The following is a shortened version of part of my book How not to make millions – but still enjoy a rich rural life. I thought it might make an interesting blog for vegans and vegetarians to read.
I have never met a farmer who is a vegan. It rather runs contrary to the notion of what a farmer is, but, just to show that I am willing to try to help those who want to grow food by alternative methods to my own I have given some thought to setting up a vegan farm. I felt I should do this because despite my own views I accept that some vegans might want to produce their own food – and sales to other vegans could be a lucrative business. I know there are smaller scale vegan producers, but I am thinking in terms of a bigger farm.
Whilst grassland (or the herbage naturally appearing due to non-cultivation) that is cultivated for a while and then allowed to return to a grazing area appears to have been around as long as there have been farmers, the 4 years grass/4 years cropping rotation is, I think, a little over 100 years old. It may be older but I have not seen it documented in detail before that. It is my favourite for a truly sustainable (that overused word again!) system of farming. Robert H. Elliott developed this way of farming at Clifton Park on the Scottish/English border and it is commonly referred to as the Clifton Park System. His book is available on line if you search. It is called The Clifton Park System of Farming and is well worth acquiring by anyone interested in maintaining the fertility of their land.
I regret I cannot advise a suitable location in many countries of the world, simply because I have only farmed in four. The land must be capable of growing grass without burning off in summer or killed by low winter temperatures and since there will be no livestock all land has to be cultivatable, with the ability to grow a wide range of crops. This restricts our vegan farm to favoured parts of only some countries, but it is essential to realise it will not work if the land is not suitable. Livestock cannot be grazed on ground unsuitable for cultivation as in a normal farm.
Size is not critical for the purpose of the exercise. Let us just assume it is big enough for everyone to recognise it as a farm. There is no upper size limit. We will further assume that it has been well maintained in the past so the land is in a good state of fertility, and that the new vegan owner has the knowledge and experience to operate the wide range of machinery and equipment required. It should be noted that this would be a labour intensive farm even with a full complement of modern equipment. Land in poor condition will take a long time to become ready to use the farm in a veganic way.
It is of paramount importance to maintain the Organic Matter content of the soil across the whole farm. I would split it into eight equal sized blocks, and crop each block for four years then four years in pasture in each rotation. It may not be possible in a stockless situation to have as many cropping years as pasture, so longer in pasture and less cropping may be necessary, with perhaps an increase in the number of blocks, but we will try 4 + 4. I say blocks because to equalise the size of the areas there might be a different number of fields in each block. That is not important so long as they remain within their own one eighth of the total area.
Additionally, since I would want to avoid buying nitrogen fertilisers if at all possible I would try having the pasture phases as a pure stand of white clover. I have no experience of using just clover for this purpose, and I doubt if many other people have either, but it is worth attempting if you are a vegan. White clover will persist easily for the time required; it forms a good ground cover and roots deeply. It is also easy to keep clover mowed short (sow a prostrate variety) as it would need to be in order to allow the mowings to be dragged underground by our friends rather than smother the living plants. It is also easy to kill out for the cropping phases. It would be necessary to buy any nutrients that soil analyses show are required, and also of course to replace those used by crops that are grown. This is to ensure it remains a sustainable system. I would prefer to test before and after the pasture phase to give an indication of nutrients removed during each phase. I would make as much compost as I possibly could.
What crops are grown will determine the machinery and equipment required. The first decision is probably whether or not to grow your own fuel oil. A lot of fuel will be used in the constant mowing of the pastures phases in addition to the cultivations and harvesting of the arable crops. I think I would grow my own, partly to be self-sufficient in fuel (some tractors can be run on straight vegetable oil) and partly to avoid using fossil fuel. A reasonable crop might leave a surplus to sell so there could still be some human food derived from the crop. I must point out, however, that I would never consume these refined vegetable oils myself. I have an inbuilt aversion to any food that needs a manufacturing process to make it edible. I also point blank refuse to consume food that is fortified with vitamins or minerals, and would never take supplements. I want my food to provide all I need. In suitable areas olives could be grown for human oil needs.
The oil would be the first crop after clover, and if I did not grow it I would make the first crop a cereal. Perhaps half and half might even be a better idea. Wheat could be grown in countries where bread making quality is achievable without high nitrogen inputs. A failure to reach this quality usually means the wheat goes for stock feed, which vegans would not want to happen. The reason for using these two crops is that I would use a grassland mouldboard plough to turn in the clover, burying the clover top growth at the bottom of the furrow and leaving it undisturbed during the first year of cropping. Very shallow cultivations to prepare the seed bed are therefore necessary. Both the oil and cereal crops would benefit from the accumulated nitrogen from the clover growth. If the area is not suitable for bread making quality wheat, then an alternative cereal crop could be grown. The choice may be limited by climate but maize, oats or rye for human consumption are the most likely.
Throughout the cropping phase there will be a decreasing level of available soil nitrogen each year, so I would have years two to four growing crops that more or less allowed for this. I would avoid the very high nitrogen demanders such as cabbage and the oriental brassicas and some of the possibilities below are more likely to be grown in the kitchen garden. This is where I would have all perennial crops including fruit and nuts. Again another reason to choose a “soft” area. Many fruits and nuts need warm conditions.
Potatoes would be a good choice for years two and three, spreading the disease risk by growing some earlies as well as maincrop. I am making the assumption that vegans are also opposed to the use of herbicides and fungicides. I would use half my available second year arable land for the maincrop potatoes and use half my available compost on them. Leeks, all the leaf beets and beetroot fit in here too, and if you had the labour force available to harvest them, and the market, you could grow some on a field scale.
The third year I would grow only early and second early potatoes on the half of the land that did not grow potatoes the previous year and use the other half of my compost on these. This way one quarter of the cropping land is in potatoes each year – spreading the machinery over a long season. There is always a market for quality potatoes, they will use the compost to best advantage, and the whole area receives some compost in either the second or third cropping year. In year three the other half (that had potatoes the previous year) could take most of the non-cabbage brassicas plus squashes, pumpkins and lettuce. Year four is for the lowest nitrogen demanders – a big range, beans, all alliums except leeks, and all the root crops except potatoes and beets. Even less demanding of nitrogen are garlic and peas. Then back to pasture.
Whilst I do believe this would work for individual vegan farmers, and using correct fertilisation techniques would make the yields undoubtedly better than organic farming and more on a par with conventional farming, it is still a low productivity farm because the land is only producing food for half the time. The same system with grazed livestock produces food every year, so the vegan system is not a good one for feeding the whole world.