Nothing compares to ‘organic pride’ for this midlands farmer

Kilbeggan farmer Frank O’Brien, who has been involved in organic beef and sheep farming for almost 20 years, will host a Teagasc open day on his farm on Wednesday, June 27.

Celebrity chef Catherine Fulvio will give a cookery demonstration on the day, to showcase the quality and versatility of organic lamb to potential buyers and consumers.

Although he says the margins are “pretty slim”, Frank is happy with his decision to go organic.

“I like working with animals; I was never a big machinery person. I’m at the stage where I have a young family and I’m glad they can grow-up on a farm where chemicals aren’t used,” he said.

I have pride in what I produce. It can be a challenge, but I don’t mind that. I believe my system is as profitable as it can be, on the type of land that I have.

As the fifth generation of his family to farm at Ballybroder, Co. Westmeath, Frank grew mushrooms between 1989 and 2004.

“The cost of labour started going up – but the prices weren’t rising. It’s a labour-intensive industry and it was a case of either investing and ramping up, or getting out. I chose to exit,” said Frank who farms 120ac.

While the mushroom production didn’t last, it sowed the seeds of the organic idea in his head.

I had been using very little fertiliser. It was around the time of the BSE crisis and the purchase for destruction scheme. It was a bad time for farming. Organic for me was about controlling the costs of inputs.

It hasn’t always been easy, Frank said.

“The market has not always been there, although things are a bit better now. There is nothing more frustrating than producing something organically and selling it conventionally.

“10 to 15 years ago there wasn’t a well established means of getting organic produce to the supermarkets. It takes a while, the sheep end of things is still struggling, some are selling as conventional -,particularly with lamb,” said the Kilbeggan farmer.

Shared experiences

While some organic producers sell to customers directly, he said he would find this hugely time consuming.

“Sales seem to be picking up at present, but it’s mainly in the European market,” he said.

He advises that anyone considering converting to organic should speak with other farmers about their experiences.

“There are as many different types of organic farmers as there are conventional. You have to find a system that works for you,” he said.

Topics for discussion at the farm walk will include: sheep flock performance; animal health and housing; grassland and soil fertility management; and cattle production.