Donal and Frederique Keane with their Angus cattle.

The switch to organics: ‘We could go back to doing what our grandparents did’

Donal and Frederique Keane, along with their daughters Pauline and Marie and their son John, run an organic suckler to beef, cereal and eggs farm at Camelton Stud, Summerhill, and recently hosted a Teagasc open day at their enterprise.

There has always been cattle and tillage enterprises on the Keane farm. In 2010, having sat down at the end of the year and taking a look at the overall costs of their farming systems compared to the returns, the Keane family started looking for any other options going forward.

Donal, who also works as a barrister and is originally from Carrick-on-Shannon, Co Leitrim, had always been uncomfortable with the use of chemical fertilisers and sprays on grassland and crops but thought that they were necessary.

With the increasing cost of inputs and falling price of produce Donal knew he needed to make a change. He started researching other farming systems and spoke to a number of organic farmers.

On meeting a local organic farmer, who gave him an overview of the organic farming system, Donal began seriously looking at organic farming as an option and saw it as an opportunity to improve the overall financial position of the farm. The Keanes also recognised the environmental benefits of organic farming.

After careful consideration and having completed the Teagasc FETAC Organic Farming course and visiting other organic farms, the farm entered organic conversion in 2011.

The Keanes have sowed red clover, which fixes free nitrogen from the air and its silage is very high in protein. It can finish the Angus stock with little or no grains which is important as organic grains are very expensive.

On the cattle side, they started a suckler herd with Angus cross cows running with an Angus bull.

This breed suits the organic system; easy calving, vigorous calves and stock that finish well off grass or off red clover silage.

The Keanes also increased their tillage area significantly and began to grow oats on contract for Flahavans. They also grew varieties of heritage wheat on a field scale as part of a project to produce flour high enough in protein (12.5pc) to make sourdough bread.

Speaking on RTE Radio One's ‘CountryWide’, Donal said it was a desire to go back to a more self sufficient time type of farming that prompted his family's switch towards organic farming.

"We said we could go back to doing what our great grandparents did and farm inside the boundaries of our own farm and not bring in lorry loads of fertiliser or other inputs. Even though the land produces less, it's healthier food, and we're farming within our own capabilities."

Donal believes that given the ever increasing restrictions being placed on farmers, it's better to make the switch to organics now on your own terms rather than have it be forced upon you in the future.

"I keep telling neighbours that you're going organic whether you like it or not, you look at the restrictions regarding sprays and nitrates, it's all going towards organics. We're being asked to produce healthy foods at a low price in an environmentally friendly manner. Farmers are being blamed for the whole global warming crisis, this is not really fair, there's a lot of misinformation being spread by lobby groups who have a different agenda.

“Any farmer thinking about going down that route you do need to work out where is the market for my produce, who is who is the processor who is going to buy it, can I process it myself and where is the market going to be. I believe there is a market there, there is a significant premium for organic produce and it would be great if the sector got bigger because there would be more power."