To grow or not to grow organic?

Dermot’s first step was the ‘Conversion Course’

Despite coming from a non-farming background, Dermot McNally has always had an interest in horticulture and in all things agricultural. With this in mind, he recently completed the Organic Production Principles intensive 25-hour course. It’s a requirement for anyone hoping to avail of the Government supports for organic farming. Here he tells us more about his introduction to farming organically.


     Dermot McNally

Since the children came along, my wife and I have made a special effort to buy fresh locally produced organic food and it would be great to see more of this available in Co Monaghan. I wanted to see whether I could play a part in this local production and this curiosity took me to Drumshanbo, Co Leitrim and to the National Organic Skillsnet training centre for a Conversion Course over two weekends. Our trainer was a South African born farmer based in Leitrim who left us in no doubt of the need to for all involved to check the economic viability and market opportunities for organic production before they get involved.

The course took place over two weekends with classes held on the Friday evening and Saturday mornings. Farm walks are held on the Saturday afternoons and attendance at all sessions is compulsory. The course is QQI/FETAC certified, costs €220 and in my case it was certainly money well spent.

We heard all about the origins and history of organic production and as well as the principles that underpin the organic approach. We learned about interpreting the organic standards (and penalties for breaches) and how to complete an organic conversion plan. Each trainee’s ideas and plans fed into the creation of their own business plan to assess feasibility. A large section was devoted to analysis of soil, soil make up, and enrichment and protection of soil; good soil gives good produce and without this, farming will be difficult.

Any organic product sold in Ireland must by law display a certification symbol or number. Two certifying bodies for Irish organic producers are Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association (IOFGA) and The Organic Trust. IOFGA certifies the organic integrity of foodstuffs, produce, and products for farmers, growers, food processors, wholesalers, traders, and retailers. The Organic Trust Organic certifies professional organic producers, processors and distributors.

IOFGA Certification Symbol       The Organic Trust Certification Symbol

So what are the requirements to meet the organic standards? The list of standards is extensive but a selection are as follows: cattle in slated houses must be given more space and access to solid area to lie down upon. Antibiotics can be used in certain circumstances to treat sick livestock under strict conditions (such as longer withdrawal periods). There are maximum and minimum Livestock Units per Hectare permitted (with the minimum being .5 LU/Hec).

As a general rule all chemical fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides are forbidden; however, farmers who are experiencing extreme difficulties (for example due to a widespread outbreak of a particular disease) can apply for a derogation to their Organic Certification body. The derogation is an exemption to the rules and must be sought in advance of implementation and the awarding of that derogation is at the discretion of the certification body. Because organic certification involves a thorough record keeping system to ensure traceability in the supply chain, farmers must plan ahead to purchase farming inputs (especially in the way of livestock, seed etc) to ensure availability when needed.

The aspects of the course which I found most beneficial were the general discussions and the farm walks where we went to see organic farms and speak to the farmer. The walks raised examples of good methodology in practice and all of the trainees were hugely impressed by the quality of the livestock and pastures. Two organic farmers that we met were reasonably self-sustainable – all fertilisers such farmyard manures/slurry and animal feeds were from on-farm sources which increased their margins and reduced their need to travel off farm to make purchases. I would say that a good level of understanding of conventional farming is almost a prerequisite for anyone considering the course and some terminology /techniques were new to me.

To conclude then, organic farming could be summarised by saying that it is agriculture at a level that the land can support without chemical inputs, widespread in conventional farming. There are those who feel that certified organic farming doesn’t go far enough in terms of being fully sustainable but without doubt it’s a huge step in the right. I have still more research to do to decide if it’s the right decision for me but I don’t feel put off by what I learned on the course. NOTS can be contacted on 071 9640688, email

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