It was his daughters who first noticed Kumar’s annual distress around the time he would take his lambs off to slaughter. “They noticed my stress in the house,” he recalled, speaking at the Grow Green conference earlier this year.
Catching up with him a couple of months later close to his home in Totnes, Devon, he says he struggled every year with the journey to the abattoir. “They knew, and they wouldn’t come down the ramp. I couldn’t do it anymore,” he says.
“I called my daughter Molly, who was training to be a vet at the time, and I told her. Together we found a sanctuary for farm animals.”
After following the truck transporting the lambs to their new home, Kumar says it was a “wonderful feeling” not to have to send them to slaughter. “I went vegetarian straightaway,” he says.
Sivalingam Vasanthakumar is not your average British farmer. Known as Kumar, he was born in Sri Lanka to a family of Indian heritage, who went over to work on the tea plantations when they were still under British rule.
His family owned a dairy farm, and it was there he intended to work after an agricultural degree in India – but the outbreak of civil war in Sri Lanka changed his life forever.
Kumar’s family are Tamils, an ethnic group in Sri Lanka who opposed the Sri Lankan military and faced persecution as a result in many areas of the country. On the day he left his family house, it was looted and burnt, and his father told him to leave the country for his own safety.
After applying and then studying for a Masters in sustainable agriculture at Wye College in the UK, Kumar bought 20 acres of land and 100 ewes in Lifton, in West Devon, where he produced lamb and made curry to sell in the local farm shop.
The idea to cook Sri Lankan dishes came from years spent watching his mother and aunties in the kitchen and helping prepare traditional meals, like the dosa – a pancake made from rice and lentils, wrapped around curried potatoes. He set up Kumar’s Dosa Bar, a company to sell his homemade food, and is a regular face at Totnes and Plymouth markets.
How much meat we should eat, and what kind, is being scrutinised more than ever before, thanks to a wealth of climate change reports highlighting intake of intensively-farmed meat, versus advocates for sustainable farming that includes livestock.
“In Sri Lanka, we never took the dairy cows to slaughter, and the calves were kept with the cows the whole time, we never separated them,” says Kumar, who says part of his journey away from livestock farming was cultural.
“We ate meat maybe once a month as a luxury. It’s also partly from me and how I struggled to justify why we are killing these animals.”
Topical as it is, Kumar is well aware that his story won't appeal to all. “It will take a long time to convince a livestock farmer to convert to a plant-based growing system, but then it depends on their terrain as well,” he says.
He still owns 70 ewes, who are living out their lives on nearby rented land, and adds: “There’s a big question for livestock farmers – if you say give up, there’s a big question about what do you do with those animals? I can also cook, so I can make a living from that.”
Reaction among the farming community has been mixed – some have respected his decision, while others have questioned his identity as a farmer. But Kumar is no stranger to standing out from the crowd, noting that he must be “the only Asian farmer in the UK”, with a deep laugh that reoccurs at regular intervals.
Nowadays, his life centres around his street food business. He prepares his dosa batter at home in his kitchen on Thursdays, with the help of a food prep company in Totnes to chop onions and peel potatoes. “It is a healthy meal and also it’s vegetarian, vegan and gluten free. It’s nice when people are watching you make it. It’s something different to what you see in an Indian restaurant.”
Part of the problem Kumar seems to have with farming is with the intensive 'factory farm' systems, where there is pressure to produce at scale and as cheap as possible, leading to standards on welfare being lowered.
“I am a vegetarian but I’ve stopped taking milk at home for a few reasons,” he says. “I used to work on dairy farms and it was the calf separation that I couldn’t deal with. It’s so distressing. There is a way of keeping cows with calves.”
“Personally, I think small farms can feed us, but you need a guaranteed income. When I first moved here I loved the size of the farms. But as the years went by, I’m not saying how we farm in India and Sri Lanka is perfect, but I prefer small farms to monocrops and factory farming systems.”
It’s a personal story but not one without wider implications and, without preaching about his own morals, Kumar has a point to make. “I would like to send a message to people that we need to cut down on meat eating,” he says. “It’s my story, but that is the message. They are separate but linked.”