There has been a sharp uplift in the number of farmers in the Irish Republic switching to organic production.

Prompted by the high input costs and low returns of traditional farming, more than 230 farmers had already lodged plans to convert to organic this year, according to figures from the Irish Department of Agriculture - an 80% increase on last year.

Farmers making the switch plan to offer organic beef, lamb, dairy and vegetables - the foods on which conventional farmers claim to be squeezed hardest by supermarkets.

They are being boosted by the creation of a development unit and a system of support grants from the Department of Agriculture. Food minister and former Irish Green Party leader Trevor Sargent has also pledged to get 5% of agricultural land in organic production by 2012, and has championed the development of farmers' markets.

"The numbers are increasing all the time, though we're starting from a low base," said John O'Neill, development officer with the Irish Organic Farmers' and Growers' Association. "Irish organic production is now worth more than €100m and last year rose 11% in value compared with 2% for conventional farming."

Farmers were switching because of organic's premium price and sustainable market, he said. "With organic, input costs are minimal, with no pesticides or artificial fertilisers, and demand is increasing."

Teagasc, the farm research and advisory service, has also offered training courses and information visits to organic farms for those considering a switch.