Written by Dermot McNally
‘Be sure to take all your organic information with a pinch of salt.’
Farmers are among other things, business people – they produce product to sell, hopefully at a profit. So with this in mind Dermot McNally was puzzled as to why more farmers won’t consider switching to organics. The question occurred to him in his local supermarket. He noticed that the rasher (bacon) in his hand was imported from Denmark. Surely we can satisfy the market for rashers ourselves? No is the answer. Dermot investigates why…
Is there a shortage of pigs in Ireland? Ha! Not a chance! We’ve about 1.3 million pigs being fattened for slaughter in Ireland. That number includes the pink porkers in the farm up the road. I try not to stand down wind on warm summer days. Was there something special about the Danish rashers? Not particularly. Just the fact that they were organic, more expensive and had a higher percentage of pork than the Irish rashers.
The truth is we can produce run of the mill conventional pork until the pigs trot into the concrete fattening houses but not enough organic pork. It’s a statistical fact that at a third of the European average, we’ve a dismal percentage of organic farmers versus other European nations. It’s also surprising because organic farming is generally more profitable (than other models) which is an important starting point. There’s other positives: it’s generally less intensive, enjoys better margins, attracts better grants and demand for organic products is outpacing supply (except perhaps for lamb where there’s little if any price premium).
Perhaps it’s because we’re slow to change our ways in Ireland and the transition from conventional to organic farming is challenging. And without doubt, organic farming isn’t a cure-all and may not work for many farmers (just as ostrich and deer farming never caught on). Still, none of this explains the low uptake of organic farming in Ireland. So why don’t farmers want to go organic?
WHY WONT FARMERS GO ORGANIC?
One answer is that some are happy. Happy with their return on investment, the effective wage per hour when calculated against income. Farmers who’ve found a niche or vast economy of scale. These farmers exist and they are doing fine farming conventionally using intensive systems and doing everything that the environmental movement hates – using lots of fertilizers, pesticides and antibiotics. It works for them so why would they change?
However for every farmer like the one above, there are many not doing so well. The average farming income is stagnant or falling. Working long, unsociable hours and making a negative return on investment. (Of course lack of profits isn’t affecting the meat factories, the food processors, the suppliers to the farmers or the supermarkets selling on the end product. They all make profit almost every year – if they didn’t they’d go bust.) The truth is the average Irish farmer would be financially better off putting the same amount of working hours into stacking shelves in a supermarket and putting his/her land out to rent or into forestry. Or they could consider a new farming enterprise, one of which might be organic farming.
The thing is, many won’t even consider organic farming as an option. Many seem aware of the pitfalls and drawbacks and none of the advantages. But here’s the crux! Many farmers have never considered that some in the greater farming industry would prefer if the average Irish farmer didn’t rock the boat by going organic. The simple truth is that there are those who will lose out financially if more farmers go organic. And I’m guessing that their opinions are having a negative effect on the general perception of organics within the wider farming community. They include:
- The agro-chemical companies who supply pesticides, herbicides and fungicides which are heavily restricted in organics.
- Petroleum based fertiliser manufacturers lose out as farmers maximise on-farm sources of manure and natural nutrient to improve soil condition.
- The local farming cooperatives / stores who sell all of the above see a drop in sales.
- Vets are generally busier in conventional farms as large numbers of animals are pushed through more intensive systems.
- And the drug companies supplying the medicines to fix sick animals see a falloff in their sales.
To conclude then: for those would be organic farmers, be sure to take all your organic information with a pinch of salt.
The May noticeboard can be found here