Tuesday, 2 April 2019

Assistant grower position


We're recruiting! From early June to late September we require an Assistant Grower to work on our small farm on the Isles of Scilly. The position is paid and comes with free accommodation.

Scilly Organics is an organic market garden growing a range of veg crops for local sales, specialising in salad. We also grow some fruit, herbs and flowers. Growing on approx 5 acres, most of the work is manual. The farm doesn't have any animals, and is vegan organic horticulture by default.

This position would suit someone who has completed a trainee grower or apprenticeship position, and now wants to step up in terms of responsibility. As Assistant Grower you would be responsible for day to day management including sowing, planting, weeding and harvesting. You would work on your own at times, and together with the head grower at other times. Through the season there will also be a trainee grower for short periods, who you would be managing.

This is a chance to live and work in an exceptionally beautiful location, whilst learning skills, techniques and an approach to step up to managing or owning an organic growing business.

For full details, terms and conditions please email Jonathan Smith jonathan@scillyorganics.com

Closing date for applications is midnight Sunday 21st April.

Thursday, 28 February 2019


Recently a very alarming report came out about the state of the world's insects. Over the past decade 41% of insects have disappeared. That's nearly a half! https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/feb/10/plummeting-insect-numbers-threaten-collapse-of-nature

Think about that for a bit, and its implications. All the myriad of birds, animals and other organisms that are inter-dependent on insects to support food webs. Oh, and humans - no insects means no pollination, which means most of our fruit and vegetables don't exist. Half in ten years! That's heading for rapid extinction in a human generation.

The causes? Principally agricultural practices and climate change. A lot of emphasis in the report was put on the need for widespread sustainable farming practices, especially organic - and that consumers should support this by buying organic produce.

Bumblebee on Phacelia at Scilly Organics
Here on the farm at St Martin's I'm pleased to say we have high levels of insect activity. A lot of the farm is left for wild flowers, which attract insects throughout the spring, summer and autumn. You even see some activity on mild winter days.

We also grow lots of green manures, including the wonderful Phacelia, seen above adorned with bees. These crops not only provide a great habitat for insects, they also improve the soil and reduce levels of weeds.

Taking a whole farm approach to improving biodiversity is critical, but it too often focuses on the top down approach - i.e. mammals and birds down. We would do well to reverse that and think of plants and insects first instead. The scary report is a stark reminder of that.

Monday, 14 January 2019

Scilly Organics carbon footprint

Every year we try to complete a carbon footprint analysis of Scilly Organics, using the Farm Carbon Calculator. Unfortunately we didn't complete it in 2017, but here is the comprehensive analysis from 2018.

The reason for doing it is to understand what is happening in terms of the carbon released during all the activities to produce vegetables, as well as all the carbon being sequestered (stored) in all our soils, trees and hedges. It is a very comprehensive process

The results are quite stark. In total the business emits just over 4 tonnes of CO2 per year, mostly from fuels, capital items (embodied energy in things like steel, concrete and tractors), fertility (nitrous oxide from green manures and compost), and materials (bought in things like timber, steel, plastics of various sorts).

To put this in context the average UK per capita carbon footprint is about 12 tonnes of CO2 per year.

The counterbalance to emissions is sequestration - the carbon absorbed in organic matter in soils, and various biomass on the farm. This came out at more than a staggering 64 tonnes of CO2, i.e. 16 times what was emitted. In short that is very good news!

Most sequestration is happening in the soil, which is an endorsement of our soil management policy (add lots of organic matter, minimise tillage, cover the ground where possible). Furthermore we have quite an area of woodland and a lot of very productive hedges, all of which are busy sucking in CO2 and storing it in their biomass.

What this shows is that Scilly Organics is an example of a farm which absorbs far more carbon than it emits, meaning every purchase from us is a positive one in climate terms. Every farm could, and should, be doing something like this from a carbon perspective.

If you'd like to see the full carbon footprint analysis you can get the detail on our website here http://www.scillyorganics.com/uploads/2/4/6/3/24630537/carbon_footprint_2018.pdf

Friday, 28 December 2018


When we get a storm on the Islands a lot of seaweed tends to get broken off the rocks, and beaches on the windward side end up with piles of seaweed stacked up around the high water mark.

Of course as most of the storms happen in winter and this is when most seaweed comes in, sometimes resulting in a huge amount piled up four or five feet high. 

This photo was taken on Lawrences beach at the end of November. It gave us rich pickings for the farm, where we lay out on the fields to improve soil fertility and organic matter levels. Even so it's unlikely we picked up more than 5% of this huge amount of seaweed - there must have been hundreds of tonnes deposited in one day.

People often ask if we compost seaweed first before putting it on the fields. The simple answer is 'no' - for two reasons. Firstly it would be hugely time consuming and difficult to do so.

Secondly there is really no need. If you lay on seaweed in the winter, about 4-6 inches thick, soon the rain will help to break it down so that you are left with a layer about 1-2 inches thick within a couple of months. The rain helps to wash out the salt, and you are left with an excellent layer of organic matter.

We use November and December as the main 'seaweeding months', that way the soil is ready to cultivate in February or March in time for new season crops.

This has been a good year for seaweed, and at time of writing we are very close to finishing all the seaweed we need for 2019. 

Given that we need around 50 trailer loads a year, each of around 1.5 tonnes, that's a lot of seaweed to handle. Every single bit of it is loaded and unloaded by hand!

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Winter veg

It's the time of the year when our veg stall has a bit of hibernation, and we go down from daily to weekly veg.

We will stock up at midday every Saturday through the autumn and winter - first come, first served! At various points we will have kale, chard, salad, caulis, broccoli, squash and herbs.

Monday, 20 August 2018


Earlier this month I went on a farm visit to Wakelyns Farm in Suffolk, a pioneer in agroforestry and one deeply embedded in research in to alternative agricultural systems. I had been wanting to go here for many years, and suddenly the opportunity came up - so despite being a very long way form Scilly, I didn't hesitate to book on. 

Owned and run by Prof Martin Wolfe, Wakelyns has really been the agroforestry farm people associate with in the UK. It spans about 57 acres of what looks like very fertile soil that Suffolk is pretty well known for. However what is somewhat lacking in much of the Suffolk farmed landscape is diversity. This is a photo of the farm right next door to Wakelyns:
Suffolk arable landscape
Pretty good at producing cereals, but biodiversity, soil management, trees, diversity - leaves a lot to be desired. Contrast this with the agroforestry approach, now well bedded in a good 20 to 25 years after establishment:
The layout of the hazel alley crops
Here we have a wheat crop, from seed bred and saved by Martin Wolfe, but grown between double rows of hazel 8m apart. The total crop of this area therefore is not just what, but also a substantial crop of hazel (one row is coppiced every 5 years) that can be used for stakes, woodchip, mushroom substrate, etc. It also goes without saying that the biodiversity is much higher in the agroforestry system and soil organic matter levels also higher. All the fertility comes from green manures, which makes up one part of the rotation.

What was particularly interesting was that the height of the wheat (and the yield) was even right across the field. I would have expected to see a shallow curve from edge to edge, as the hazel coppice was competing for water and nutrients. This clearly appeared to be not the case! Martin explained that he thinks by ploughing within 1m of the edge of the hazel forced it to root deeper, therefore not really interfering with the crop.
Wheat between hazel
The farm runs three main types of alley crops - hazel on 8m spacings (between rows), mixed species on 15m spacings, and willow on 12m spacings. Each system has quite distinct characteristics and purposes.

The mixed species system was quite attractive and offered the greatest flexibility for other farms. The one pictured below is a mixture of broadleaf trees (oak, ash, hornbeam, Italian alder, willow) and fruit trees (mostly apple and cherry). The broadleaf trees were mostly pollarded and the regrowth looked incredible. 

The ground immediately under to the trees (for about a three metre width) was unmanaged and a good mix of wildflowers as well as good invertebrate habitat.
Mixed alley crops

The choice of trees for alley crops has much flexibility and is dependent on needs of the system, soil, climate, etc.

I have been thinking about trying to do more agroforestry here at Scilly Organics, but this visit gave me more thought on what could be achieved with some creative thinking. We do effectively have some agroforestry with our small fields with high hedges. Pittosporum and Eunoymous in particular do have other uses as animal feed, firewood and woodchips. 

But is there more we could be doing by integrating perennial crops with annual crops? Undoubtedly, yes, and using the existing windbreaks we have could be a big advantage in helping to establish less salt and wind tolerant species. This could be successfully integrated with fruit, vegetables and think even flowers.
The irony of the entire day pouring with rain after the extended drought that East Anglia have experienced!

Probably the biggest eye opener was the effect on the micro-climate of the farm. Martin explained that in the real heat of July, Wakelyns remained quite green in the midst of a parched landscape. Yields of wheat this year remained at least as good as average, where surrounding farms have suffered substantial yield penalties. The farm actually felt different - calmer, damper, more fertile. Strange one to actually convey but it was quite profound.

It was a shame not to see more vegetable crops on the farm, which up to five years ago was central to the rotation. For various reasons that has changed, but it was still very impressive to see such a great setup that has been studied so much.
Woodchips are a major product of the system

The biggest message was that diversity over time and space brings stability, synergies and total productivity. This may not be new to those familiar with permaculture, but putting it in to practice in a commercial way is a different challenge. Wakelyns gives a model of various routes to achieving that goal.

Agroforestry will undoubtedly only become more important in British farming policy going forward.

Friday, 17 August 2018


August is the start of the harvest season that all growers lover. An abundance of produce on the farm is what all the hard work culminates in, and that's a real joy. We've got a good range of veg at the moment, but it's the fruit that really feels like the icing on the cake.

However it's not perhaps the classic English summer fruits that are in abundance at Scilly Organics at the moment, but some more heat loving crops that are. It's the polytunnels that are the source of sweetness and joy right now with an abundance of grapes and peaches!

There are just two peach trees fruiting, but hundreds of peaches all together. They are very nearly fully ripe with good skin quality. Pests and diseases don't seem to be a problem, the trees savouring the heat of the tunnel but have their roots outside lapping up moisture from the recent rains.

Meanwhile in the other tunnel the grapes are as good as ever, if not better. The heat in June and July certainly hasn't stunted them, if anything increased their growth. We hack back vast amounts of foliage during the growing season! again their roots are well down, outside the confines of the tunnel, pumping out vast quantities of water every day leading to a humid and cooler atmosphere in the tunnel.

These white grapes are Lakemont and taste delicious. Seedless, sweet and tasty, they are reliably good cropping, free of disease and the only pests are...blackbirds and thrushes. Entirely understandable that they want to gorge themselves on grapes! Our netting seems to be keeping most of them at bay...