By Jonathan Smith

Scilly Organics is a VON affiliated stockfree farm in an idyllic setting off the S-W coast of England.

I started Scilly Organics straight after completing a horticulture degree in 2003, here on St Martin’s in the Isles of Scilly. I had always wanted to be a grower and since teenage years I was set on making it my career. When the opportunity arose to take on some land and do what I’d always wanted to do, I didn’t require much further persuasion.

The land is very sandy and is inherently low in fertility. I cultivate about five acres, with a further five as woodland, scrub or orchard and other long-term projects. All the land is owned by the Duchy of Cornwall and, without exception, every field I took on was overgrown and hadn’t been used for years.

At the moment I don’t have any full-time employees but I have occasional help from WWOOFers [1], friends and family. This year I’ve also had a student on work placement for six months, which has worked really well for both of us. Business has been good and I need to expand, but obviously this does bring up long-term labour issues.

Outlets

My two main markets are my box scheme and my roadside veg stall. I regularly supply a café, restaurant and occasionally a pub and hotel. There is good demand from all four catering outlets and I certainly intend to do more salads for them all next year.

The box scheme only started last year and, working with another local organic grower, it’s taken off well. There’s a waiting list for other customers and so far the only advertising has been word of mouth. It’s encouraging to see such a demand for good veg when the financial situation has been somewhat challenging for the organic market in general.

The work is particularly rewarding when you get so many positive comments about the produce. Having such personal contact with a good majority of my customers is a very important aspect of the business.

Growing system and crop protection

Soil management really focuses on adding as much organic matter as possible, in order to retain moisture and raise fertility. We use storm-washed seaweed in the winter months, laying it thick on the soil. In total I haul about 200 tons a year – it’s very bulky and soon rots down, but it’s still a very good resource that washes up literally a stone’s throw from the fields.

One part of the rotation is green manure, which can be a variation of cocksfoot and white clover, straight white clover, sweet clover or red clover. I’m still experimenting with the best species to use, but this largely depends on the extent of the rabbit population. I also make a few tons of compost each year from weeds, crop wastes, grass clippings and seaweed and this is mostly used in the polytunnel.

Until early this year the Island was swarming with rabbits. As there are no foxes here and there are no natural predators except for a few birds of prey, the population exploded. This caused a lot of problems: I can’t afford to rabbit fence every field, so a combination of fencing the most rabbit-desired crops, fleece and enviromesh had to do the job. However, this spring Myxomatosis went through the rabbit population like wildfire and now you hardly see a rabbit.

Flying pests, from pigeons to butterflies, are kept off target crops, such as lettuce, chard, brassicas and carrots, using fleece and enviromesh. Potato blight is the only serious fungal disease we encounter; to tackle this it’s a case of getting the early varieties away quickly and making sure they’ve bulked up before being wiped out, which usually works. The only truly blight-resistant potato I’ve found is the Sarpo and I use the variety Sarpo Mira for the maincrop: it produces a fantastic yield and stores well.

A day on the farm

View from the fields. Photo: Jonathan Smith

In the spring and summer I pick every day and like to start by 7.00am to get picking done before the heat of the day. I won’t pick salads after 9.00am and I like to have everything in the shed before 10.00am. After orders and deliveries are done I go in for a second breakfast and plan the rest of the day. The next session before lunch might be some weeding, sowing in the glasshouse or general plant maintenance jobs.

After lunch, if it’s hot, I’ll get on with some office jobs: pay bills, do emails, get the records up to date etc. Later on in the afternoon there might be some planting out, making compost, or perhaps some machinery maintenance. Evening work can include jobs in the polytunnel (like sideshooting) and thinking about jobs for the next day.

From March to September my life can become something of a blur, seriously long hours and relentless pressure to keep crop continuity on track. I always hit a wall of tiredness in midsummer, become a bit grumpy and have to ease off. Come the autumn I relish the mellow warm days, blackberries and apples, starlings and swallows flocking and there being less work to do.

Successes and failures

I’ve been growing for about ten years now, but still consider myself very much a learner. I’ve had some successes, some failures and some mediocrity! This land does limit which crops you can grow – it’s pointless even considering something like celery. All annual crops benefit from moisture and fertility, so with leafy crops in particular I have to think carefully about adding organic matter at the right points in the rotation.

Carrots and beetroot do particularly well here and this year has been the best carrot crop I’ve ever had. However, germination of seed is critical and I don’t drill any carrots after mid-March because the risk of poor germination is too great. Carrots go down for moisture and all seem to be well sized and very tasty. I cover the whole crop with enviromesh (or fleece for the first couple of months) from start to finish to avoid carrot root fly.

Generally potato crops are good, with a combination of an early start and lots of seaweed underneath them. I start planting first earlies in late January using fleece and carry on progressing through second earlies to maincrop in mid-March. By the first week of May I dig the first beautiful, tasty earlies and then aim to have continuity through to September. Maincrop are lifted in October for storage (Sarpo Mira is still green in September!).

Squash follow early potatoes and ordinarily I have good crops – this year being an exception. The early maturing butternut types from Tozers [2] (e.g. Hunter) work well and people like them, but I’ve still yet to find a squash that beats Crown Prince for taste, appearance and storage ability.

One crop I really take pride in is lettuce and the other salads that make up mixed salad bags. Early and late this includes rocket, mizuna and mustards, but in the warmer months it’s all about lettuce and endive. The frizzy endive (e.g. Zidane) is fantastic, baby leaf chard goes in well and a bit of French sorrel too. There are some cracking lettuce varieties available now and a major development has been the organic varieties released by Rijk Zwann (available through Tuckers) [3]. Some of these new varieties are expensive but germination and growth is excellent…money well spent.

In the polytunnel I swear by Passandra for cucumbers, although this year I have had a poor crop – something I’ve done wrong rather than the variety. Cherry tomatoes are always popular and sell well; this year I’ve done an interesting experiment between open pollinated and cheap Gardener’s Delight, and F1 expensive Sakura. So far Sakura are winning but not by much! I also grow a few larger tomatoes, Diplom F1 for its reliability and some Brandywines just for home use; they’re delicious.

Ethics

I’ve always grown organically and wouldn’t do it any other way. Having been open-minded I read a lot about Permaculture, vegan, biodynamic and other systems whilst at university. I did a Permaculture design course, which was fantastic and strongly influenced the design of my farm and the way I want to keep developing my business. Perennial crops, for instance, make so much more sense in terms of labour, energy, soil management and carbon sequestration. Welsh onions and lime leaves may have a limited market but chestnuts, walnuts, pears and apples certainly will sell!

As I was learning more about organic growing, I started to question the dogma about organic farming needing to use animal manures in order to be successful. I could see how it would work well in certain situations, for instance using steep slopes and rough land to graze, get the manure from the animals and use it to grow crops. Fair enough, but this doesn’t work everywhere and the ‘fertility sums’ just don’t add up.

When I was at university in Reading, I got in contact with Iain “Tolly” Tolhurst and was fortunate that he invited me around his land. As soon as I saw this fantastic system working without the use of any animal inputs, I knew it was all possible and Tolly remains an inspiration to me. As I’d never had a desire to keep animals, by default I started growing using vegan organic methods.

It’s probably worth saying here that I am not a vegan: I eat a limited amount of dairy and eggs and I do eat fish, but only if I know how it’s been caught. Being surrounded by the sea we’re lucky to have access to that resource here and I know that it’s all been caught sustainably. However a large part of my diet is vegan and I entirely respect the ethics of veganism. A major ethical issue now for all farmers and growers surrounds greenhouse gas emissions and the need to sequester (absorb) carbon in our biomass and soils. With Jenny Hall I developed the Climate Friendly Food carbon calculator [4] which is a grower-friendly free online tool that you can use to work out the total carbon balance of your business. I’ve done the calculations with my own business and am delighted that overall my soils and biomass absorb more carbon than is emitted by all other business activities and inputs – many times over.

References

[1] WWOOF: worldwide opportunities on organic farms, facilitating volunteer opportunities on farms in exchange for accommodation.

[2] www.tozerseeds.com

[3] www.tuckers-seeds.com

[4] www.cffcarboncalculator.org.uk

Editor’s note: Scilly Organics have recently published a biodiversity study of the farm, which shows that stockfree organic farming really is good for wildlife! See it on their website at www.scillyorganics.com.

This article appeared in Growing Green International magazine Num 28 (Winter 2011/12), p10.