21 Mar, 2023

Organic Farming: Is it the way forward?

With almost 10 years under his belt as an organic farmer, Ken Gill is well-positioned to make an informed judgement on just how successful the move has been for him. The beef & tillage farmer operates on 90 hectares of land. He runs a 70-cow suckler herd along with organic oats, which he sells to Flahavans.

In 2013, Ken Gill recalls that things were going okay, but he had a strong sense that he could be doing better. He had been considering going organic for quite a while but eventually bit the bullet. Back then, he had a herd of around 70 cows on his 90-hectare farm, with spring and autumn calving, and interestingly, he’s operating with the same number today – but with greater financial success. 

In assessing the potential risks of going organic, Ken believed that even if things didn’t work out as he hoped, at least the soil would get a chance to recover over the five years that he committed to the project. He could always re-access the decision; however, within a few years of joining the scheme, he knew he would never be going back to a traditional beef system. 

Switching to organics also allowed Ken to turn the farm into a one-man operation, relieving his then 80-year-old father of any strenuous work. Today, the workload is kept under control with just the help of his family and the occasional contractors that needed to be hired. 

“Organics was a way of farming that allowed me greater control over my inputs”

He concedes that making more money wasn’t the biggest driver – he simply wanted a more manageable work regime where he was the boss of the farm instead of the other way around. Ken felt at the time that he was working for everyone; sales, factory, merchant, bank etc. and organics was a way of farming that allowed him greater control over his inputs. This has made a huge impact in 2022, where the increased fertiliser and feed costs have had little impact on his farm. 

Going organic is not a “tick the box” exercise, and Ken firmly believes farmers need good advice in those early years. Getting access to good, practical on-farm advice is critical to the success of a farmer entering organics. Ken used Teagasc advisors and was also part of the Better Beef & Future Programmes, both of which he found of huge help when making his on-farm decisions. 

Acknowledging the role Teagasc played, Ken says, “they were always at the end of the phone, and I also got tremendous advice and encouragement from Western Seeds in Wales, who were a great resource to me when it came to sourcing organic seed.” 

The biggest change that Ken identifies with organics is the need to plan ahead. “You might have to decide a year out to plant a field while I book my cattle into the factory one year in advance.” Typically, the factory gives him a rolling six-month price for them. 

“Overall, the grass-to-grass cycle is 12 years, which is an indication of the need for meticulous planning. The key to success is rotation and releasing nutrients, making the farm more productive.” Ken sells most of the oats grown on the farm to Flahavans, with any surplus used for winter feed.

“I just can’t see myself going back to standard farming”

As to whether he’d ever consider going back to standard farming, the answer from Ken is a flat no due to the improvements both financially and in terms of work-life balance. And while other farmers have been affected by draconian increases in fertilizer and feed prices, Ken has avoided both of these as a direct result of organic farming.

This article was first published in our 2023 Irish Farm Report