Grower re­turns must in­crease to en­sure the ex­pan­sion of our or­ganic food sec­tor

This year’s lower yields mean we should ex­pect to pay more for Ir­ish or­ganic fruit and veg, re­ports Grace Ma­her

Irish Independent - Farming - - ORGANICS -

THIS year’s un­usual weather pat­terns have in­creased fi­nan­cial bur­dens on farm­ers, and with in­put costs ris­ing, the months ahead will be chal­leng­ing.

Veg­etable grow­ers are count­ing the costs from re­duced yields in many crops and eval­u­at­ing sup­ply for win­ter mar­kets.

Dif­fi­cult ques­tions will be asked as we try to as­cer­tain whether this year was just an anom­aly or if it is some­thing that will be a reg­u­lar oc­cur­rence in the fu­ture.

Build­ing re­silience into crop plan­ning to deal with these sce­nar­ios is both risky and ex­pen­sive. Ir­ish grow­ers will be look­ing for sup­port from the re­tail chains and con­sumers, as prices must in­crease if grow­ers are to con­tinue to in­vest and ex­pand in this im­por­tant sec­tor.

In June, a Euro­pean In­no­va­tion Part­ner­ship (EIP) project started work­ing with 11 or­ganic grow­ers na­tion­wide. The EIP pro­gramme is funded and op­er­ated by the De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture, along with the Euro­pean Agri­cul­tural Fund for Ru­ral Devel­op­ment.

Max­imis­ing Or­ganic Pro­duc­tion Sys­tems (MOPS) is work­ing on many dif­fer­ent fo­cus ar­eas, but key to the project is mon­i­tor­ing cli­mate data.

Gil­lian West­brook, Ir­ish Or­ganic As­so­ci­a­tion CEO and project man­ager, ex­plained: “By in­cor­po­rat­ing cli­mate mon­i­tor­ing into this three-year project we can build a re­ally ac­cu­rate pic­ture of what is hap­pen­ing on each of the par­tic­i­pat­ing farms around the coun­try and cor­re­late that in­for­ma­tion to what is be­ing grown on farm.

“Us­ing this in­for­ma­tion, the grower might choose to adapt their crop plan to their own cli­matic en­vi­ron­ment to max­imise ef­fi­cien­cies at farm level, par­tic­u­larly in dif­fi­cult years.”

The com­bi­na­tion of se­vere cold at the start of the spring, fol­lowed by wet con­di­tions and then pro­longed drought, have put crops un­der sig­nif­i­cant pres­sure.

John Ho­gan, crop agron­o­mist on the MOPS project, said: “In ex­treme weather like this the plant be­comes so stressed that it just shuts down and stops grow­ing.

“Even when con­di­tions do im­prove it is dif­fi­cult to get the plant grow­ing again and this has a high im­pact on yields.

“How­ever, it is en­cour­ag­ing to see that grow­ers with high or­ganic mat­ter in their soils (like some on the MOPS project) have fared bet­ter, as these soils have man­aged to re­tain higher mois­ture and nu­tri­ent lev­els and plants are less stressed, with the re­sult that it can im­pact less se­verely on yields.”

Bord Bia re­search shows that 34pc of or­ganic food sales here be­fore 2017 were fruit and veg­eta­bles, so it is vi­tal that grow­ers are sup­ported by re­tail­ers and con­sumers in dif­fi­cult grow­ing years.

Con­sump­tion pat­terns dur­ing the hot sum­mer al­tered as peo­ple ate more sal­ads.

As au­tumn con­tin­ues there will be a re­turn to­wards more sta­ple veg­etable crops, and we should all ex­pect to pay more if we want a con­tin­ued sup­ply of Ir­ish veg­eta­bles on our shelves.

BUILD­ING RE­SILIENCE INTO CROP PLAN­NING IS RISKY AND EX­PEN­SIVE

Grace Ma­her is devel­op­ment of­fi­cer with the Ir­ish Or­ganic As­so­ci­a­tion. Email: grace.ma­her@irishoa.ie

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