The new Organic Farming Scheme under the current Rural Development Programme has proved extremely successful, attracting more new applicants than any scheme previously, and encouraging a significant number of Irish farmers to convert to organic farming systems. Latest figures indicate that there are now some 72,000 hectares under organic production, an increase of nearly 50% on the position at the start of the Programme in 2014.
The Organic Sector Strategy Group, which was established earlier this year, was tasked with assessing the justification for a targeted reopening of the Organic Farming Scheme, looking to best economic and environmental outcomes, in accordance with the Group's terms of reference.
Based on this assessment, the Group considered that there is sufficient market demand to justify the reopening of the Organic Farming Scheme on a targeted basis focussing on areas that are in deficit and where market demand is growing. In addition, the reopening of the Scheme is perceived as one of the most important steps in the future direction and development of the Sector. The Group unanimously agreed that the areas to be targeted should be organic horticulture, cereals and dairy.
Having spoken to the various organic stakeholders I fully believe that opportunities exist for Irish organic produce both at home and abroad. With regard to horticulture for example, according to Bord Bia research in 2017, sales of organic fruit and vegetables make up 34pc of the Irish organic market. There are clearly opportunities for Irish producers to substitute imports, both for established growers and new entrants to the sector as we import almost 70pc of organic fruit and vegetables sold.
Accordingly, the Organic Farming Scheme was re-opened on 19 November this year. An allocation of €1.25m has been provided to facilitate the re-opening of the Scheme and this comes from savings within the Organic Scheme budget. Applications for the scheme must be made online, but there will be no requirement to use an Agricultural Advisor to make the applications. The closing date for submission of completed on-line applications is 19 December 2018.
All registered organic farmers are eligible to apply for the Organic Farming Scheme. Priority will be given to those areas deemed to be in deficit i.e. horticulture, tillage and dairy. The size of the holdings and the enterprise type in each case will determine the number of farmers accepted into the scheme.
Finally, I can inform that the Organic Sector Strategy Group is very close to finalising its work and I expect to receive its report before the end of the year after which it will be published.