Agri-Food Series: Going Organic with Gordon McCoy of McCoy Organic Farm

Gordons

The best way forward? In the latest in our Agri-Food series, Gordon McCoy of McCoy Organic Farm talks about the challenges and benefits of converting his family farm to organic. 


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Gordon McCoy started to move into organic farming 14 years ago, mainly to turn his family farm into a more viable business. Living on the McCoy Organic Farm in Clones, County Monaghan, with his wife and four young children, McCoy has organic cattle, sheep and poultry on a 77-acre site. Though it’s now a successful business, McCoy says he has learned many lessons after making the switch to organic.

Why did you decide to go organic?

“When I took over the running of the farm from my father in 2004, it was a small operation. Until then, my main focus had been a carpentry business. The farm didn’t bring in most of the business then, but now it’s definitely the other way round. As I started looking at options for growth, organic was easily the best way forward.

“We went organic for both health and money reasons, really. Growing up, I’d seen how a lot of farms used pesticides heavily, and it’s not the healthiest way of doing things. I always thought there had to be a better way.

“As for the financial side, the subsidies available to organic farmers from both the Irish government and the EU made the change worthwhile, and allowed us to keep a smaller stock in better conditions. If you were a normal farmer, you might have 100 to 120 cattle on 100 acres of land. With organic, you could have 70 cattle on that same land, and the subsidy makes up the difference.”

Recommended reading: Seminar - The UK-Ireland Agri-Food Sector: A Shared History, A Shared Future

What were the biggest obstacles to changing to organic?

“Starting small was helpful for us, as getting organic certification takes two full years – during that time farmers don’t receive any organic premium. We applied and started using organic methods in 2004 but weren’t certified organic until 2006.

“It would have been much more expensive for us if the farm had been our main business at the time. But we were only starting out and had a small number of cattle to feed. For established farmers with a large cattle stock, this could be an obstacle, as organic cattle feed costs twice as much as regular feed. On the other hand, organic farmers don’t need to spend nearly as much time and money on expensive commercial fertilisers, or medication for livestock. In organic farming there’s a lower rate of antibiotic use – you’re not adding penicillin to feed, and you can rotate stock without the need for wormers. You just need to plan ahead more. With organic you have to put more thought into it, instead of just throwing money at it.


“Talking to other farmers is crucial. One of the most important things is the sense of community among Ireland’s organic farmers, who stick together and help each other out”

Gordon McCoy, McCoy Organic Farm

“Making the change to organic farming, even with a small operation, was not without its challenges. The difficult thing for us has been finding out and remembering exactly what you can and can’t use as well as there being twice as much paperwork involved. There’s a lot more travel involved, too, and sourcing everything from livestock to feed becomes tougher. If you want to source organic breeding stock for cattle, then you have to be ready to travel much further. You can’t just go to your local mart.

“Another potential difficulty comes when changing long-used farming methods, which is something a lot of would-be organic farmers struggle with. If you have a sick animal, for example, if you were organic you’d go down a pathological route instead of pumping antibiotics into it. The animal can only take two or three rounds of antibiotics before it can no longer be called or classified as organic.”

Would you recommend going organic to other farmers?

“Organic farming is not for everyone – every set-up is different. What’s good for me might be no good for someone else. I’ve seen guys get into organic farming thinking they want to do it, but then in the end they don’t want to adapt. Or it might come down to having land that’s just not suitable for organic farming.

“I’d only recommend it if certain boxes were ticked as mentioned previously, and if you’ve got someone who is flexible and really wants to make changes.”

What advice would you have for other farmers making the change?

“Ultimately, be a good listener. Be ready to learn and adapt to change. Every day of life is a learning day, but, in farming, some could say that’s even more important. You might learn something one day that has a big effect on your business and income in future.

“Talking to other farmers is crucial. One of the most important things is the sense of community among Ireland’s organic farmers, who stick together and help each other out. Collaboration is key.

“When we decided to go organic in 2004, just 0.5% of Ireland’s farmers were certified organic. The number today is only around 2%, according to the most recent figures available from Eurostat. I’m an active member of a group of some 30 organic cattle farmers, who hold regular meetings and give talks, as well as helping each other find practical solutions to problems.

“Members of the group recently decided to come together to source organic cattle feed, which is not readily available at local wholesalers or supermarkets. Together, we were able to source high-quality feed from Scotland. It also worked out to be better value as we could buy in bulk. The quality was right, the price was right, and it worked out well for all of us – that’s why it’s good to work together. With the recent addition of new poultry houses, we plan to continue to the steady growth of the organic farm business.

“For us, the move to organic production has definitely been a success – and one that we look forward to continuing with.”

 

Comments 1

Carol McMahon on Wednesday, 19 September 2018 11:22

Interesting article

Interesting article
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