Living the organic dream on a farm in Offaly

Derek Fanning

Reporter:

Derek Fanning

Living the organic dream on a farm in Carrig

Ross and Amy Jackson with their organic ewe flock

A farm in Lacka, Carrig has been receiving praise and considerable media coverage because its owners are following an organic farming process in a way which is both extremely dedicated and inspirational.

Amy and Ross Jackson took the plunge a few years ago and decided to make their 120 acre farm completely organic. They have succeeded brilliantly, with the result that they are being held up as a role model of how to go about farming organically in a succcessful manner. They now have five kilometres of hedgerow and five acres of native woodland.

Amy and Ross had been operating a tillage and beef farm but decided to dramatically change course five years ago and convert to organic production. In the process they were going from the conventional to the unconventional, which was a brave move. They sat down and drew up a five year plan to chart their progress from conventional tillage and beef to being completely organic cereal, sheep and cattle.

Amy told the Tribune that the plan has gone well and now, at the end of five years, things are going well for them and they have no regrets. “We have got to just where we wanted to be at this stage,” she said. “Before we converted, our tillage and cattle setup was what you would usually find on an Irish farm, such as buying store cattle during the autumn. Now we are running a cereal enterprise of malting barley and spring oats. We also have a sheep enterprise with 125 ewes and a cattle enterprise where organic cattle are bought, grazed for the summer and sold in the autumn.”

The Jacksons describe themselves as being part-time farmers, because Ross works as an agricultural consultant and Amy works in Gurteen College.

Ross said he was inspired to change to organic when he saw that it was being successfully done on his brother's farm. Seeing such a positive operation piqued their interest and they did some research and planning. A major factor in their decision to change was the fact they both liked the idea of reducing the amount of chemicals being used on the farm. They also liked the prospect of trying their hand at something new. “We also believed,” added Ross, “there was potential to increase farm profits. I have experience in working with sheep and I was very interested in integrating sheep and tillage in an organic system.” They began the conversion process in 2015 and achieved full organic status for the land and produce in 2017.

The conversion process included reseeding the entire farm in 2015 and 2016. This was to improve the soil's fertility so that cereals could be successfully grown.

Another part of the conversion process was the winter housing of the cattle, and allowing them out finishing off grass over the summer. In May 2016 they sowed a herbal ley mixture which contained a diverse range of grasses, herbs and clovers. They aim of sowing this mixture was to produce well-balanced forage and not just large volumes of grass. Herbal ley doesn't call for high fertiliser inputs and is therefore perfect for organic farming. The Jacksons are using it to finish their lambs.

Over the five years they also spent €55,000 on fencing, farm roadways and a water system, for which they received grant-aid at a rate of 60%.

“There is a strong demand,” added Ross, “for organic cereals both for livestock and human consumption, which means there's a potential to make a good financial return. Coming from a tillage background weed control was my greatest concern, but you can manage that.

“We follow a rotation of a two to three year fertility building phase, followed by two to three years of cereals and then back to a grass / clover ley. The rotation provides the principal mechanism to provide crop nutrients and is a major way to control pests / diseases.” The aim is to have a winter grazing forage between cereal crops to provide winter grazing for the sheep. The winter forage includes vetch, radish, buckwheat, forage rape and turnip.

There's about 25 hectacres of land devoted to cereals, which is made up of spring oats and spring malting barley with a small area of lupins and oats. “The malting barley,” continued Ross, “is grown on contract for the organic distilling market as an organic single farm distillation for Waterford Distilleries and spring oats is grown on contract for Flahavan's organic porridge market.”

Lupins with oats were grown last years as a trial for feed for the sheep. Last year their oat crop yield was 2.2 tonnes per acre for which they achieved a price of €350 per tonne, while the malting barley crop yielded two tonnes per acre and the price achieved was €472 per tonne.

Amy says she loves farming. This affection was instilled during her childhood years when she visited her godmother, who managed a 1,200-head lowland flock in Northumberland. Amy often helped her godmother during lambing time and speaks with great fondness of her. “I always looked up to her.”

Amy studied environmental management in university and she uses some of the things she learned back then in her current farming practices. She keeps records of much of what happens on the farm; for example, she keeps records of the lambs from the moment of their birth until they are sold. Her attention to detail means she is better able to plan for the future.

The Jackson's sheep flock consists of 125 mature ewes and twenty ewe lambs with five rams. They operate a closed flock, only buying in rams (their current ram breeds are Charollais and Border Leicester). The ewe flocks is made up of Suffolk cross, Texel cross, Scotch / Blackface cross and homebred Border Leicester crosses. Most of the lambs are sold from mid-June to mid-November. They are all sold through the Offaly Quality Lamb Producer Group to Irish Country Meats (ICM) in Camolin, County Wexford. They are sold on the organic market at a price marking 15% greater than the conventional price.

They have decided to no longer winter cattle on their farm. What they do instead is buy organic store cattle in the spring, graze them until the end of the summer and then sell them to the organic processor and another organic livestock farmer.

The Jacksons do all their own ploughing, tilling, sowing, harvesting and silage making, thereby minimising the costs or production. Their aim is to eventually achieve a premium price for everything that is produced on the farm.

In June their farm was one of 12 organic farms in the Department of Agriculture's organic demonstration farm programme. As part of this, they did a tour of their farm for interested visitors on June 24. They enjoy showing their farm to other farmers and students as an example of organic farming in action. Amy believes if more of the general public spent time on sustainable Irish farms it would dispel prejudices which some people have against farming. “We love taking people on tours of our farm,” she remarks, “because it shows them not only practical knowledge but also a happy, positive way in which animals, agriculture and the environment can all work in harmony together.”

Their energy levels and ambition remain high. They have another five year plan during which they plan to spend more on infrastructural improvements, experiment with different crops and see if the market will present any more market opportunities.

Ross has some good advice for any farmer thinking of going organic. “For anyone thinking of going organic who has land good enough to plough, the obvious choice is oats; with barley you probably get a little less in the yield, but a higher return per ton, so it balances out financially.” He added that more and more farmers are turning to organic methods. “More and more farmers are realising that it's not just the right thing to; it's also a way of making a reasonable income.”