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.”
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.
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.
A Gradual Conversion
Attending a couple of international online talks about farm transitions brought us into contact with the Biocyclic Vegan Standard (BVS). This organisation, which promotes and certifies growers in veganic agriculture, was able to put us in touch with large producers of veganic cereals in Europe. Laurence was not, after all, alone. Moreover, the BVS provided a pathway for a gradual conversion from animal agriculture into veganic farming. They understood that, for economic reasons, the shift to veganic was not going to be a ‘Road to Damascus’ experience! We were overjoyed to find this resource.
The BVS permits farmers two years from the beginning of certification to wind down livestock enterprises. Thereafter, they can no longer raise, breed, or sell animals commercially. If, for personal reasons, a farmer wants to keep some animals as ‘rescue animals’ after the two-year period, the BVS permits their retention at a 0.2 stocking rate (0.2 livestock units/hectare) as long as they live ‘freely’ and are not used for commercial purposes. For example, one cow can be retained for every 5 hectares, and 50 chickens for every one hectare, or an equivalent combination where one livestock unit corresponds to 1 cow/horse, approximately 3 pigs, 7 sheep, or 250 hens.
Any manure/slurry from animals during the conversion period, or from ‘rescue’ animals retained afterwards, can be used on the farm too. However, it must be composted with plant materials in the ratio of 1/3 animal manure, 2/3 plant materials, by volume. This mixed compost must be kept separately from plant composts and cannot be used on vegetables, cereals, pulses, or anything that grows directly in the ground. It can however be used around fruit trees or deposited on grass/clover leys in the first year of the regenerative phase.
A second significant ‘selling point’ with the BVS is that they permit fodder (hay, silage, straw) from 40% of the rotational area to be sold out of the farm for up to five years from the start of certification. This is a critical point as it ‘buys time’ for farmers such as Laurence to set up, for example, some on-farm processing that will ultimately add value to the veganic crops they produce.
To people out with the industry, it may not be apparent just how deeply intertwined the crop production and animal production industries are. Foods we think of as ‘vegan’ such as beans, vegetables and cereals are frequently fertilised with animal manure and slaughterhouse by-products (if not with agrochemicals that kill the soil and the living organisms in and around it). Crop residues from ‘vegan’ products are sold to livestock farmers, along with harvests that don’t meet the standard for human consumption due to bad weather or pest issues. Within the current system, the crop production industry could not survive without animal agriculture.
So, the huge challenge of the veganic farmer is, over the five-year conversion period, to extricate him or herself entirely from livestock agriculture: no animal inputs, no animal outputs. Simultaneously, the farmer needs to find ways to add value to his/her end products to compensate for any financial vulnerability due to leaving animal agriculture behind.
In this regard, Laurence has several ideas up his sleeve!
Purchasing a small mill for the farm such as this one from Zentrofan would mean that Laurence could mill his own veganic flour. Rolled oats and oat milk are some of the other products he is considering. Veganic versions of these products do not exist in the UK meaning Laurence could charge a BVS assured premium to consumers keen to find food that aligns with their values.
A second idea would be producing clover pellets from the regenerative phase of the rotation to be used as veganic, nitrogenous garden fertiliser. Dr Johannes Eisenbach of the BVS based in Greece uses these on his garden but they are not available for purchase in the UK, yet.
A third option is the production of ‘leafu’ (leaf protein concentrate), also from the regenerative phase of the rotation. This novel food uses grass/clover leys and extracts their high protein content producing a leaf curd that is suitable for human consumption. You can read here about the potential of leafu to provide a cheap and readily available form of plant protein.
The UK Government are offering equipment grants through the Farming Investment Fund that launches later this year. Laurence hopes to obtain a grant towards setting up these new initiatives.
Creating the Veganic Market
In terms of creating the veganic market, it is up to organisations such as Farmers For Stock-Free Farming to educate the public, big business, and the Government about veganic food: food with no agrochemicals and no ties to environmentally burdensome animal agriculture.
Veganic farming is the ultimate regenerative agriculture. It rebuilds the soil by placing special emphasis on the ‘closed-loop’ recycling of organic material and nutrients back to the soil, systematically building rich, potent organic matter called humus. Humus locks carbon in the soil and keeps it there. According to Dr Johannes Eisenbach, president of the Association for Biocyclic Vegan Farming, “By increasing the humus content of the upper 25cm of the soil by just 0.5 per cent on 10 per cent of arable land worldwide, we could cut annual manmade CO2 emissions by 70 per cent”.
Veganic agriculture delivers all the ‘public goods’ that the UK Government’s new Environmental Land Management scheme rewards, in one neat package: “reduction of and adaptation to climate change; clean air; thriving plants and wildlife; clean and plentiful water; beauty heritage and engagement with the environment; protection from environmental hazards”. All six are natural by-products of veganic farming.
“The vegan community needs to go to the Government and say, ‘we’ve got an agricultural system that is sustainable, is sequestering carbon, and it works; let’s run with this!’ If we’re going to eat differently it only makes sense to do it veganically. It’s not a niche, hippy system; veganics does tick all the boxes. The more I look into it, the more I learn; it does solve all the problems.” – Laurence Candy
A New System
Laurence sees the urgent need to move away from the profit-driven, centralised, commodity food system. The free market, low food prices, and low prices to farmers have resulted in widespread environmental devastation:
“Farming doesn’t respond to the normal supply and demand curve”. When prices are low, farmers must produce more in order to meet their expenses. When, through extreme weather or political events, prices are high, farmers produce as much as they can because they know the price will come down again. Increase mechanisation and the constant push for higher yields has resulted in biodiversity loss, a decrease in the nutrient value of the food we produce, and unsustainable farming practices that have destroyed the soil and our environment.”
“Now big business is getting into the vegan movement and it’s all about making money. We cannot just veganise the existing system. We have to change the way we think. We have to get the market to function in a different way.”
The True Cost of Food
In shifting to veganic production, Laurence states that consumers must be prepared to pay the true cost of their food’s production. In the UK we have been spoiled by the maintenance of low food prices. According to a study by the University of East Anglia, food consumed in the UK is the cheapest in Western Europe. UK households spend a mere 8% of their total expenditure on the weekly food shop (less than any other country apart from the USA and Singapore); a figure that has halved over the past sixty years. We could definitely afford to spend more on food!
Farms such as Iain Tolhurst’s in Oxfordshire show that the public are prepared to pay a fair price for veganically produced food. Despite having only 19 acres of land, the farm pays 5 full time employees a living wage by directly distributing to the public through a veg box scheme and farm shop. The UK has the ideal climate for growing fruit and veg, yet we import 90% of what we consume. With fiscal, retail, and consumer support, Tolhurst’s model could be upscaled and replicated across the country creating more jobs, boosting biodiversity, mitigating climate change, increasing food security, and improving public health.
According to a BBC report, fifty-seven per cent of the calories consumed by the UK population are from ‘ultra-processed food’ (for adolescents the figure is sixty-eight per cent). This has more than doubled since the 1980s with a corresponding rise in obesity.
In shifting to vegan diets, Laurence points out:
“We cannot just go from a processed-industrial-mixed diet to a processed-industrial-plant-based diet. We need more whole foods. The UK Government spends £3 billion on agriculture per year. In 2014, the NHS spent £6 billion on obesity-related illnesses. Prevention is better than cure!”
Laurence Candy will certify Northwood Farm with the Biocyclic Vegan Standard on September 2nd, 2021. He will be the first BVS certified farmer in the UK. We think Candy’s Veganics has a nice ring to it!
What about Laurence’s own diet?
“I’m nearly vegan. I’ve reduced animal products drastically. To support my future business, I have to walk the talk.”