About Stockfree Farming
Stockfree Farming is a Scottish-based charity that supports and assists crofters and farmers throughout the UK to transition out of livestock farming into alternative forms of land management.
We have a team of advisors with collective knowledge and experience in conservation agriculture, growing food in marginal areas, continuous stockfree organic cereal production, veganic vegetable production, regenerative food ecosystems, soil biology, business development, and agroforestry to name a selection.
Our services to farmers are FREE of charge and include expert advice, transition planning, on-farm soil analysis, end-market support, and access to funding.
Get in touch today to schedule a consultation or to find out more about our services.
“It is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.”
~Leon C. Megginson
It goes without saying that the world is changing. Some of the changes that have occurred in the past 50 years would have been labelled ‘science fiction’ had they occurred even a decade or two earlier.
Farming, possibly, changes more slowly than other industries. The animals, the landscapes, the seasonal activities seem to have largely resisted the frenzy of ‘progress’ that grips the rest of the world. The photos of newborn lambs that my cousin sent me this year differ little from the faded snaps I took when I worked on my uncle’s hill sheep farm in the 1980s.
The above quote, often misattributed to Charles Darwin, was spoken by a Louisiana State University business professor in 1963 at a social science convention. Professor Megginson went on to say:
“The civilization that is able to survive is the one that is able to adapt to the changing physical, social, political, moral, and spiritual environment in which it finds itself”.
These words succinctly sum up the aims and purposes behind the work of Stockfree Farming.
Physically our environment has changed. The once abundant biodiversity that sustains all life on earth is in crisis. According to the WWF, from 1970 to 2018 global wildlife populations plummeted by 69%. The United Nations Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services attributes this devastating biodiversity loss to five main factors: changes in land and sea use; direct exploitation of natural resources; climate change; pollution; and invasion of alien species. Each of these drivers of loss creates a myriad of other disruptions, not only environmental but also economic, developmental, social, moral, and ethical. We are repeatedly told that the most vulnerable people, regions, and wildlife are bearing the brunt of the rest of the world’s carelessness.
Socially, the world is in constant flux. One of the most impactful social changes that influences agriculture is population growth. The global population has more than doubled over the past 50 years rising from 3.7 billion in 1971 to 7.9 billion in 2022. By the end of this century, it is predicted that there will be 11.2 billion of us living on this planet. That is a frightening thought. People, and their needs and wants, displace biodiversity. That is a historically proven fact. Currently, humans comprise 36% of the mammalian biomass on earth, livestock 60%, and wild mammals just 4%.
Biodiversity is not the niche obsession of some annoying conservationists. It is not margins left around fields, it is not ‘set-aside’ nor hedges, it is not the occasional punctuating clump of trees.
Biodiversity is the very web that our lives hang on.
It is the variety and combination of all things living on earth that provide us with needs as basic as oxygen, water, and food.
There are a congregation of reasons why the UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries on earth, ranking in the bottom 10% globally and last amongst the G7 nations.
The Agricultural Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, two world wars, the subsidies of the Common Agricultural Policy, the demand for cheap food by an ever-burgeoning population, and the cratering of farm gate prices, have conspired across the centuries to decimate our natural landscapes, to plunder our rich resources, and to constrain farmers to wring every penny out of the land under their care.
The clock cannot be turned back. What’s done is done. But can we correct the errors of the present, can we find new ways forward that will bring a measure of healing to our weary earth, can we change course in time to avoid the apocalypse that races to meet us?
Land use is a topic at the heart of many agricultural debates. According to the independent review of the National Food Strategy, 85% of the land that feeds the UK is devoted to livestock production which provides us with just 32% of our calories (from meat, dairy, and eggs). The remaining 15% of land, used to grow crops for human consumption, provides us with 68% of our calories. In other words, from a calorie perspective, we are using land very inefficiently. These statistics also tell us that we can produce a lot more calories per hectare when we grow it rather than rear it, which, as the population increases but the amount of land stays the same, is an important consideration.
It is also worth mentioning here that approximately half of the land that feeds Britain isn’t even located in the UK – it is overseas. If this wasn’t already making us feel vulnerable, then our departure from the European Union, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the war in the Ukraine have conspired to underscore just how precarious our food supply can be.
It is argued, despite examples to the contrary, that much of UK land, especially in Scotland where I live, is unsuitable for growing crops for human consumption, especially when our unpredictable climate is factored in. This may be true in some instances but, notwithstanding, a DEFRA paper published in 2008 and a later analysis in 2019 showed that we do in fact have enough existing arable land in the UK to grow sufficient food to meet the protein and calorific needs of our entire population. We could, if we chose that path, be self-sufficient.
We have digressed from our tale of biodiversity, but what the above means is that if we choose to grow food rather than rear it then the no-longer-needed permanent grazing land that occupies so much of the UK could be returned to nature. Our romanticised national image of rolling green hills and bare windswept moors is a product of humankind. The temperate rain forests and peat bogs that once covered much of our uplands are largely gone.
Over-grazed, burned, and chopped we have destroyed our own life-support system.
Returning this land to nature would not only be a win for biodiversity, but also climate change mitigation. Climate scientists tell us that returning our uplands to their climax vegetation – native forest – presents a great carbon opportunity. Trees are unique in their ability to lock up atmospheric carbon in their structures and to continue to store it as they grow. According to the Woodland Trust, “trees are the ultimate carbon capture and storage machines”. They look nice too.
In recent years, though, the idea of trees seems to produce a knee-jerk reaction in certain circles. A Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) in a meeting of the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee gave voice to the fear that underpins this resistance: “we can’t eat trees”.
This fear of ‘running out of food’ is dispelled when we realise that the least productive 20% of our land – the land best suited to nature restoration – only gives us 3% of our calories; and sheep, the big devourers of nature, only 1%.
Additionally, the 55% of UK arable land that is currently used to produce stockfeed could, in a stockfree farming scenario, be repurposed to grow food for human consumption.
Besides, the above MSP was only partially correct. We can’t eat trees, but we can eat what they produce. One of our advisory team members, Dr Vincent Walsh, is bringing a new spin to the NTFP scene (non-timber forest products) by assisting nature in the recreation of the 7-layers of native forest – with each layer producing food.
Stockfree farming means that we will have to be willing, at times, to leave the known, the safe, the convenient behind and think outside the business-as-usual box. In fact, our survival will increasingly depend on this.
Politically, Stockfree Farming works with government as well as with farmers. We lobby for farmers to be fairly and appropriately compensated for these shifts in farming practices that would provide wins for biodiversity, climate change mitigation, and food security. Our recent survey has shown us that, providing financial support is in place, farmers are open and willing to change the way they manage their land.
People lead the way and government follows – usually around 20 years later. At Stockfree Farming we have decided not to wait for the Government’s penny to drop.
Alongside many innovative and courageous farmers and crofters we are blazing a trail that inevitably many more will follow.
Browse our case-studies to see the work of some of these pioneers of change.
Finally, in his address to the social science convention, Professor Megginson also referred to the changing “moral and spiritual environment” to which we must also adapt in order to survive. How does this apply to farming? Recently, new dialogues have begun to open in farming communities. Something, that has been buried for generations, is starting to emerge. A farmer, in a focus group on cultured meat in the Netherlands, gave voice to what we might call the ‘moral dilemma’ inherent in livestock farming:
“Ever more farmers are morally concerned about what they do, caring for animals that are then killed, and that is new and worldwide, and everybody knows it but you cannot say it as a farmer, it is high treason”.
On reading this I remembered how my auntie said she would get upset every year when the lambs went away. Another farmer told me, “I hate it”. For Laurence Candy, the first farmer whom we helped transition, it was this moral dilemma and the impact on his emotional wellbeing that drove his shift to stockfree farming.
Mental health is currently a hot topic in farming fuelled in no small part by the statistic that more than one farmer a week commits suicide in the UK. Undeniably, there are multifarious contributing factors behind this grim toll, yet we wonder if the moral weight that livestock farming potentially places on the human spirit plays a part.
There is no joy in sending animals to their deaths.
This year we are researching this question. Are society’s demands for animal products, reified by the pressures of ‘big ag’, emotionally and morally injuring our farmers?
To conclude, Stockfree Farming is endeavouring to respond to the multiple crises of our age; the interconnected dilemmas that have combined to threaten our planet and the many species that share it, including ourselves.
Surviving is not good enough. We want to thrive.
Sign up for our newsletter to receive updates on our progress and, if you are a farmer or crofter, please get in touch today to learn more about our services. We look forward to hearing from you.
Rebecca Knowles (Founding Director).