When Philip Draper left Kildalton Agricultural College in Kilkenny in 1991 he was aware of organic farming, but he admits that it was “very much a niche market” at the time. Fast forward 31 years and the Birr man is now one of the country’s largest producers of organic vegetables and cereal crops.
Based at Coolnagrower, Fortal, in Birr, it has been a long road and an interesting learning curve for Philip and his family to get to where they are today, supplying organic carrots, parsnips, beetroot and potatoes to Tesco, SuperValu and Lidl and also supplying organic oats to Flahavans.
Having grown up on his father’s livestock farm, the enterprising young farmer says he was always more interested in growing crops than looking after livestock. As part of his placement while he was a student of Commercial Horticulture in Kildalton College he spent time in the UK, where his interest in organic farming was further whetted.
“In the early 1990s organic farming was still seen as being a bit alternative,” he says, “but after I graduated I was happy enough to start out on my own.” Having bought his grandmother’s farm, he gradually converted all 46 acres to organic farming, and he says one of the key things he did was increase production in line with market demand.
“As the market increased so too did my acreage” he stresses “there was no point in me increasing either my production or my acreage unless there was a demand for what I was producing and that is one strong bit of advice that I would give to any farmer starting down the road of organic farming, there has to be a market for what you are producing.”
The ambitious farmer, who is married to Linda, a nurse, and has three children, Ben, Tom and Julie, now grows 75 acres of root vegetables per year and rotates that with cereal crops when the vegetable growing season ends in March.
“The vegetable growing season is from September to March, after which we set our Spring crops,” he explains, adding that rotation is “very important” for the soil in organic farming. He has secured a contract to grow oats for Flahavans and he also grows some organic wheat.
Philip says that organic farming “went mainstream” from around 2000 onwards, when the supermarkets began to seek out organic produce, and the market has been “steadily growing” since then.
While his main root vegetable crop is carrots, he also supplies the supermarket chains with parsnips, beetroot and potatoes, and he has seen demand for his organic produce increase year on year since he became involved in organic farming.
“The whole process is a lot more labour intensive than conventional farming, and weed control is a big issue, but there is much more machinery available to assist us now than when I started out first” says Philip Draper, who employs in excess of a dozen people on his farm at Coolnagrower.
Having faced numerous challenges along the road to running an organic farm, he says there were “no supports available” in the early days, the market for organic produce was very small and the mechanisation was not available either.
Philip became a member of the Organic Trust shortly after it was first formed in 1991 and he says it has been “a huge help” over the years. The organisation was set up by a core group of dedicated organic producers which included some of the earliest pioneers of organic food production in Ireland.
The Organic Trust is now the country’s premier organic certification organisation, and all produce from members must bear the Organic Trust logo and also the EU organic logos, which assures consumers that it has been produced to the highest standards of organic production.
While the Organic Trust – which is approved by both the Irish Department of Agriculture and the European Commission – has done “trojan work to raise the standards of organic food production” according to Philip Draper, he says consumers are also slowly beginning to appreciate the value of fresh organic produce amid continuing turmoil in global food markets due to factors such as the war in Ukraine, Brexit and climate change.
A key point that Philip Draper re-emphasises time and time again is that he increased his production on an incremental basis in line with market demand, starting out with a seven acres field of carrots in 1992 to farming 300 acres today and supplying over 1,100 tonnes of vegetables per year to a number of leading supermarket chains.
He admits that organic farming is “not for everyone” but he is passionate about the whole process and believes it is “a very good method of farming” and has stood him in good stead. However, he says that anyone contemplating going into organic farming has to ensure that there is a market for what they are producing.
“The whole thing has to be consumer-led, if there is no market for your produce, then you have no business, it’s as simple as that,” he says.
Coolnagrower Farm uses no synthetic pesticides as part of their food production process, in line with the core principles of the Organic Trust, and Philip Draper firmly believes that “education is the key” to growing both the home, and the international market, for organic produce.
“Given the labour intensive nature of organic farming, consumers do have to pay a bit more for their organic produce, but I passionately believe that it is worth it,” he concludes.