing completely.”


McCarthy still feels tillage farming offers opportunities across the globe to young Irish men and women, but they have to adapt to the sheer scale of farming in most countries and the challenges it brings.

“There is a famine for people with a can-do attitude abroad. It takes a different type of thinking. In Ireland, we have a dairy farming model, that is the best in the world, and can’t be competed with from a profit or output point of view. It’s fantastic. Of course, the EU’s policy is to curb that production – it makes no sense at all. The food industry is disconnected from farmers, but it’s farmers who mind the land. They hold food production together.”