Standing at the Farmer’s market, the fall breezes gently lift the smells of fresh produce through tents and along the tables lined with food. Spread out the length of the small street are farm stands loaded with baskets of squash, tomatoes, beans, sweet corn, pears, peaches and onions. The wafting sweetness of dirt and food in the air and the visual goodness of dark and light, organic home grown vegetables and fruits are reassurance that good things are happening. I am here buying local and meeting farmers. I feel lucky and privileged to be part of this place in Oregon of moderate weather, long growing seasons and agricultural diversity. I tell that to the farmer in front of me who is also selling organic goat cheese. He’s answering me in bursts as he weighs and loads orders for customers in brown paper bags and reusable boxes and sacks.
As a vegan my questions begin pleasantly, expecting to hear about his happy farm and the pleasure of harmonious growing. I ask him how long he’s been farming, how he swaps out his crops and grows organically and then about how he enriches his soil. I’m expecting a discussion about using his goat fertilizer and vegetable compost. Instead what he says surprises me. He tells me when he slaughters his goats he uses the bone and blood and body parts not suitable for eating to enrich his soil. Using bone and blood, fertilizer from factory farms, farmed fish corpses are all a standard practice in both organic and conventional farming; it is done, he says, because enriched soil is necessary to grow enough food to sustain a farm, and this is the best way to do it. He admits to using large scale amounts of fertilizer both synthetic and from big, industrial farms who sell their excess waste. Much of it burdened by antibiotics and disease embedded in the intestines of factory farmed animals. Nitrogen pollution both in the air and ground water come from the use and overuse of fertilizers.
All the good will and blood rushed out of me. How did I not know that even small, local, organic farms contribute to factory farmers by buying their fertilizer, and condone animal slaughter by using blood, bone and corpse to grow the vegetables I eat? I ask him if there’s another way but he shakes his head no: “We’ve got to grow a lot of food in a small area and it exhausts the soil. This is how we can enrich it enough to be sustainable. If it was a totally natural system animals would die and enrich the soil but even then the dirt could recover. What we’re doing, growing this much food, and we have to in order to stay in business, forces serious soil enrichment. Like I say, everyone at this market is doing the same thing. It’s just the best practice.”
I leave without buying anything, including his statement that the use of factory farm fertilizer and animal bodies are the only way. Back home, I crack open the laptop and find rather quickly the practice of “veganics.” Still, it’s relatively unknown among organic farmers: there are only a few known veganic farms in the US, and none are located in Oregon. Some farms may be engaged in gentle farming without identifying as veganic but I have not found them.
Here’s how it works: in veganic growing, soil is enriched using vegetable compost, crop rotation, mulching, and other sustainable, ecologically-minded, non-animal harming methods. Occasional use of lime, gypsum, rock phosphorus, dolomite, rock dusts and rock potash is also part of the equation but in small amounts and occasionally since they are not renewable.
Veganics also calls for soil conditioners and fertilizers that are vegan, organic, and sustainable, such as hay mulch, wood ash, composted organic matter (fruit/vegetable peels, leaves and grass clippings), green manures/nitrogen-fixing cover crops (fava beans/clover/alfalfa/lupines), liquid feeds (such as comfrey or nettles), and seaweed (fresh, liquid or meal) for trace elements.A border of marigolds helps to scare off insects, and their root system improves the soil.
As a vegan these are practices you can employ in your own backyard or patio potted garden but how do you find veganic sourced food at the store? You won’t like this answer but it’s nearly impossible to source or find veganic grown foods at the super market, co-op, farmers markets or anywhere else. You would have to know a farmer and buy from him or grow your own food to be certain. The good people at veganic Agricultural Network have a list of gentle farms in the US on their website which shows you the few states which have veganic farms. At this stage, they are not large scale enough to ship food, but they have contact information and it could be worthwhile to plant the seed.
If you are a do-no-harm vegan, then blood, bodies and bone in the growing of your plant pose enough ethical concerns; but even if from an environmental perspective, there are plenty of reasons to question the use of traditional fertilizers. Manure is nitrogen rich, which makes it a great fertilizer. But by applying every last bit of manure to their fields, farmers are flooding their crops with more nitrogen than the plants can absorb. The excess nitrogen is causing serious air and groundwater pollution and may even be threatening the health of the soil.
The simplest solution to this problem is cutting back on the manure and synthetic fertilizers, but from the perspective of the farmers there are not enough incentives to do so. The concern for the environment is not yet trumping their concern for a good yield.
Yields are the engine that drives farming. If a farmer is growing corn, he gets paid by the ton. If he can use inexpensive or free fertilizer or manure to ensure a high yield, he’ll do it.
Although most agricultural experts attest to the problem of farmers over applying nitrogen because they can grow as much food with less, most growers don’t want to risk it even if it helps the environment long term. Theirs is a tough business and they already face weather, pests, and market conditions. Using less nitrogen does not yet interest them.
But most consumers care about clean water and clean air; for health or ethical reasons, many of them also want food not tainted by factory farmed fertilizer. We’ll have to be the ones to create the incentive.
So, the next time I go to my local farmer’s market I will go farmer to farmer and ask if they employ or would consider employing veganic practices. If they say no or are unfamiliar I’ll slide a flyer in their hands and the web address for veganic growing tips. I’ll ask for this kind of sourcing at my co-op and local stores who boast organic foods. If we as consumers do this, all of us collectively, then we may affect change. After all, it’s the way most change happens, a small group of concerned citizens urgently working for change.
Also in Opinion: The Great Vegan Honey Debate
Illustration: Peaceful Dumpling