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FROM Farmers for Stock-Free Farming
July 2021

As well as personal, ethical reasons, Laurence’s transition from dairy and beef farming to veganic cereal growing was influenced by environmental factors.

Laurence Candy
Laurence in a field of barley

An interview with Laurence Candy of Northwood Farm

Death informs our relationship to life. Between 2017 and 2019, Laurence Candy of Northwood Farm in Dorset experienced numerous catastrophic events. It began by the loss of almost the entire dairy herd to bovine tuberculosis. Life-threatening family illnesses followed, and then the tragic loss of his brother-in-law.

Seeing his own father in ICU was devastating for Laurence; at that point, an internal shift occurred:

“I remember I had some beef animals to sell, but I couldn’t do it; this was probably the first time I had to fight with my conscience.”

The experience stayed with Laurence and became the starting point in his journey to stock-free farming:

“I can honestly say, it’s time I should stop keeping animals. Having seen life taken away, it’s not healthy for me to keep having to send animals to market. It only magnifies those experiences. Farmers run businesses, but at the end of the day we are human beings.”

Northwood Farm
Northwood Farm’s rich biodiversity

Northwood Farm
Northwood Farm’s rich biodiversity

Conventional to Organic to Veganic

As well as personal, ethical reasons, Laurence’s transition from dairy and beef farming to veganic cereal growing was influenced by environmental factors.

In 2019, Laurence had begun the conversion from conventional farming to organic. At the time, changing supermarket requirements would have meant a large financial investment in the farm with a subsequent increase in herd size to cover costs. Laurence was aware of the environmental impact that a larger, more intensive enterprise would have, as well as how the agrochemicals used on the farm affected its biodiversity, soil, and carbon footprint. Laurence chose instead to add value to the dairy enterprise by producing organic milk. By the autumn of 2020, however, the demand for organic milk had fallen and Laurence’s contract ended. It was time to look for other options.

Contrary to popular farming narratives, Laurence had heard that it was possible to farm organically without livestock. Whilst browsing the internet, he happened upon the Vegan Organic Network (VON). He was pleased to find a vegan community who not only supported organic agriculture but also understood that conventional (non-organic) stock-free systems are not the answer due to the harmful chemicals that kill the soil and the organisms in it. VON certified growers who produced with no animal inputs, no animal outputs and, of course, no agrochemicals.

Laurence had suspected that livestock was non-essential to organic farming based upon his own experience. As a mixed enterprise, Northwood farm had produced a yearly maize crop. Laurence had noticed that despite putting slurry and farmyard manure on the fields every winter, the soil continued to deteriorate. When the decision was made to reseed the fields back to grass and clover, which was then left for seven years, the soil regained its structure, and the weed problem was eliminated. It was the grass and clover that reconditioned the soil, not the livestock.

Uncharted Territory

Organic farms operate on a system of rotation. For example, a six-year rotation could consist of: one year of winter wheat, followed by winter oats, then a year of fava beans, then spring wheat, then two years of grass/clover leys to regenerate the soil before beginning the cycle again. The regenerative phase is critical to the sustainability of the system.

As Laurence pondered the shift to veganic production, a question arose: in the absence of livestock, how would a veganic farmer fund the regenerative phase of the rotation? A mixed organic farmer would typically graze the leys and then sell the cows for beef; or, in the absence of stock, cut and sell the grass for hay or silage. With livestock out of the picture, how could he afford to potentially put one third of the farm to grass for two years? He posed the question to VON who had some suggestions, but none that Laurence felt confident employing on his land. He was determined to solve this dilemma.

In January of 2021, Laurence contacted Farmers For Stock-Free Farming with this and other questions. Laurence had bought the 134-hectare farm in 2004 just months before land prices escalated. Prior to this, his parents had been tenant farmers of Eton College. It was the right move; however, Laurence was still paying a large mortgage in addition to loans on machinery and infrastructure. In its heyday, the farm had milked 200 cows for which it received a monthly income. Moreover, the beef ‘followers’ provided ready cash whenever it was needed. How, if he got rid of the livestock, would he meet his monthly expenses and bridge the gap between sowing the first veganic winter cereals and harvesting them the following year? Besides, if he did produce veganic cereals, was there even a market for them?

Laurence was keen to chat to other UK farmers who were growing cereals veganically to see how they had tackled these challenges. Did we know any?

After confidently looking in all the right places for a couple of weeks, we found no one. No one knew of anyone currently growing cereals without animal inputs, outputs, or agrochemicals. And, no, there was no recognised market for veganic products.

By now, though, Laurence had discovered too much to turn back. He had learned that crops could be grown without animal inputs. More than that, it was an essential environmental step:

“There’s no way of saying ‘business as usual’. It’s about telling the truth at the end of the day and facing the facts. We’ve got to get to net zero as soon as possible and that will mean a reduction in global livestock numbers; there’s no other way of doing it in the timescale. We are going to have to adopt more plant-based diets very soon.”

Laurence was a pioneer in uncharted territory, and we committed to take the journey with him.

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