Why should you consider organic farming? Pat Lalor who runs Ballard Organic Farm in Kilbeggan, Co. Westmeath, puts forward a strong case for it. To him, the decision to run an organic farm is a no-brainer.
Ballard Organic Farm is used for not only food production like beef and cereals, but as an open-farm for visiting and learning too. It has been owned and operated by the Lalor family since 1844, today being run by Pat himself.
In July 1939 Pat’s father had some innovative ideas for the land. He erected a windmill for pumping water to cattle, which replaced having to pump by hand. In 1956 he was the first farmer in Ireland to erect a 'self-feed' silage system, which over the next 25 years became the standard system for winter feeding of cattle.
Nowadays, Pat mainly runs the farm himself, with his son helping out with the porridge side of business.
“I do the day to day work including the buying and selling of the animals and the growing of the crops and taking visiting groups around the farm. I hire local agricultural contractors to undertake the big annual operations such as silage making,” says Pat.
“In July 1999, I decided to convert to 'Certified Modern Organic Farming' and thus began Ballard Organic Farm. About this time Ballard Organic Farm also became an open farm for visitors.”
Ballard Organic Beef
A significant new beef enterprise is currently being established at Ballard Organic Farm. It was decided to establish a suckler herd so that all of the beef produced on the farm would be from the family’s own herd of suckler cows. The main reason for this radical change was to significantly improve animal quality in terms of carcass confirmation, meat quality and animal efficiency.
Ballard Organic Cereals
Traditionally, cereals have always been grown at Ballard Organic Farm, as part of a balanced and sustainable rotation. Typically, the aim was to produce cereals for the beef cattle enterprise and to sell surpluses to other organic farmers. Over time this practice has changed and while some wheat is still grown for home use, the emphasis now is on the growing of high quality oats for human consumption. You can find out more about Pat’s porridge and oats business here, which goes under the title Kilbeggan Organic.
“We make oats, but we add value to them by converting them into porridge oats as well. We also make organic oat cookies, and organic porridge bread mix.
“We won an award for our oats products, actually. As part of the Euro-Toques Ireland competition, our porridge was chosen as the best in its category. It was a great achievement because you don’t apply to be considered; the judges pick a winner from all businesses that are out there.”
Why should you run an organic farm?
“Every farm in the country should be organic, I think. It makes you more in tune with the soil, for example. It makes sense because you’re feeding the soil first and foremost, and that in turn feeds the plants and animals. It’s more economic for farmers too, I think,” explains Pat.
This doesn’t mean there’s not work involved, however: “If you’re a bad conventional farmer, it doesn’t mean you’ll be a good organic farmer! You need to really understand what you’re doing.”
Pat believes that there’s more to organic than what people think, as he says there’s a difference between ‘organic’ and ‘certified organic’.
“In essence, everything that’s grown in the ground is organic. Certified is something different however, as it’s laid down in EU legislation. It’s actually the only farming method that’s legislated like this by the EU. There are a lot of rules to abide by, and a lot of inspections. I think farmers are all used to that though; and if you’re doing things right it won’t matter that an inspector’s coming.”
Pat doesn’t use any sprays on his soil: “I don’t use industrial fertiliser, no industrial chemicals, no herbicides, no fungicides, no insecticides, no Round-up. I don’t have a sprayer, even. We use farmyard manure.”
“You need to understand and respect the diversity of the soil under your feet; the soil is a living entity. We don’t always, as farmers, appreciate that. There are billions of bacteria in one teaspoon of soil, and if all that life is healthy and diverse, it will help you succeed in organic farming,” says Pat.
He cites legumes as the main way of getting nitrogen into his soil. “Legumes, like clover; they take nitrogen from the atmosphere and put it into the ground and into the plants. It’s nitrogen fixation and it means you’re getting your nitrogen from the fresh air itself.”
Like the Scandinavian countries, Ireland should be aiming to be totally organic by the time the 2020’s come around, believes Pat. However, it doesn’t look like it’s going that way. Unless farmers begin taking courses such as the ones provided by NOTS, and visiting demonstration farms, it’ll be a hard thing to achieve.
“I was part of the demo farms about four or five years ago, but they rotate the farmers involved so I’m not anymore. I do still have my farm open to visitors though, and I run the visits myself. It’s almost exclusively mainland Europeans who visit my farm, such as German or French people. Incoming tour operators actually organise visits for those wanting to learn how a real organic farm works, or even a real farm in general.”
There are business opportunities available after converting your farm to organic, says Pat: “We already export 80% of what we produce, so with organic there are more export opportunities but also more import substitution opportunities. I think there has been more examples of entrepreneurship seen in organic farmers than conventional, let’s say.”
How do I turn my farm into an organic one?
For Pat, the decision seems an obvious one. He admits that there’s a small struggle at the beginning to launch an organic farm, as well as plenty of paperwork to deal with throughout the years. If you don’t like paperwork, don’t go into organic, advises Pat!
You can apply through several organisations; Pat went through Organic Trust. You must submit a plan and take a course. Then, there’s a two-year conversion period, during which you must feed your animals only organic food etc, but you may not label your produce as ‘certified organic’. This can be a bit tough, admits Pat. However, it’s worth it in the long-run.
“Your income goes down and your costs go up, which is hard. But there are schemes run by the Department of Agriculture to help farmers a bit during that time; right now they’re oversubscribed though, so that’s something that I think should be changed,” explains Pat.
If you're interested in making the change over to organic, click here for more information. To see more about Pat's farm and how to visit it, click here.