That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane, in conversation with Grace Maher (49), Co Carlow, in this week’s Career Focus segment. She discusses her conventional tillage farming roots, interest in organics, her role with the Irish Organic Association as a development officer and why she believes organic farming offers “real” solutions to the climate crisis.
“I grew up on a conventional tillage farm. For the past forty years, it has been solely tillage, and before that, there were some cattle on it also.
My brother, James Maher, runs the farm, which is approximately 150-acres and near Nurney in Co. Carlow.
The main crops grown are spring and winter barley, oilseed rape, cover crops and some legumes.
It is a conventional farm which sells crops to local merchants and barley for malting and feed. Farmyard manure is sourced locally from other farmers.
I live on the farm and have 4-acres. I used to grow organic vegetables commercially and sell them at the Carlow Farmers’ Market.
Furthermore, I grew a wide range of vegetables and fruit to sell directly to consumers. When I began my current role as Development Officer with the Irish Organic Association, I stopped growing commercially, but we continue to grow vegetables for ourselves.
I completed a BA in Arts at Maynooth University, following my Leaving Certificate, and graduated in 1993. Then, I completed an MA in History in 1994. In 1998, I undertook a QQI level 6 in Organic Horticulture at the Organic College in Dromcollogher, Co. Limerick, and in 2021, I obtained a MSc in Organic Agriculture at SRUC in Scotland.
Irish Organic Association:
Currently, I am a development officer with the Irish Organic Association. The Irish Organic Association has been certifying organic farmers and businesses in Ireland for the past 40 years. Most organic farmers and processors in Ireland are certified by the Irish Organic Association.
I moved to fill this position in 2007 and work in communication and development. A major aspect of my role is to promote organic farmers and what they are doing on their farms.
I edit our magazine Organic Matters, and I write a column featuring members of the Association in a farming publication.
Also, I work across our social media channels with relevant posts and work on our website. In addition, I organise our Field Talk programme, which we aim at farmers who have recently converted to organic farming.
It is a great way to exchange technical knowledge and information. Furthermore, I attend various meetings and events to promote organic food and farming.
A lot of my work is computer-based; however, I also attend farm walks and meet people who produce organic food in Ireland.
I always worked from home, so the Covid-19 pandemic and the move to remote working in some organisations have not impacted how I work currently.
I work closely alongside our CEO, Gillian Westbrook and another colleague, Stephen Meredith, our policy officer.
No two days are the same; it is always different. I am passionate about organic farming and am happy to work to advance the sector in Ireland. Outside of work, I enjoy yoga. I have been a yoga teacher for 15 years now, and I love walking the dog.
The slow progress in terms of the number of organic farmers in Ireland is challenging. We are still less than 2% which is frustrating at times, especially when we see other EU member states charging ahead with some countries with 25% of farmland certified organic.
There are lots of opportunities out there, so one really has to have a look around and get as much experience as possible.
It is important to be open to new ideas and ways of doing things and visit as many farms as possible to truly understand primary production.
Determination, passion, and a genuine interest in food and how it is produced are needed to succeed in the agricultural field.
There are huge challenges ahead in terms of the climate crisis; we need to look at food production in the wider context of the environment and work together to see how we can ensure food production well into the future.
Real solutions to the climate crisis
I have worked in many areas of organic agriculture in Ireland, education, primary production and now at development level.
Each aspect presents its own challenges. It is very welcome to see a real shift towards supporting organic farming in Ireland as it offers real solutions to the climate crisis, and we need to embrace these solutions.
Working in agriculture is exciting and offers many opportunities for people to work in many different areas. I think agriculture will be critical in forging a sustainable future for the country.”
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