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Why Are There So Few Organic Farmers In Ireland?

Dr Oliver Moore takes a closer look at this pressing issue.


In terms of organic farming, Ireland is one of the worst-performing countries in the European Union. Dr Oliver Moore takes a closer look to find out why. 

Ireland is third from the bottom of the EU table when it comes to how much available land (utilisable agricultural area, or UAA) is organic. Only Iceland and Malta – hardly renowned for their booming agri-food sectors –have a lower per cent of certified organic UAA. The 1,800 or so organic farmers in Ireland occupy just over 1.7 per cent of the UAA: the EU average is closer to seven per cent and growing fast. At 23 per cent Austria has the largest, and, interestingly, the youngest farming population of any EU member state.

Why is Ireland such an organic laggard?  There are a plethora of reasons, but context is crucial.

Export Focus

Think of how often you see organic milk and yoghurt from Glenisk. Glenisk also exports to six countries. Add to this, own-brand supermarket organic milk, the Little Milk Company’s organic cheese range, and individual organic dairy farmers, like Ralph Haslam who makes his own Mossfield cheese. It probably comes as a surprise to learn that there are fewer than 100 organic dairy farmers in Ireland; in fact,  it’s about 50.

Few farmers leave conventional dairy for organic. The housing rules are different – you cannot just put organic animals into a conventional shed, and that conventional shed cost a lot of (borrowed) money.

By comparison, there are over 18,000 conventional dairy farmers here.  In the shadow of this, organic, with its ecological message of biodiversity, soil, careful nitrogen and other nutrient management, animal welfare, and producing with hardly any agri-industrial inputs, has typically struggled to get adequate State supports. There are only two organic advisors for the entire country, and, despite official targets of five per cent organic for 2020, there is never anything like five per cent of the Department’s budget put into organic farming.

READ MORE: Digging Deeper - Soil Matters For A New Band Of Farmers

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Let Me In!

It’s also quite difficult to join the organic farming scheme, as it doesn’t open every year. So despite a very strong and growing market in both Ireland and the EU – and a growth rate faster than conventional food – the Scheme has only opened in 2013, 2015 and 2018. In 2018, it only opened for a month in November/December.

This is especially infuriating. The scheme is “oversubscribed” each time it does actually open, but then it closes as there is only enough money allocated to it for a tiny number of farmers. And yet, there is transferable money every year that isn’t moved over into the organic scheme.

In other words, there are many more farmers that want to join than there are spaces made available for them. For small scale horticulture, the state Scheme doesn’t really matter, so they can just register with an organic certification body. However, farm payments are area-based and they are so small that any area-based payments would be minuscule. For cereals, livestock, dairy and larger horticulture, this is a block.

READ MORE: NDC And Kerrygold Quality Milk Award 2018 Winner Darran McKenna Chats About The Significance Of His Win

I Say Organic, You See Carrot

When asked about organic food, people invariably think about vegetables, yet beef actually dominates the Irish sector. There are about 1,400 farmers with cattle and 600 with sheep; then 300 with vegetables, 161 with cereals, 150 poultry and 45 dairy farmers.

Incredibly, the 44 in aquaculture produce 22,000 tonnes of salmon (and 4000 tonnes of Mussels) – 44 per cent of the EU total in 2017 – and it’s growing. Now only China produces more.

When asked, here’s what a range of organic producers themselves said when on twitter. 

“Most farmers love farming but do not like the thought of more paperwork and more inspections. Also, farmers judge success on grass yield, number of cattle and tonnes of grain per acre and organic goes against achieving those targets” (Alan Jackson Tillage Offaly)

Others in the thread referred to set up costs, insufficient supports, imported seeds, cost and difficulty of finance, availability of other environmental schemes, lack of organic unity and other issues. And it continues.

You can read a detailed critique of the two most recent Organic Action Plans here if you’d like more. None of this even starts on the consumer end, but the emphasis is clear. At the Citizens’ Assembly on climate change, 99 per cent voted for better organic farming supports. It’s mentioned once, and then loosely, in the Climate Action Plan. It may take some time to get that UAA up past that magic 2 per cent.

READ MORE: How Purple Potatoes Transformed Ballymakenny Farm

Author: Oliver Moore

Oliver Moore is editor-in-chief at ARC2020, the Agriculture and Rural Convention. ARC2020 is a European NGO dedicated to people- and planet-friendly people and policies and practices. With a background in rural sociology, he lectures in UCC’s Centre for Cooperative Studies, writes a weekly column for the Irish Examiner farming, and works with the Cultivate NGO in Cloughjordan’s ecovillage, where he also lives. There, he is a Director of the community-owned farm. He is a member of the Irish Food Writers Guild.