Jonathan Smith of Scilly Organics in the Isles of Scilly
"Many things in our life need to be more localised, and it must start with food. There are some fantastic examples of local food working, but it needs to become much more widespread to put the heart back into communities."
At the age of 29, Jonathan has already been running his smallholding, on the Isles of Scilly, for three years. While studying horticulture at Reading University, Jonathan did work placements at Riverford Organic Farm in Devon, and at the Soil Association. This convinced him the future was organic, and when the opportunity arose to take on a 2.5 acre smallholding back home, he couldn't resist.
Working alone, Jonathan supplies local cafés, restaurants, shops and his own roadside stall with fruit, veg, herbs and flowers. All his customers are locals or visitors to the islands.
Can you give a short history of how you got to where you are now, including why and when you 'went organic'?
At the age of five or six, I was asked what I wanted to do when I was older. Apparently I answered "I want to be a farmer!" Not coming from a farming family this was surprising, but I never lost sight of that desire. I began to get interested in where food came from and how it was produced. Before I left school, I decided organic horticulture was for me.
I studied horticulture at Reading University, which regrettably was not focused on organic, but I did two fantastic work placements, six months each. Firstly at Riverford Organic Farm in South Devon, which gave me a huge amount of practical experience; it is also in a beautiful area and is arguably the local food capital of Britain.
Secondly, I worked for the Soil Association in the Food and Farming department, working on horticultural technical issues. I got to work with and meet some great people there and it gave me a fantastic insight in to the organic movement.
Being an independent person, I decided I just had to set up my own business. I got an opportunity to take on some land on the Scilly Isles, which I have always loved and had family connections with. Although I was only 22 at the time, and the land was less than ideal, I decided I had to 'grab the bull by the horns' and go for it. The market opportunity was there and I haven't looked back since.
Can you describe a typical day in your life?
First thing in the morning is checking polytunnels and watering. In the summer, it starts early as I have to then get all the picking done before it gets too hot. When packing and delivering is done, I go in for second breakfast.
If it's not too hot I'll do some planting or sowing; if it is hot I'll get the hoe out. After lunch I'll get some paperwork done, make phone calls and tend to emails. Later in the afternoon I'll sow some seeds in modules in the glasshouse, to ensure there is crop continuity.
Then it may be off to cricket or gig rowing practice – sports keep me fit and are a good change of scenery. Last thing in the evening will be a walk around the land, perhaps a bit of watering, a couple of small jobs and a chance to reflect on the day just gone and the next day to come.
Organic principles – why do they matter?
I live my life by very strong principles, of integrity and responsibility. Essentially, soil, soul and society are intrinsically linked, so if you care about one aspect, you must care about all three. If you want to be responsible for your actions, as I believe everyone should, organic principles do matter.
Organic principles are critical to maintaining integrity and trust, so organic standards must represent those principles.
What does the Soil Association mean to you?
The Soil Association has always been at the heart of organic food and farming and deserves a lot of credit for the work it has done in furthering the organic movement. With this leading role however comes responsibility, of which the most important aspect is certification. If it is to maintain integrity and trust, the Soil Association must ensure that the standards are set to the highest level possible.
The Soil Association has a lot of work to do to maintain standards, and pressures on the movement are very real, from many sources. But we need them to be there - upholding standards - if we are going to make progress. I feel the Soil Association is one of the most vibrant, energetic and forward thinking charities operating in the UK at the moment and wish to see them go from strength to strength.
What is the key to your success?
Producing quality, affordable food that people want; working hard; keeping a vision of where you want to go; learning from mistakes; listening to others.
What is your greatest achievement?
Creating a job for myself that makes me happy every day.
What do you love most about what you do?
Working on my own, being outside and being completely in control of what I do. Producing good food really is a fundamentally important job in society.
How do you plan to progress in the future? What is your vision?
I need to continue improving the health of my soil and the efficiency of my system. I always look for market opportunities and if it is right, grow steadily. I am not a fan of big business – I believe once you lose the personal element to a certain extent you lose control and integrity. You can never stop getting better at what you do.
If you were starting all over again, what would you do differently?
Not produce any crops for the first two years, working solely on improving fertility and water retention of the soil. But then you have to have an income to be able to do that.
What keeps you awake at night?
When it's blowing storm force 10 or more outside, wondering how much of a battering the polytunnel is taking.
What single thing would most improve your life?
An increase in the price of fuel by three or four times – that would not only force people to make some drastic positive life changes, it would massively increase the price of food so that local food was the only option that is affordable. Most communities are ill prepared for future resource depletion and that is a huge worry. My work with Transition Scilly aims to address some of these issues.
What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
Trust your intuition.
Who or what is your biggest inspiration?
Iain Tolhurst, legendary organic grower in the Thames Valley. Tolly has set up one of the most forward thinking and innovative systems of organic growing in the country. Given that his soil gains virtually all its fertility from green manures, he grows nearly everything for his veg boxes and all the boxes are sold locally, the eco-footprint of his farm is tiny.
He started growing organically in 1976, in less than ideal conditions, with no formal training, and not much money, and has just got stronger ever since. He also happens to be building his own boat 'in his spare time'. It's no small project - a huge yacht, made using local wood and it looks beautiful. When I asked him where he learnt his skills he replied, "Oh, just taught myself really".
We need more people like Tolly.
What do you find most frustrating about what you do?
Not being able to accurately predict the weather next month!
Any unusual hobbies or past careers?
I row in a gig – gigs are traditional wooden boats, about 30 feet long, with six rowers and a coxswain. Gigs have a history going back to the early 1800s, as a means of getting a pilot onboard a ship – the first pilot to the ship got the job, so speed and seaworthiness were critical. They were widely used around Scilly and the Cornish coast.
The gig I row in was built on St. Martin's five years ago and our crew are all local. We row in the World Pilot Gig Championships, held on Scilly every May
How can the organic market be improved?
Go local. Whilst most people do still shop at supermarkets, pursuing this route is ultimately unsustainable. Supermarkets only follow the market – they don't care about the quality of soil or the health of people.
Many things in our life need to be more localised, and it must start with food. There are some fantastic examples of local food working, but it needs to become much more widespread to put the heart back into communities.
We must keep on attempting to educate the public about the importance of quality food. But it must be done in a positive manner – GM, pesticides and food miles are very bad influences on food, but I just can't stand negative campaigns. It is so much better to emphasise the positives of what we all do rather than trying to slag off the opposition.
People must buy organic for the right reasons if the market is going to be sustained, not as a reaction against something else, or as a fashion statement. The recession has certainly ‘sorted the wheat from the chaff’ and shown who the committed customers are – we need to learn lessons from that.
What's the main benefit of being organic for you?
Integrity and responsibility.
Supermarkets – good or bad?
What other organic ventures do you admire and why?
All the organic cider makers, making cider and perry from apples and pears from traditional orchards. Old standard orchards are not only incredibly important wildlife havens, they embody culture themselves. Every village in apple-growing areas used to have its own apple variety, unique and distinctive. The vast majority of these have been lost from commercial production, but in the old orchards many of these survive.
Perhaps even more importantly, a lot of the organic cider produced by the likes of Westons and Dunkertons in Herefordshire is of superb quality, tastes fantastic and doesn't give you a terrible hangover! The preservation of these wonderful parts of the landscape, their associated history, culture and wildlife depend on people buying cider and perry from these orchards.
What is the biggest threat to what you do?
Climate change and resource depletion.
What's the best thing about organic farms?
Lots of wildlife.
What's the best thing about organic food?
What is your favourite meal?
Potato salad, mixed salad leaves, beetroot and carrot salad, crab and lobster – all from within a mile of the kitchen of course!
If I was Prime Minister I would...
Put all my efforts into preparation for climate change and resource depletion. At the moment there seems to be no acknowledgement of the scale of challenges facing us in future years. The time to prepare is now.
The world would be a better place if...
We were all responsible for our words and actions.
I'd like to be remembered for…
Being honest and principled.
What is your greatest fear?
Being forced to eat at McDonalds!
What is your favourite word?
What would be your 'Desert Island' luxury?
A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold. The most important book ever written on ethics – it is very readable but incredibly powerful.
Is the customer always right?
Of course not!
To find out more about Scilly Organics visit www.scillyorganics.com.