Teagasc in association with the Organic Trust occasionally run open days at selected farms throughout Ireland to showcase best practice. It also allows prospective organic farmers to network and learn from those who are “walking the walk”. Two Transition Members went along on the day and the following article (printed in the Northern Standard) gives a flavour of what they saw on the farm tour.
Monaghan newest start-up: the Irish Organic Mill
Few farmers have escaped the endless challenge of rising costs, falling prices and increased regulation. However in an effort to increase viability, two innovative Monaghan Farmers are teaming up to launch a new venture under the brand name, Irish Organic Mill. The Irish Organic Mill will serve the niche but growing market for stoneground baking flour. They hope to launch in 2021. Dermot McNally spoke to one of the two farming entrepreneurs to find out more.
Anyone familiar with the organic beef and cereal sector in Co Monaghan will probably have come across Mark Gillanders, Ballinagall, just outside Monaghan Town. Mark has been farming full time since taking over from his father in 2004. At that time Mark changed from a dairy system to bull beef and is farming organically since the farm entered conversion in 2009. He secured full organic status for the land and produce in 2011 and is certified by the Irish Organic Association. Since then his thriving farm has been the location for Teagasc and Organic farming demonstration walks over the years which is a testament to both the quality of the farm and the approachability of the farmer.
Since taking over Mark increased the area farmed and now works 135 acres. Some Monaghan farmers hold the opinion that it’s nigh impossible to grow cereals competitively in this area but organic farmers in the county have proved it’s possible. Mark’s farm is on a gley/acid brown earth type soil (Soil Type 25), which can be sticky and hard to work, owing to the gley component, but also has reasonable natural fertility. And by aiming for quality (not quantity) and selling into the organic market (which pays better than the conventional cereal market) it’s viable on Monaghan land. In fact, Mark says that the biggest limitation he faces in terms of quality of land is the steep nature of many of his drumlin hills which make tractor work impractical. In terms of fertility and creating the right soil conditions, he combines the spreading of farm yard manure, green manures (plants grown to increase soil fertility) and nutrient cycling added by the grazing cattle. Red clover is also a huge driver of fertility on grasslands as it extracts nitrogen from the air and puts it into the soil. These measures in combination help to create very productive land. Organic farmers aren’t able to spread bagged fertiliser which many conventional farmers see as a huge limitation. However on the other side, organic farms generally have much lower input costs and their soils are almost always healthier. Science is proving that soils tend to be much more biologically rich and balanced when chemical fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides aren’t used.
To date Mark’s income is mainly derived from selling cattle fattened for beef, oats grown on contract for Flahavans as well as selling grain to other organic farmers looking to fatten their animals before the factory. Mark admits that changing from conventional farming to organic was challenging but his passion for learning has brought his skills on leaps and bounds. As well as learning on the job and sharing insights with other farmers who are on the same journey, Mark continued his education with a distance learning Masters in Organic Farming from Scotland. All of this has fed into his decision to move one step closer to the end consumer – growing and milling his own flour (it will be stoneground) in partnership with Michael Rafferty from Carrickmacross. The men spotted a growing opportunity for healthy produce and this was a major factor in their decision. However in addition, the price of organic beef isn’t enough to sustain an organic farmer so they needed new revenue streams. Market research has also been vital: the success of other producers such as Dunany Flour from County Louth and Ballymore Organics in Kildare has boosted their confidence that a market exists for the output. Indeed COVID has actually increased the demand for organic and home baking since lockdown so the omens are promising. To move the concept further they grew some test crops in 2020 to establish the varieties most suited which was a success. Then upon harvest, they had the produce finely milled: the resulting stonegound flour was of a very high grade and flavour which drove the project to the next stage of development, full launch later this year.
Irish Organic Mill
The plan is to utilise space in the Ballybay food hub to mill and package the flour they grow on the two farms. They plan to sell to both large end users (such as bakeries using organic flour) and also to the end consumer under the brand name, Irish Organic Mill. Finbarr Daly, CEO at Enterprising Monaghan and the Local Enterprise Office in Monaghan have helped them with funding and support. The team are currently finalising plans for a website for the Irish Organic Mill to enable online purchase by consumers. It’s an exciting time and they expect to have a busy year finalising all aspects of the business launch. We wish them well and will update readers on new details as they arise!
Finally if you are interested in learning more check out the Irish Organic Association’s facebook page: they released a promotional video in January 2021 on Mark Gillanders and his farm. You can also watch Mark explaining his enterprise in a video produced for Agriland in November 2018. In this video he explains the grain and cattle finishing side of his business.