In a recent survey of over 1,000 farmers caried out by ifac, over half of beef farmers said they considered the organic route, but one man whose well advanced down that road is John Purcell, who is both a producer and a processor.
When asked to comment on the trend towards organic beef, John confidently predicts that the next five years will see a huge growth in the national organic beef herd, currently only at less than 1% of total herd, we should be able to grow this to 7-9%. As to why we’re not there already as a farming nation, he points out that Irish Farmers are conditioned and have some ingrained ideas on their method of farming and are slow to change. In fact, when John took over the family farm in 1998, and decided to go down the organic route almost immediately, he laughingly recalls that his father didn’t speak to him for weeks afterwards.
“Aversion to organics is more of a cultural thing that a strictly economic decision, because when you do the sums, the case for organic is very strong. It’s the more business-focused farmers who are the ones to change first, and new young farmers in particular are very keen on checking out the case for organics.”
John explains that his model is higher gross margin with lower turnover. As to whether the margin will remain, he’s confident that it will, stressing that demand is bigger than supply. Last December, he issued 6-month prices to farmers as a roadmap of where the market was heading, and the exercise will be repeated shortly for the second half of the year.
This takes the guesswork out of things for current or prospective organic beef farmers, which is driving the market upwards. John also points out that the Irish organic beef scene is very dynamic and easily accessed, with twelve to thirteen organic marts for buying stores and weanlings, a lot of this activity is online.”
As to the process of converting to organic, the farmer makes a formal application to the scheme. There’s a €270 per hectare grant in the first two years and €180/ha thereafter to help smooth the transition from a financial perspective. It’s also important to remember that the farmer can also continue to stock (not buy in) his conventional cattle that will have to be sold conventionally during these first two years, at the same time as buying in organic stores/weanlings.
When asked to comment on how we rate against the rest of Europe, John paints a very positive picture. “We’re canvasing a lot of blue-chip retail customers on the continent, if we had a bigger volume available to us, we would be able to lock in these larger retailers.”
“Ireland currently exports around 90% of our conventional beef, making us the fourth largest beef exporter in the world. Right now, some 7.8% of European cattle are organic, but here in Ireland, the percentage number is less than 1%, so we certainly have a lot of catching up to do and the scope to do it”
“We’re canvasing a lot of blue-chip retail customers on the continent, if we had a bigger volume available to us, we would be able to lock in these larger retailers.”
“When we eventually increase our national organic herd and we will, all the European markets are open and available to us. We’re only scratching the surface in countries like Germany and Holland. There will very definitely be a warm welcome for Irish organic beef thanks to the reputation of our product and the wonderful work Bord Bia have done in selling Ireland as a high-quality food supplier”
“There’s so much confidence in our product, in fact a lot of our Irish organic beef is sold to baby food companies in Europe – that’s the ultimate sign of trust in your product” In terms of what the roadblocks are to greater organic growth, John points out to one key issue, Irish farmers are slow to consider organic as an option unlike their European counterparts”.
Looking to the future, John is confident that this roadblock can be overcome, as there is a big drive by Government and its bodies to introduce conventional farmers into a better and more sustainable way of farming. Irish organic beef has the opportunity to thrive on the European markets because of its quality and grass-based credentials. “This opportunity by way of example is 9-12% of the total European shopping basket is organic, the demand is there and growing year on year. Irish processors have great routes to European retailers – and this will apply just as much for organic beef as for conventional.”
“Ultimately, consumers want ‘beef with a story’, and Irish organic beef has that story in spades.