“To me, it’s not rocket science. If you plant cover crops and look after your ground, it will repay you.”
— Charlie Morrey, Multimedia Journalist, Agriland, Dublin, Ireland
In this episode of the Cover Crop Strategies Podcast, brought to you by Go Seed, Charlie Morrey, a multimedia agricultural journalist with Agriland in Dublin, Ireland, talks about Irish regenerative farming practices, some of the biggest struggles that farmers in Ireland and other parts of Europe face and how U.S. farmers can learn from them. Charlie also talks about her experience growing up on an arable farm on the Isle of Man.
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Full TranscriptMackane Vogel:
Welcome to the Cover Crop Strategies Podcast, brought to you by GO Seed. I'm Mackane Vogel, assistant editor at Cover Crop Strategies. In this episode, Charlie Morrey, an agricultural journalist in Dublin, Ireland, talks about Irish regenerative farming practices, some of the biggest struggles that farmers in Ireland and other parts of Europe face and how US farmers can learn from them.
If you want to just start out and just tell us a little bit about yourself and your background and how you got to where you're at today. Why don't we start there?Charlie Morrey:
I was brought up on an arable farm in the Isle of Man, and growing up I was very aware of everything that was going on and was heavily involved with the farm. We originally just had 250 acres and it was purely arable. And then in about 2008, it was around the time of the recession and everything like that. It was quite bad timing really. 250 acres was just not a big enough farm to really make any money on. So we took a bit of a gamble and ended up buying the next door farm. From that, we then ended up with about 600 acres, which again, is just purely arable and we also diversified into having a delivery yard at home. So we had horses there and there's 26 horses there at home now, which just helped really with the business and we were very lucky in the fact because we were an arable farm, we were able to make our own hay, our own bedding as byproducts of the crops we were already growing. And then I ended up going into radio and journalism and that's how I'm here today, really.Mackane Vogel:
So you work with Agriland. Do you want to tell us a little bit about that company and what you guys do?Charlie Morrey:
Yeah, sure. Agriland is an agrimedia company in Ireland, and they're absolutely fantastic. They cover all aspects of agriculture across Ireland and also in the UK. So we're everywhere, really, to be honest with you. It's dairy, sheep, cows, tillage. At home, I'd call it arable, but here it's tillage and also it's constantly keeping up with EU regulations. That's another thing that's different for me being in Ireland now, is because on the Isle of Man and the UK, obviously with Brexit, it doesn't affect us at all. So coming back into the EU, when trying to navigate your head around it after being out of it for a while was quite interesting. So that's all Agriland does. It's all online and actually it's really cool because it's the one outlet media, I suppose, that you don't have to pay for subscription to go and see the articles or anything like that. They also do quite a lot of video and that's what we do.Mackane Vogel:
Awesome. I'm also really curious about some of the investigative work that you've done into the future of farming in the Isle of Man. Are you able to talk a little bit about some of the things you found there?Charlie Morrey:
Yeah, sure. It's very scary to be honest with you, I find because governments like to complain about everything and also people do, but the most important thing for everyone is food security. If you don't have food, there is no future. And it's really that simple. And on the Isle of Man, it's now such a diminishing market as there aren't really any roots to market for them now. For the arable guys, there's one flour mill and that sold 80% of their flour to a local bakery called Ramsey Bakery, and they shut their doors a few years ago now. So obviously they just don't need the same amount of wheat. It's not needed. But in April, May, it must've been about April, the mill turned around to farmers and said, "Okay, we don't need any more wheat this year."
Well, sadly, that's a little bit too late. They've already got everything in the ground. So now what are these farmers meant to do? With everything that's in the ground? They can't pop it to their normal market. So the only route for them is now to export it to the mainland, to England, which is at an extortionate cost. So if they're doing that, they're not even breaking even, they're at a loss. So the Arab farmers there, they're just like, "What do we do?" They've said to the government, "We need a road haulage equivalency scheme that has been tested out with the Scottish Islands," and they're just dragging their feet and they're taking their time. And my biggest worry is that they're going to take too long to do it, and then there's going to be no arable sector left, which has such a massive knock-on effect to every other sector because at the end of the day, every sector within agriculture needs each other. They all work as a whole.
They all might have different views on everything, but they are all as important as each other. So that's a big one. And then the dairy guys, when, in the UK last year, the milk price was really good. But you say it was really good, but actually once you pop in all of their rising costs as well, it's all comparative. So it was good, but even then the price on the Isle of Man was lacking 11 P behind, and if they had decided to export it, the cost of that would've worked out about 11 P. So they were stuck really between a rock and hard place. Probably a bit better with it over here.
And then the livestock guys, to try and get their animals into the meat plant, is a bit of a disaster. They'll turn around and say, "No, we can't take them." Although the week before they might have said, "Yeah, we'll take in 80," or, "I'll take 200," or something. They'll turn around and halve it. So everyone's fattened up all those animals that are ready to go, now they won't take them. So their only option again is to export. And for them to export one wagon is 5,000 pounds. They can't compete with it. If they have to do that every week, there's just no return for them. And I think the thing, is on the Isle of Man, obviously, it's incredibly highlighted because it is a relatively small place. There's 80,000 people that live there and you think, "Oh, maybe it's just a problem that we're having at home." And then the more I've gone on, the more I've spoken to people, I'm like, "No, this is actually a global issue. Everyone is really struggling."
And I think it's very infuriating when you are somewhere that has every opportunity to be relatively self-sufficient, you're doing your bit for the environment, you're cutting down on food miles, you're supporting your local economy, and it just baffles me when that isn't supported, when governments try and make out that's what they want when actually they're not really doing anything to help and support that sector.Mackane Vogel:
I feel like I can literally feel like the frustration of some of the farmers that you're talking to coming through in your discussion here. So that's definitely a really frustrating thing for a lot of people, I'm sure.Charlie Morrey:
It's heartbreaking for them. And I'd have them on the phone and these are grown men that you'd feel like, "Oh God, they're about to start crying on the phone to me." And we can be a bit British sometimes and a bit like, "Ugh," as soon as there's any emotion. But it does break your heart because it's an absolute... Well, 20 years have gone into it. It's their livelihood at the end of the day. And also I find it just mind-boggling that it's the only industry that has been made to rely on production support and the amount of farmers that are fundamentally against production support, because that shouldn't be there. They shouldn't need it. But without it, they can't survive. And now that's getting taken away from them. What are they going to do? It's terrifying.Mackane Vogel:
We're in the Wisconsin area, so we cover a lot of farmers that are dealing, especially right now, with drought. I think where you're at, it's the opposite. You guys get a lot of rain and probably don't have to deal with that very much.Charlie Morrey:
Our version of a drought will be much different to yours. Although we had an incredibly wet spring, spring was non-existent, to be honest with you, from January through till April, it just rained and the ground, if you'd have your own ground, it wasn't looking good at all. But now we're in the complete opposite where we are in a drought as well. There's been a little bit of rain, but you know what, it's not gone through at all. So we're in a bit of a similar situation [inaudible 00:08:16] it won't be quite as drastic.Mackane Vogel:
Let's talk a little bit about cover crops. Are farmers where you're located using cover crops? Is it a pretty common thing? What percentage, if you could estimate, how many of these farmers are using them?Charlie Morrey:
I would say quite a lot because I found it really funny when I was just going through regenerative ag and cover crops and that kind of thing. To me, it was totally normal because growing up that was just our farming practice. And I suppose I was a little bit naive in that aspect actually, that I didn't think that other people weren't doing it. I just thought everyone rotated their crops and it wasn't just cereals the whole time. But no, I would say, perhaps a lot of people are now. A lot of people use cover crops. It makes sense to use it. You're keeping your soil healthy, you can have crops in all year round. It's really a no-brainer. You've got better soil, you're going to have better crops.Mackane Vogel:
What do you think is the main reason most farmers use it? Is it a soil health thing or is it more of a combating water erosion with all the rain that you guys get? Or what's the main draw for most of them, would you say?Charlie Morrey:
I'd say it's a mixture and that's totally an individual problem, 'cause I know for us personally, the byproducts of it were fantastic. So we'd have oil seed rape in. We would use the oil from that. We would crush it and that would end up going to fuel to power our grain dryer. Then we would also use the straw as horse padding. And then dairy farms, they can use the pelleted byproducts for feed. But there's a lot of good aspects to it. I'd say a lot of people do use it for soil and also for their soil health and also for probably the byproducts, they can get off it. And it makes sense. If you can rotate your ground, you can have things grazing on it and then you can keep things growing. It is just really a bit of a no-brainer, isn't it?Mackane Vogel:
Yeah, I definitely think so. I'm just still surprised that, you still run into some farmers that just haven't done it or just don't see the benefit in it. And going off of that, I was reading a really interesting article that you wrote for Agriland about the one year versus six year difference in implementing regenerative agriculture and there's these stats, basically, that show the difference between your first year of implementing regenerative agriculture versus year six. And basically for the listeners that haven't read it, what it comes down to is a lot of these farmers may not see monetary benefits from it until year five or six, or potentially even later, depends on a lot of other factors, obviously. But I just want to talk about that and maybe what are farmers' attitudes towards that and is there a skepticism or are farmers reluctant to do it because they don't have that many years to give, I guess is the question?Charlie Morrey:
I suppose if you mentioned to any farmer that all of a sudden it's going to take them a while to get their money back, they're not going to be overly keen. And I think the time aspect will be a major player in that, because obviously in agriculture, cashflow is a massive issue. And if you turn around and you go, "Look, you're going to put X, Y into this, but it's going to take you, say, six years to get the money back," I can't really blame them for being a bit apprehensive getting into it. And I'd say, yeah, that definitely does play a massive part in it. And I've actually got that article right in front of me now, so I'll just have quick wander over and quick look. And it's the positives from once they've gone through that six year of it maybe being a bit rough and having to accept a little bit of a lower yield for a while. It pays off in the long term, but it's with anything, it depends if people want to go through the long term with it.Mackane Vogel:
Yeah, I just thought those stats were really interesting because like you said, you can totally see by the end of it, it is absolutely worth it. It's just a matter of can you push through those tricky years for a bit.Charlie Morrey:
Yeah. And I suppose it all just comes down to the price they're getting, doesn't it? If they were actually getting a fair price for their product and were able to make a decent wage, and then it would probably [inaudible 00:12:43]. But when they're constantly on the breadline, you're not going to want to sacrifice those years when they're barely just functioning with the cost of production and everything. So yeah, it's a hard one for them. And it depends also what soil you're on, for how long it's going to take them actually. 'Cause for us, we're really lucky 'cause we're on sand, so all of our arable ground is fantastic, but if you're on a clay farm, it's going to take you a bit longer if you have a bit of a dodgy spring. You wouldn't want to be juggling with those kinds of variables really.Mackane Vogel:
Right. Going off that, the different types of soils, what are the most common species of cover crops you guys see? Is it a lot of brassicas and grasses out there, or is it a little of everything?Charlie Morrey:
A bit of everything to be honest with you. A lot of grass has grown. We would have it as hay, so we'd have rye grass in. Clover is very popular. A lot of people do use clover. And then also mustard is grown on the Isle of Man, the kinds of green yield for potatoes. And also, a lot of people do use beans too. So they're the ones that are used at home. Do you guys use... Am I correct in saying, you use oats?Mackane Vogel:
Yeah, some do. Obviously, depends on the region, but it's not uncommon.Charlie Morrey:
So that's what we would use would be really clover or grass or beans, I suppose.Mackane Vogel:
We'll come back to the conversation in a moment, but first I'd like to take a moment to thank our sponsor, GO Seed, the source of novel solutions for your growing concerns. Get more nitrogen with their high performing annual clovers, FIXatioN balansa, Frosty Berseem and eNhance Persian and Kentucky Pride Crimson. Unrivaled for their nitrogen contributions, these clovers are exceptionally drought and cold tolerant. GO Seed rigorously vets their products in a wide range of conditions to ensure confidence in their performance. Visit goseed.com to learn how these clovers can lower input costs, increase yields and mitigate climate change. That's goseed.com, home of novel solutions for your growing concerns. And now let's get back to discussion with Charlie Morrey.Mackane Vogel:
You talked about tillage earlier. Is no-till a thing out there? Are farmers that are doing no-till?Charlie Morrey:
Yeah, that's definitely a thing. And for us, we'll have farm practices at home, we try and keep the soil invasion to a minimum. Even if the ground's a bit dodgy and you have to drive over it a lot, you're constantly just a bit like, "It's not doing really the best thing for compacting the soil." So no-tillers it is a thing over here. And I think also across the UK it's starting to be a bit more recognized. I was on the phone to an arable farmer the other day, and we were actually talking about his biomass, so totally something off the subject. But he was just saying one of his friends, and they're up in Northumberland, so near Newcastle, so northeast of England, and he was saying that one of his friends has really just got into regenerative farming and he's been singing it from the rooftops to everyone that'll listen. So I definitely think it is becoming more of an accepted practice now.Mackane Vogel:
That's awesome. We cover a lot of no-tillers out here, so it's always interesting to me to see around the world how much it's being adopted.Charlie Morrey:
I think it just all comes down to good farming practices at the end of the day. To me, I don't really think it's rocket science. It's look after your ground and it'll repay you. But if you constantly plant the same cereal in time and time and time again, you're giving it no time to recover. So you can't expect it to be throwing out the best yields. It's just not going to happen. It's not realistic.Mackane Vogel:
Yeah,. It's the old saying of leaving this oil better than you found it for the future generations.Charlie Morrey:
Yeah, exactly.Mackane Vogel:
I won't hold you too much longer. Just a couple more questions for you, but actually how I found Agriland and found some of your work was the Guinness article that you wrote that was about the regenerative agriculture pilot program they're running. Do you want to tell our listeners a little bit about that?Charlie Morrey:
Guinness wants to focus on the reduction of their greenhouse gases, and it's now entering its second year of its circulation with its own farm. So it sowed cover crops last autumn to protect their land and their barley. And Guinness did claim it'd been able to see its absorbed a significant amount of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and that it would usually go into the water, but it's now able to be recycled into the next crop. And it was just really cool that they're actually able to do that now and they have their own farm and they're doing their own thing and they've had listening devices that'll be placed on selected farms. They'll record the sounds from birds and pollinators. So I think they're just very much like everyone. There's a massive push on the climate at the minute.
Guinness aren't alone, actually, there's quite a few big companies across Ireland and the UK now that are really getting behind it. And also if they need cereals or what have you for their products, again, really on board with the regenerative agriculture. But Guinness have 44 different farms that they're now analyzing and are able to reduce their emissions without compromising yields or quality, whilst at the same time moving carbon from the air. And then next milestone is examining how the fertilizer selection can reduce emissions and the establishment of baseline biodiversity measurements. So that's like what Guinness are on at the minute, which is cool. It's really cool to see a company so big, taking it so seriously.Mackane Vogel:
Yeah, I think it does a lot for smaller farmers to see, like you said, a big company like that, that that can actually make a big difference. It's obviously great to see smaller farmers adopting these principles too, but I think when big companies like that really put their money where their mouth is, it's huge because that's where it can actually make a huge difference.Charlie Morrey:
Of course. Be the change you want to see in the world. And they are definitely doing that. And it's nice that it's not just lip service because at the end of the day, they're giving something back as well to their local community and farmers and that's something, I think, often does sometimes get a little bit lost with big companies. Some of them sometimes forget where actually their biggest market is and how they can give back to it. And Guinness has done a great job doing that. I think it's fantastic to see.Mackane Vogel:
Absolutely. All right. Well Charlie, this has been awesome. Is there anything else that you want to talk about that we haven't covered yet?Charlie Morrey:
No, I think I could probably just honestly rant all day about the cost of production and fair prices that farmers are not getting. That is my absolute bugbear. That is something I could rant for all day, but I appreciate, not everyone might want to listen.Mackane Vogel:
It's important stuff and maybe we'll revisit it sometime soon and see what kind of progress is being made and hopefully it'll be some good news.Charlie Morrey:
We live in hope, but the UK government today announced that interest rates have gone to a record high, and it's again, something else that people tend not to think about, but you think how many farmers, their farms are on big mortgages, or even just when they have machinery and they have to buy it. I was talking to a farmer the other day, and this is a terrifying statistic for me. He bought new combine two years ago on a six-year fixed term. The interest on it at the time was 24,000 pounds. If he had done that same deal today, it was just over 70,000. That's purely on interest. And they're all dealing with that.
And also the cost of machinery in general has skyrocketed. There's no words for it, but that is just a huge, huge lump in two years, the price difference. So anyone now that's wanted to go and replace new machinery... You have to. You can't be going around with things that aren't functional. They have to keep up with the times. And sadly, that's so expensive. You see people go around and in a nice big sports car and you think, "Oh, that'd be a nice new tractor there."Mackane Vogel:
Right. That's one of the things that I think I took for granted when I first... I mentioned, I'm somewhat new to the industry, but I just had no idea just how expensive some of that stuff gets and it's outrageous.Charlie Morrey:
It's mad. And then fertilizer. I'm not sure, did you guys have also the same issue with fertilizer? The price of it last year?Mackane Vogel:
Yeah. A lot of growers were looking and still are looking at any possible ways to reduce the amount of fertilizer they're using just because it would be a huge area that they could save in money-wise.Charlie Morrey:
With us it normally would be about 200, 250 pounds a ton, and then it went up to a thousand pounds a ton if you could get your hands on it. I remember when it came through and dad was like, "No, no, this can't be right, it can't be right." And my brother and I were like, "What?" And he said that and we were like, "No, we're sure that's not right. It must just be one merchant." And then spoke around and we were like, "No, wait, this is happening everywhere." And price of food and the price farmers were getting for their produce, it did not stay in line with that. And I think that's the thing that you're kind of like, "What are they going to do?" And also the fuel here went through the roof, everything, just every input cost you could possibly think of went [inaudible 00:22:38]. Also with energy.
That's something I actually find, like renewable energy, a really interesting one for farmers because there's so much they can do, so many crops they can grow to produce energy and it just seems to be a bit overlooked. It does here. I think that is something that's incredibly frustrating when it's kind of like, "Well, if you don't want us to be food producers 'cause you don't want to pay for it, well then we can be energy producers." But no, don't seem to want that either. So it's a bit like, "What do they want?"Mackane Vogel:
Are there any big stories you're working on right now? What's the upcoming future look like for you?Charlie Morrey:
Upcoming future. What does it look like? Just trying to keep in line with everything that's coming in really from the EU at the minute. It's constant. It's an industry that never really stops and everyone's released their milk prices, so I need to go back and have a little look at that. And also on the UK side, I did a story the other day, which was quite interesting of how Brexit had actually affected farmers. Because you know what it's like, you see in the news everywhere as soon as a big outlet gets it, "Brexit's been the worst thing that's ever happened to us, blah, blah, blah, blah." And I was like, "Okay, well I want to go speak to people and actually see how much of an effect has it actually made on them." And the majority of them just said, "That's not our biggest issue whatsoever at the minute. It's purely the input costs and everything like that."
And it has definitely made life more difficult for livestock farmers. But I think there was a bit of a concern regarding animal welfare standards and the markets they were going to be selling to and dealing with. But I think a few of them hadn't quite realized that even, when in the EU, it wasn't just EU countries that were trading then, so obviously it's quite spoken about with. For example, Brazil or Australia, the animal welfare stands were there, but everyone's still trading with each other. So it was really interesting. But it has made it difficult for people wanting to export animals. I know for me personally with horses, when I've worked to compete mine or even just bring them over to Ireland, it is a lot more difficult now from outside and the cost of it with health papers and everything, which you get it, it's totally fine, but it's made that side a bit more expensive.
But for arable farmers, there's a toll, they've not really noticed any difference. So it's a bit more difficult to get chemicals in and there was a big worry that it was going to affect land values. I spoke to a land agent and a surveyor and they were saying, "No, actually the market is still completely buoyant. It's fine." So it was really interesting actually. Is Brexit the biggest issue going at the minute? No. They seem to have got over it. And the one thing that all of them could agree on, whether they wanted to be in it or out of it, was the government. They just need to get their acts together. I think you're holding everything up and it's like, "Come on, we've made the decision, let's get on with it and get everything's sorted." But there seems to be a bit of lack of motivation really, I think, to get sorted.Mackane Vogel:
That is really interesting. I hadn't considered how that could have affected the world of agriculture, if you will, but that's interesting.Charlie Morrey:
Just trade markets. I was told the other day that actually say Ireland, for example, their biggest market really, they always are importing or exporting to the UK. So it's a bit like, "Well, it hasn't made that much of difference because everything's still moving as it was." So that's my thoughts on that anyway.Mackane Vogel:
Cool. Well anyway, thanks a lot for taking the time. This has been awesome. Everyone go check out Agriland, Charlie Morrey, multimedia journalists, so go check out some of these awesome articles.Charlie Morrey:
Thank you very much for having me.Mackane Vogel:
Big thanks to Charlie Morrey for today's discussion. The full transcript of the episode will be available at covercropstrategies.com/podcasts. Many thanks to our sponsor, GO Seed, for helping to make this cover crop podcast series possible. From all of us here at Cover Crop Strategies, I'm Mackane Vogel. Thanks for listening and have a great day.