Organic farming in Northern Ireland is perceived as something akin to the activities of Tom and Barbara of The Good Life. As a result, farmers here tend to shun anything alternative and stick to the traditional crop and cattle production. Only 0.85 per cent of land in Northern Ireland is organic.
However, with the assistance of two focused farmers and Greenmount College, farmers in Northern Ireland are following the ‘green’ revolution of organic farming. The eco-friendly, sustainable practice became prominent in Britain during the mid-90s and has the Royal seal of approval. But it wasn't until 1999 that the system was really being considered as an alternative form of farming by Northern Ireland's traditional farmers.
Farmers in Northern Ireland have traditionally embraced conventional farming methods of milk, meat or crop production, which use pesticides and chemical fertilisers.
Adrian Saunders, organic farming advisor at Greenmount college, explains: ‘Organic farming has always had this clean green image. A number of farmers have looked at the organic option and felt that it was not real agriculture.'
Gradually farmers began to realise the environmental and financial benefits and converted. 'Either they are interested in improving the environment or they have looked at it as a niche market with premium prices. But many see it as an alternative means of production, which they feel happier with.’
Organic farming follows a philosophy of feeding the soil rather than the plant. According to Saunders, farmers recycle nutrients through composts and slurries produced on the farm. 'Organic matter helps preserve soil structure, water retention, nutrient retention and aids drainage, thus providing the soil with the right balance of air, water and nutrients,’ explains Saunders.
John McCormick farms near Helen's Bay and is Northern Ireland's largest market garden vegetable producer. His main market is through a growing box delivery service.
In livestock production farmers manage stock to promote good health through sound husbandry techniques. They also favour herbal and homoeopathic remedies, and supplementing animal feed with seaweed meal, as a primary approach to animal health, with antibiotics very much a final resort.
But organic production has been slow to take off. With about 195 organic farmers in the province, organic farming is lagging behind Britain. There are only about 8.5 thousand hectares of organic land in Northern Ireland, accounting for about 0.85 per cent of the land.
David Laughlin was the first producer of organic milk in Northern Ireland and has gone on to help develop the organic milk market. Laughlin converted his Kilrea farm in 1999 after he spent time on farms in New Zealand.
Laughlin explains: ‘I wasn't your typical conventional farmer before that. I always had this idea that we have been using far too many chemicals and it was upsetting the balance. I got my eyes opened when I went to New Zealand and I saw there was an awful lot I could bring home with me.'
However, when Laughlin returned home he said the reaction was not positive.
'I got a very negative press at the time from many people and organisations, not least the Milk Marketing Board. They seemed to think that my head was stuck in the clouds and what I was saying wasn't actually relevant. Everybody had an opinion that organic farmers were something like the guys out of The Good Life, someone who wore sandals and lay about with cows, so it wasn't taken as seriously as mainstream farming.’
Laughlin ignored the negative reactions to his ideas and finished his conversion in May 2001. Laughlin explained the conversion to organic farming was not without its problems: 'It had been suggested to us by some that it would be a very difficult thing for us to do. If anyone says that to me it's like a red rag to a bull.' Eventually he was seen as a progressive farmer and began to be taken seriously.
Laughlin farms his herd sustainably and prefers 'green' practices. 'Organic farming is the way nature intended it to be. We farm without any agrichemicals, herbicides or fertilisers. We treat our animals as individuals rather than part of a herd ,using homoeopathy and herbal remedies. Nine times out of ten those will work but if they don't we resort to antibiotics.'
Despite reaping the benefits, Laughlin said conversion to organic farming is expensive. Organic farmers must undergo a conversion period of over two years, during which they cannot sell any produce as organic. But slowly the organic market is taking-off in the province because of a number of health scares.
'Everytime there is a health scare we see our sales take a jump. At the end of the day supermarkets do listen to their customers and more people want food that is additive-free. Organic food is particularly popular in the infant and elderly market, according to Laughlin.
Surveys have shown 70 per cent of all baby food sold in the UK is organic. 'Mothers don't want their children to be the one in three that have cancer, or they don't want their children to get asthma because they have reacted to the chemicals in conventional food.’
Laughlin explains American research has found organic baby milk contains at least three times the level of omega-3 fatty acids as normal milk.
Rex Humphrey, a co-pioneer, farms 560 hectares and has specialised in organic dairy, beef and cereals since 1999. With Laughlin he formed the United Irish Organics company.
Of the transition Humphrey explains: 'I thought it was a niche market and an interesting concept to take farming forward. We were on a cycle that was depleting the soil and sooner or later it had to come to an end.' Now Humphrey is reaping the benefits.
'Since we started our soil has greatly improved, our profitability and yields have gone up and there are signs we can farm sustainably for an indefinite period of time.’
Saunders advises any farmer who wishes to convert must legally register with a recognised organic certification body, such as the Soil Association, Organic Farmers and Growers, Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association or the Organic Trust. Certification usually costs a farmer between £250 and £500 a year.
Greenmount Organic Development Advisers have been involved in organic production since 1990 and have been providing assistance to farmers considering organic production. Right from the start, the campus has run two-day 'Introduction to Organic Production' courses several times a year, as well as a range of training sessions, seminars by guest speakers, and study tours.
The campus now has its own organic farm, which started conversion in 2002. It is used for demonstration, education, technology transfer, and research and development for the organic sector and wider agricultural industry.
Farmers can also benefit from the Organic Farming Scheme grant, which provides financial aid during the conversion stage.
As well as a whole range of advisory and information leaflets for farmers, Greenmount also publishes an organic 'Food Directory' so that consumers can find where they can buy local organic food. It is available from Greenmount (telephone +44 (0) 28 9442 6765), and is also available on the RURALni website.
By Heather Simpson