Review – Biological Farming Conference 2018

Review by Clive Bright


In November 2018, National Organic Training Skillnet organised a very successful, inspiring and inclusive Biological Farming Conference in the Bridge House Hotel in Tullamore.

240 tickets were sold to the two-day conference. Many agree such a high turnout would not have happened five years ago. With an encouraging amount of large arable and dairy farmers in attendance – both organic and conventional – there was a unanimous feeling that the tide is turning.

Keynote speakers from the US included; soil specialist Joel Williams, dairy/ tillage farmer and consultant Gary Zimmer (AKA the Father of Biological Farming) and grower Dan Kittredge – who focuses mainly on the route to producing nutrient-dense food. They all gave polished and profoundly knowledgeable presentations and set the wheels in motion as the audience scribbled notes and photographed inspiring slides from the projected screen.

The internationally-renowned speakers were echoed by home-grown experts such as John Geraghty. John is an advocate of ‘Conservation Agriculture’ – no-till, cover-cropping and diverse rotations. He is the consultant to ‘The Danú’ research project and the BASE group and proved himself well versed on a broad range of national and international environmental policy issues when it came to panel discussions at the end of the first day.

Dr Fiona Brennan is heading up new soil biology research team in Teagasc at Johnstown Castle. She was a breath of fresh air as she presented the projects that are underway by her and her team like their innovative research into DNA and RNA analyses of soil biology as a tool to assess soil health.

Soil Researcher Dave Beecher, gave great talks and workshops on the ‘soil food web’ and the methods to visually assess the health of your soil. Dave also presented an excellent workshop on how freely available mapping/satellite imagery can be cross-referenced with soil maps to get a better understanding of your land and a useful tool for planning, recording and decision making.

The vast array of technical and theoretical information was cleverly interspersed with presentations from innovative local farmers and growers telling their stories and sharing their experiences. Thomas Fuohy explained his fascinating operation where he experiments with niche crops like lupins, linseed and quinoa. A natural raconteur, Thomas entertained as he told of how he navigated the pitfalls of harvesting these alternative crops through experimenting with varieties and seeding rates and timings.

BASE Ireland (Biodiversity, Agriculture, Soil & Environment) is a group of mostly conventional tillage farmers exploring biological farming methods and conservation agriculture. The animated and out-spoken Robbie Byrne represented the group and spoke about the farm trials and research they are carrying out, especially the no-till experiments and the role of diverse cropping and cover-cropping. He also spoke passionately about farmers re-empowering themselves by focusing on their soil health rather than blindly following the advice of agri-chemical companies. This sentiment resonated throughout the conference and the energy in the room was electric!

David Wallis gave a detailed breakdown of the EIP funded “Danú Farming Group” a “Project Plan for a Biological Farming Transition Programme”. The Danú group will document a fascinating series of real-farm trials and soil improvement measures to be tested on a range of soil types throughout the Midlands. The outcomes promise to be a broad and practical foundation for a host of further research on regenerative farming practices and their application.

Jim Cronin is something of a legend in Irish organic horticulture. He is a man with a deep understanding of soil – his students claim he can tell a soil’s pH within a decimal point, by feeling, smelling and tasting it. He has developed this “sixth sense” through the act of continued observation and calibrating by this observation with results. Jim spoke about organic producers needing to up their game, and to focus on producing nutrient dense food. He talked about his refusal to grow through plastic mulches – instead harnessing the ability of balanced biological soil to grow vibrant crops with minimal weed pressure and the importance of diverse cover-crops to harvest sunlight, build fertility and increase organic matter.

I, Clive Bright, was given the floor for a short presentation on mob-grazing and how it mimics the natural regeneration of grassland – feeding the livestock and the soil while allowing the pasture to recover fully. If managed correctly it can be a self-perpetuating cycle of growth and fertility – an unplanned echoing of Jim’s “harvesting sunlight”.

Mick Costello is a conventional beef farmer moving away from his former intense, overstocked system to a more balanced biological approach. His story spoke to a lot of people in the audience as his early steps had very positive results for the health of his livestock, his land, his quality of life and his profits.

John McHugh is an organic dairy farmer, once milking 160 cows, who bravely cut his herd to 60 cows. He reseeded his nitrogen hungry perennial ryegrass swards with highly diverse herbal leys (inspired by the 1950’s pioneer – Newman Turner) and is experimenting with mob-grazing. John spoke boldly about narrowly escaping the industry pressure of further intensification and increased debt. He now enjoys a good quality of life with his young family – with low input costs he produces high-quality milk that he is proud of, and his animals and soil are increasing in health. Rather than increasing volume, John sees great potential in developing direct routes to market for his milk in the future.

The whole event was fast-paced and motivating, all the speakers had a different focus, but all were heading in the same direction which effortlessly carried the momentum and energy over the two days. Due credit must be given to Sean McGloin and all the team at NOTS for organising and subtly designing such a well-considered event. Hopefully, it will be the first of many!

Check out our YouTube channel for more than a dozen videos of the speakers across the Conference.

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