The work and expense involved in converting to and maintaining an organic farm needs to be better recognised according to Nigel Renaghan, who responded to the news of a “low” uptake of this year’s Organic Farming Scheme.

The Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) Organics Project Team chairman is questioning whether the juice is worth the squeeze with this scheme.

This week, Agriland reported that 317 applications were received in respect of the 2021 Organic Farming Scheme.

‘Pilgrim farmers’ of the Organic Farming Scheme

When opening the scheme, Minister of State Pippa Hackett said that the “significant level of funding provided for this new scheme” would facilitate the entry of 400 to 500 farmers into organic farming.

Funding of €4 million was allocated to facilitate the re-opening of the scheme this year.

“I’m one of the pilgrim farmers within Ireland, that’s what we’re called; there’s around 60 of us that never got into the scheme the last time. We didn’t get in the last time, but stuck with the organic farming, even though we didn’t get any conversion money or payments,” Renaghan told Agriland.

“The main thing is that these farmers are likely going to be in now, but also, they need to get the right conversion payment for the work.

“Income foregone is talked about – the work and expense these farmers have had to endure has to be recognised by the Department of Agriculture and paid accordingly.

“The money that is there needs to ringfenced; it needs to be distributed to the farmers that are in organics and not taken out of the system for training inspectors and whatnot.”

Benefit more from REAP

Renaghan said he has spoken to “an awful lot of farmers” who wanted to join the Organic Farming Scheme, but felt by joining the Rural Environmental-Agri Pilot Programme (REAP) instead, they would benefit more.

Farmers in the Organic Farming Scheme are excluded from REAP. In REAP, farmers will receive a flat participation payment of €1,200. After that, there will be a results-based environmental payment that will be linked to an assessment.

Farmers entering the Organic Farming Scheme could qualify for yearly payments of up to €220/ha during the conversion period and up to €170/ha when they have achieved full organic status.

‘Is the juice worth the squeeze?’

“I think it’s a disgrace we have a Green Party minister overseeing organics and yet this shambolic tale of 317 farmers applying for the scheme is a reflection in terms of commotion, lack of commitment to and lack of education surrounding this,” Renaghan continued.

“The government talks about getting 7.5% organics by 2030 – so how are they going to achieve that? We are lagging behind with the lack of training in this area.

“What they need to do is turn around and say right, we have to ask ourselves: why haven’t people joined? The reasons for that are very simple – it’s the administrative burden; it’s the cost of converting your farm; and on top of that, it’s the money you have to pay the certification bodies.

“When you take that all out of what you’re getting paid, you have to ask yourself: is the juice worth the squeeze?

“The €220/ha needs to be moved to €520/ha and the €170/ha needs to be €470/ha and that’s where we’re at. That’s more realistic.

“If they are serious about this, what they should do is create a viable future for organic farmers.

“Ireland needs to wake up – the government needs to wake up. A hard look needs to be taken at this. This isn’t rocket science, just needs a bit of joined-up thinking.

“There is very little commitment to this. People are perplexed.”

Minister says there was a ‘strong’ response to scheme

Meanwhile, Minister Pippa Hackett has said the response to the Organic Farming Scheme was “strong” and that if all 317 of those who applied are eligible and go ahead and convert, there will be an increase of more than 20% in the number of farmers who will farm organically in Ireland under the scheme.

“Between that and the geographical spread of applications being so broad, the indications are very positive,” Minister Hackett said.

“The breakdown by sector, and the land area involved, will only be available when the farmers’ 2021 Basic Payment Scheme [BPS] applications are lodged later this month, but I’m very hopeful that all types of farming will be well represented.

“I also expect that we should be able to accommodate all the eligible farmers who wish to go ahead, subject to their applications meeting the criteria.”

The minister added that demand for all types of organic produce “is strong right across both domestic and European markets”.

“Organic farming also cuts down on input costs and is less intensive leading to a better lifestyle for many farm families,” the senator said.

“Because of this and indeed other advantages, I will continue to drive growth in the organic sector in any way I can.”