In this week’s Farmer Focus segment, That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane, speaks to Paula and David Butler of Butler’s Organic Farm (Butler’s Organic Eggs), Coolmanagh, Hacketstown, Co. Carlow.
“David was left the farm by his father, Noel Butler, and it was always rented. David, originally from Bray, Co Wicklow, who always had an interest in farming, attended agricultural college after school (1991), but did not immediately get into farming.
He worked in the cabling industry and had a few other jobs before deciding to work for himself in 2006. After a lot of research into what area of farming would be sustainable, he purchased 250 organic birds and converted 3 acres to organic pasture.
Certified by the Irish Organic Association and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Butler’s Organic Farm, producing organic eggs was established.
David spent many a day in his childhood delivering eggs and chicken with his father across Dublin. We are not sure if it was a coincidence, but David now travels the same routes delivering organic eggs across Dublin.
Following his research, he discovered a gap in the market for organic produce and went down the route of producing organic eggs.
I worked in the City of Dublin VEC as an administrator, followed by Communications/FOI officer in the Institute of Technology Carlow for over 17 years while always supporting David in the background.
Research suggested there was a gap in the market for organic farming, and David was interested in working with animals.
He chose poultry as he felt it would be more sustainable, and there was a shortage in the production of organic eggs in the country. He also had hens in his back garden in Bray and sold eggs to the neighbours.
We started with 250 birds on 3-acres and now have 4,050 organic birds on 8-acres, producing 300 doz eggs per day. So we have grown slowly/organically over the past 15 years, with loads of learning curves along the way.
The rest of the farm is rented for grazing and tillage. We also have a forestry plantation.
Having recently expanded the size of the operation from 2,000 to 4,050 birds, our primary objective is to manage the farm in the most cost-effective, sustainable way.
The welfare of our organic birds is of the utmost importance, and we are constantly tweaking practices to ensure they are happy and healthy.
We have grown slowly to ensure the organic eggs we produce are top-quality, and there is as little stress on the organic birds as possible.
We are both full-time, with David managing the farm, while I concentrate on business management, administration, marketing, and finance.
Both of us do deliveries, meeting customers, and ensuring the freshest organic eggs are on the shelves. Two part-time employees collect and pack eggs.
There are very strict rules when it comes to housing organic birds and producing organic eggs. First, the top priority is the bird’s welfare and secondly, that there are no chemicals or pesticides.
Farmers cannot spray chemicals on the outdoor pasture on organic egg farms, and the hens must be fed grain grown without pesticides, herbicides, or synthetic fertilisers.
Organic hens are kept in smaller flocks. Standards specify a maximum flock size of 3,000, which is much smaller than all other production methods.
Having fewer birds encourages better outdoor range use and makes it easier to manage bird welfare on an individual level, which helps to ensure the birds are kept to the highest standards of welfare.
Organic poultry must have continuous and easy daytime access to an outdoor range covered with suitable vegetation.
Organic standards also require that laying hens have access to a much larger indoor and outdoor range than free-range standards.
Each hen is allowed a minimum of 6 birds per square metres of space indoor-outside compared to 9 birds per square meters for hens reared to free-range standards.
The range is rested between flocks to allow vegetation to grow back and prevent disease build-up in the soil.
In addition, the outdoor range provides for a stimulating environment where hens can explore, forage for insects, scratch around in the ground, sunbathe and dust bathe. Organic standards ban the routine use of antibiotics.
Organic standards and organic birds are not fed on GM grain or feed (which is common in free-range and non-organic hens). Outdoor foraging also means that organic hens get to eat various plants, grubs and insects, which adds variety to their diet and helps keep them healthy.
Organics is a sustainable way to farm, great for the environment, great for the animal, and we are proud to produce a top-quality, chemical-free organic product for the consumer.
We aim to produce high-quality food, using methods that benefit our whole food system, from people to planet, plant health, to animal welfare.
To note, we have three poultry units which house 1,350 birds per unit on 8-acres of certified organic pasture. Furthermore, we are also registered packers and have a purpose-built packing unit.
We wholesale our organic eggs across Carlow, Wicklow, Dublin, Kildare and Meath.
Most eggs for sale in the stores we are in are free-range and caged. We are small scale producers, which means our produce is fresh, highly nutritious, and you can taste the difference.
Nutritional benefits of organic eggs
Eggs are part of a healthy diet and provide a host of vitamins and minerals, like protein, iron, vitamin B-12, phosphorus, riboflavin and selenium.
The nutrients found in eggs contribute to healthy skin and bones and everything in between. While eggs, in general, provide a variety of health benefits, certified organic eggs offer all the same vitamins and minerals, plus more.
Organic eggs are packed with vitamins and nutrients that are part of a well-balanced diet. From heart, skin, and eye health to a stronger immune system and more, organic eggs have a lot to offer.
Organic eggs have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids than non-organic eggs. These fats are known to prevent chronic disease and reduce inflammation while assisting in brain function and growth. Omega-3s also play an important role in heart health and help to lower cholesterol.
Furthermore, organic eggs have significantly less unhealthy cholesterol and saturated fat than non-organic eggs.
While organic eggs certainly add significant nutritional value to your diet, it is important to realise what is missing: antibiotics, synthetic hormones, pesticides, and other chemicals.
Many people feel organic eggs even have an improved taste, which, combined with their stellar nutritional content, makes organic eggs a smart addition to your diet.
Concerning sales, Covid-19 has not impacted the business. But we have had to re-brand as our highly noticeable green box became unavailable, and every egg producer in the country had the option of a grey box only.
We took this as an opportunity to look at our branding and created a whole new look for Butler’s Organic Eggs. Our unique green box was transferred into a unique green label with a new logo, and we were delighted with the outcome.
Overall, costs have increased, but we are working hard to try and be more cost-efficient rather than pass the increase on to the customer.
Every day is a learning curve. Just when you think you have it right, something else happens. For example, in the extremely hot weather in 2018, production dropped from 90% lay to under 60% lay. We deal with the blows, learn from mistakes and are always looking at ways to ensure the efficient running of the farm.
I took a career break from my full-time employment in June 2018 to relieve David from some of his duties so that he could concentrate solely on the farm’s management and bird’s welfare.
We joined the Carlow Local Enterprise Office, and I completed a management development programme which was invaluable in changing how we manage the farm’s business side.
Carlow LEO also appointed consultants in finance, LEAN and marketing to help us expand the business. These services were fantastic and have made a huge difference in how we manage the business.
Why organic eggs cost more than free-range eggs
Organic eggs produced on a smallholding such as our own are 45% more expensive than free-range.
They are more expensive because the cost of organic feed is nearly double compared to conventional feed used for all other production methods.
There is also a much bigger investment when building poultry units for organic birds as they house much smaller flocks. Again, organic pasture/range is larger than all other production methods increasing the cost of land.
There is a 20.2% increase in demand year-on-year for organic produce. EU organic market was €45billion in 2019, projected to double over the next couple of years.
Based on those market indications, the organic sector looks likely to continue to grow over the next decade.
EU Farm to Fork policy to have 25% of EU land area certified organic by 2030. Therefore, Irish farmers need to embrace it and look to explore the organic market.
We have seen an increase in demand year on year and have sales for all the organic eggs we produce.
We are certified organic by the Department of Agriculture and the Irish Organic Association. Also, we were accepted as members of Good Food Ireland.
Besides, we were nominated in the retail category for the Bord Bia National Organic Awards in October 2020, and I represented Carlow as a ‘Leading Light’ in last year’s National Women’s Enterprise Day campaign – October 2020.
David also reached the national final of the 2019 Zurich Farm Insurance Farming Independent Rising Star Farmer of the Year.
We have recently expanded from 2,000 to 4,050 birds. For the moment, we intend to manage the farm to the best of our ability and concentrate on the welfare of the birds and enjoy the outdoor life.
Who knows what the future will hold but for now, we are content where we are.”
Butler’s Organic Eggs in conversation with Catherina Cunnane, editor of That’s Farming.