Pat O’Connor describes his farming system as “niche production within an already existing niche market”.
at is a livestockless organic farmer based near Newcastle in Clonmel, with 112ac on the Tipperary side of the Waterford border.
“I would say there are 10 to 15 livestock organic tillage farmers in the country, and each has developed specific management practices for their farm,” he says.
Pat started farming this land in 1989 and was aware from the start that the soil was tired from being worked for a very long time.
“In 2015 I had what could only be described as a bounty crop on paper – each field yielded 4 t/ac – but upon analysis it was very clear to me that the amount of inputs required to produce those yields continued to grow achieve was not sustainable.” he says.
“I became more a hauler than a farmer, bringing tons of fertilizer and sprays to produce a decent crop.
“I had gone on organic farm walks over the years; the seed was sown and I started seriously considering converting.”
Pat made the switch in unusual circumstances: He joined through the Organic Farming Scheme (OFS) with no financial support as it did not open in 2017.
“I had made the decision to convert when my counselor, Mary Lynch, called to say OFS would not be opening. I said, “I’ve made my decision, so submit an application to the Irish Organic Association.”
“As a result, I gradually brought land into organic farming, starting with 36ac and adding more land over the following years.
“I am very happy with how it went. However, stickless tillage isn’t for everyone – you need to change your mindset.
“Conventional tillage farmers are used to straight tramlines, straight ditches and no weeds, so you have to get away from that and realize that when things go wrong, there are no easy fixes.”
Pat works closely with a neighboring conventional dairy farmer, trading manure and farmyard manure for silage from his clover and grassland meadows.
“This relationship works really well for both of us,” he says. “I import approved fertilizer; Other livestock farmers use more plant materials to improve soil fertility.
“Despite organic fertilization, I notice that the soil is tiring. My soil indexes are mostly three and four which is excellent and I have always limed well but my soil has really benefited from the introduction of clover.
“As any organic farmer knows, clover really drives an organic system, both in terms of productivity and soil improvement. My goal is to plant about 25 percent of the farm in fertility-enhancing grass and clover turf each year to revitalize the soil.”
The main crop grown is oats for the Flahavan Porridge Market.
“In 2023 I will be 18 ac winter oats, 18 ac clover, 18 ac spring oats with clover undersown, some barley and the rest will be pure spring oats,” says Pat.
“I have been experimenting with undersowing for the past few years. Last year it didn’t work well because the harvest was too strong, but this year it was fantastic.
“When I undersow clover and grass in the spring, I reduce the sowing rate of the oats from 12st/ac to 9st and after 3-4 weeks sow the grass and clover seeds.
“You then have to roll it to make sure the clover seed is in contact with the ground.
“When it comes to harvesting, you need to cut higher because clover and grass are vigorous enough—I usually cut 6 to 8 inches deep into the oats.
“The dry conditions this year made it ideal; wet years pose more challenges. Undercropping has tremendous potential to improve crop diversity and quality, but we need more research on this in ecological systems.”
Weed control is an obvious area of concern for farmers considering organic crop production.
“In my experience, the most important thing is to plow the land well,” says Pat. “I don’t go deep, only 6 inches, but you have to make sure everything is buried. Then the floor needs to be smoothed out.
“When my neighbors sow barley, I sow spring oats to make sure the crows don’t descend on my fields. There is a good population of buzzards keeping crows at bay and that is welcome!
“I use an old Massey corn drill to sow seeds and it works perfectly, setting seeds 2 inches deep. The next machine these fields see is the combine harvester.
“Canola sown years ago still produces volunteers and there are some weeds like thistles and lobesach, but overall weed loading is low as clover-grass and oats compete well with weeds.”
Pat is a member of the Limerick/Tipperary organic group which he thinks is a great resource.
“It’s important to talk to other organic farmers and it’s a fantastic source of knowledge as most organic farmers are happy to share their experiences,” he says.
“We need some serious research into organic farming to maximize our productivity on the farm.
“The interest in organic farming is huge and hopefully will no longer be perceived as a niche.
“At the same time we need to monitor new markets developing and ensure that research and support services such as seed providers are in place to allow the sector to reach its full potential in Ireland.”
Grace Maher is Development Officer at the Irish Organic Association, email@example.com
https://www.independent.ie/business/farming/tillage/tillage-farm-profiles/the-level-of-inputs-required-to-keep-making-those-yields-was-not-sustainable-so-i-switched-to-organic-42066081.html “The level of inputs required to get those yields wasn’t sustainable – so I went organic.”