by Sivalingam Vasanthakumar and Molly Vasanthakumar
Farming has been a part of my life since I was a child. I grew up on a mixed vegetable and dairy farm on the outskirts of Colombo, the capital city of Sri Lanka. For my family, animal welfare was very much wrapped up in religion, as cows are sacred in Hinduism and are not slaughtered for meat. Farming was never an industry or business; it was our way of life and necessary for subsistence. As a child, I always had a particular love for cattle. The calves were kept with their mother until weaning; each morning we would tie up the calves and as the cows groomed them, we would milk them by hand, leaving enough for the calf to drink throughout the day. They were never dehorned or disbudded, in fact we celebrated their horns, and during the festival for cattle in January, we would decorate their horns with paint and tie garlands of flowers around their necks.
I studied agriculture in India from 1978-83, and my plan was to graduate and return home to continue farming with my mother. However, the civil war soon broke out in Sri Lanka and we were forced to sell our cows and my family moved to India. I then came to the UK to study a Postgraduate Diploma and a Masters at Wye College, University of London. I was so excited at the idea of Western farming, the big farms, tractors and combine harvesters, and couldn’t wait to get some practical experience. After finishing my MSc I worked on the university dairy farm as a stockperson, where I had my first taste of what livestock farming was like in the UK. I would separate calves from their mothers at 48 hours where they would live in solitary cubicles, drinking milk from buckets. It upset me a lot, the stress on the cow and calf was huge, but I felt that it was my job and therefore something I couldn’t question.
After many years of working on commercial livestock farms, and then alternative inner city educational farming projects, I decided to rent 20 acres in Kent and rear goats for meat. It was a great feeling to start the business, and I had big plans to develop and expand the herd. I started a business cooking and selling south Indian street food, as a way to market and sell the meat we produced. I was very keen that as browsing animals, my goats should not have to live off grass like they often do in the UK. Every day I would drive around and cut fodder from trees and tie them into huge bundles for the goats. They loved it, and it made me feel like I was back home again.
However, amidst the enjoyment of farming once again and looking after my own animals, I began to struggle to take the male kids to slaughter. We used to leave the trailer in the field so that they would get used to going in and out, making it easier to load them on the day. In the morning they would all be sleeping in the trailer, and I would just shut the trailer gate, hitch the trailer and drive to the slaughterhouse. Whilst driving I would think about how I had betrayed them, and when we would arrive, they would refuse to come down the ramp.
Eventually I sold the goats and moved onto sheep farming, in the hope that I wouldn’t struggle so much to take lambs to slaughter. However, when it came to taking the first group of ram lambs to slaughter, I faced the same moral dilemma, and ended up selling them to another farmer to fatten and finish. The next year my youngest daughter was studying Veterinary Medicine in Edinburgh at the time and phoned me one evening to tell me that I couldn’t keep putting off the inevitable. At that point I told her that I wasn’t able to continue livestock farming any more, and together we decided to give the lambs to Goodheart Animal Sanctuary in Kidderminster. It was a sad moment to decide to give up what I loved; even now I miss the routine of checking the stock each morning and having a cup of tea when I am done. But I know that they all live the best lives with the team at Goodheart, and that I will never have to take another animal to slaughter again.
In March 2023 I bought a smallholding in Sparkford, Somerset, from the Ecological Land Cooperative. I will be transforming 4.5 acres of former sheep pasture into a productive, nature-rich, stockfree, market garden, supplying most of the produce needed for my cooking business, Kumar’s Dosa Bar. The land will include two large polytunnels, an agroforestry area, and a forest garden, and we will try to focus on growing the core vegetables needed for the Dosa Bar (tomatoes, garlic, onions, potatoes, aubergine, kohl rabi, beans, coriander etc.) along with other produce that can be sold loose at the market stall, to ensure that we have a good rotation.
We are lucky in the fact that we have an already established market for our produce, but setting up any new venture always comes with its challenges. It will take time to establish our system, and already we are learning from our mistakes! But we have been incredibly lucky to have the support of Stockfree Farming and their incredible advisors who have provided us with so much expertise so far. Mark Dickinson gave us inspiration and guidance on how to use shelterbelts to protect our plants from our ferocious south-westerly winds, and Iain Tolhurst gave up a day of his time to advise us on everything from wireworms to water collection systems!
This land will keep my connection to farming, use the skills that I learned as a child, and hopefully inspire my customers to think more about where their food comes from, and how that food is produced, all without the need for livestock. I would encourage any farmer who is questioning their feelings around animal agriculture to be brave; changing your identity is hard, but it is so liberating to no longer have to justify what you know is wrong.