“The situation for hill farmers at present is dire”. So says Joe Condon, a certified organic hill farmer from Tipperary. But Joe’s story is a positive one, one with innovation, opportunity and sustainability at its core. However, before telling you about Joe’s plans for improving the lot for hill farmers in Ireland, the situation these farmers find themselves in needs to be outlined.
This situation is one of ever dwindling numbers, ever more restrictions on their farming practices, and very little light at the end of the tunnel.
Neilie O’Leary is the chair of the IFA’s hill farming committee. I spoke to Neilie about some of the issues facing the sector.
“Without a doubt, the biggest issues are the price of the hill lamb, and the fact that the numbers of farmers are dropping constantly. For the last 3-4 years, the lambs aren’t worth anything”.
The hill farming committee have a specific request. “Mariann Fischler Boel agrees that she would pay a coupled payment on environmental grounds. Our committee is looking for €35 a ewe. Unless it’s substantial, people won’t go back”.
One of the many consequences of the current situation could be the loss of native breeds: “The loss of our native breeds would be terrible. There is only one type of sheep fit for the hill, and that’s the Scottish blackface. There are a whole lot of lowland crossbreeds, which leads to undergrazing, because these breeds won’t feed.”
Many of the moves designed to improve the environment in the countryside, and to improve how the countryside interacts with urban areas and people, have had negative effects on the opportunities for hill farmers to make a living.
Gerry Gunning is also on the hill farming committee: “New problems have been created. The nitrates directive limits animal numbers because of a lack of housing facilities. And you can’t out-winter unless your stocking levels are below a certain level.”
I asked Gerry if there was a naturally lower stocking rate in hilly and commonage areas anyway: “There can be, but on good land, one of the requirements is that the land can only hold so many animals. A requirement of the nitrates directive is that there cannot be poaching of land.”
There has been some welcome progress around the whole area of recreation walkers. After years of protracted discussions, there seems to be a rapprochement which is keeping most people happy for now.
“There is a hill walking scheme in operation, and it is being rolled out in various places across the country. Its voluntary, but it is working – farmers are getting €2,000 a piece in some cases. Certainly, that has moved in the right direction.”
However, being nice to look at and recreate in can come at a cost for farmers: “It is also difficult to get planning in some areas where farmers might want to build housing, as they are scenic areas. There are also planning issues if some of these areas are near rivers - suitable sites can be hard to find.”
There has been destocking because of the Nitrates directive, but also because of the Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) legislation. “Because some of the areas were overgrazed, there has been a programme of destocking over the last 8 years through the Commonage Framework Plans. Sustainable stocking levels have been set for the ½ million hectares of commonage in Ireland.”
One of the effects of this has, ironically, been negative for biodiversity. Scrub encroachment has become a major issue in hilly areas, because of the reduction in animal numbers. Scrub literally chokes and smothers all other growth. In Special Areas of Conservation, as the name suggests, this is a major conservation issue.
According to Gerry “the balance between over and undergrazing is very narrow. When farmers destock their sheep, the hills become overgrown. Hill fires can emerge, as we’ve seen. Farmers need proper incentives to maintain the correct numbers in hilly areas”.
Along with all of this, like other farmers, there are problems with rising costs and reducing returns: “Sheep are being fed concentrates in the wintertime, and the price of concentrates is going up all the time. Even hay has to be brought in. The expenses are killing us,” according to Neilie.
The above obstacles and more exist for cattle, whose numbers are under even greater threat. The REPS poaching prevention requirements hit cattle farming harder, driving many to drop cattle altogether.
According to Gerry “if they have sufficient lowland, farmers can keep cattle, but in some of the hilly areas, the land mightn’t be that good for keeping cattle. But cattle farming in these areas is difficult because very few can finish the animals to slaughter. Many hill farmers depend upon trade.
“So the ban on Brazilian beef would be of serious significance to those farmers. Its important that prices are held up, and that dubious quality imports aren’t competing unfairly with our products. And in the case of hill farmers, the standard is as near to organic as you would get. So quality product is synonymous with the hill area.
The bigger Continental breeds favoured by farmers over the last 20 years or so poach the land more than traditional breeds, so are more specifically unsuited to hill, with the current set of its restrictions it faces.
All taken together, with the exception of progress with regard to rural tourism through the recent walkways agreement, this is a bleak picture. Enter Joe Condon.
Joe and his wife Eileen run an organic farming and food production business called Omega Beef Direct from their upland farm in south east Tipperary, at the foot of the Knockmealdowns. Joe has both upland commonage and some lowland. The terrain is in places tough, with heath, scrub, dry heath and dense bracken. Yet the Condons manage to not only survive but thrive.
They stock a Galloway heard, and sell direct to their consumers through two routes: farmers’ markets in Dungarvan and Waterford, and a direct delivery scheme run through his website.
The Galloways are an alternative to the heavy Continentals – less poaching coupled with good scrub prevention. And far from struggling to maintain a price, Joe is getting an organic mark up, avoids winter feed, finishes his own cattle and has managed to develop a very high profile for his product.
Many of the countries’ most prominent chefs and food writers such as John McKenna and Tom Doorley feature on the homepage of his omegabeefdirect.ie website. He has featured on Corrigan knows Food and just this month received more glowing reports in both the Irish Times and the Irish Independent.
Joe’s commonage has never been subjected to intensive agri-industrial treatment. And under the SACs, commonage can’t be subjected to synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and the like.
Joe has knowledge of and a stake in each part of the production of his meat: breed, butchering, distribution, marketing and consumer feedback are all part of what he does.
This is a heartening story, but it gets more heartening again. Joe has just received funding from the Organic Unit in the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for a feasibility study into extending his farming model for others to emulate.
“I’ll be writing a production protocol, from conception to consumption, and have mapped out a programme of activities for myself for the summer. Over the summer, I’ll be assessing whether what I do could be done elsewhere, in a co-ordinated fashion, complete with its own branding and marketing” according to Joe.
Joe feels that there is a market for meat from traditional breeds, and that there may also be specific nutritional advantages to this meat. There is research to suggest that Galloways, and that outdoor, grass fed animals, may have higher levels of omega 3. “I’m having my own meat tested in the Ashtown food research centre at the moment, and the preliminary findings are excellent so far”
Joe intends publicising the plan to all relevant players, all of whom he feels may hold a (pardon the pun) steak in the project: “So far, a good and relevant range have expressed an interest.” This includes the local branch of the IFA, some progressive farmers he knows himself, the National Parks and Wildlife Services, and bodies involved with organic certification and training such as the National Organic Training Skillnets and the Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association, IOFGA, which Joe sits on the board of.
Simply put, Joe’s farming system works. He has control from breed to the kitchen table, encompassing all the important elements in between. And he gets a good price for his product. “With the consumer, the organic dimension is key” according to Joe. “It provides the reassurance they often want – I know from the feedback at the farmers’ market stalls”.
I asked Joe why, if this is working out so well for him, would he risk upsetting the apple cart as it were: will he not flood the market with competitors if he convinces others of the merits of his ways?
“I take my role as a farmer on the Board of IOFGA seriously. My contribution to IOFGA's Manifesto is the item on hill farming. I feel it’s my job to push this. I don't like to sit around and wait for others to do this. Also, the current model of farming where outside forces take large chunks of profit from the producer is not working and it is extremely discouraging.
“I am proposing a new way forward that will inspire and motivate those of us who want to farm. The current infrastructure is not presently available to develop scale in my own business. I see this as a vehicle to grow a premium meat business and it's my intention to grow with it”
The name of this project? Organics With Altitude. Very apt indeed.
To contact Joe about Organics With Altitude, phone him on 087 2735447 or email him on firstname.lastname@example.org