Unfortunately for vegans, traditional fruit and and veggie farming typically utilizes animal-based ingredients like fish bits or bone meal in fertilizer. That fact is a bit of a buzzkill for anyone who wants to avoid hurting animals and insects.
But tradition isn’t the only way to do things. Veganic farming refers to a different kind of practice that minimizes harm to all living beings.
“Veganic farming is a way of sustaining ourselves without contributing to the death of other creatures,” explains Helen Atthowe, a veganic farmer who’s worked as an extension agent for Montana State university and horticulture research assistant for Oregon State University. “It is about nonviolence to the earth, animals, birds, insects, amphibians and to ourselves.”
Atthowe has always been a fruit and vegetable farmer, but previously utilized traditional fertilizers and such. It was after watching the famously heart-wrenching animal advocacy film, Earthlings, that she was motivated to switch to a veganic process.
So how does veganic farming work? “As in certified organic farming, there are no synthetic pesticides, no artificial fertilizers, and no genetically modified organisms (GMOs),” says Atthowe. “Unlike organic farming, veganic farming does not use animal manure, animal bodies or animal parts (such as fertilizers made from bone meal, blood meal, feather meal or liquefied fish bodies).”
In essence, veganic farms are complex systems where native animals, birds and insects are not driven away, but are welcome to co-habitate. Insect control happens naturally, as part of the overall ecosystem. “Biological control of insect and disease pests occurs naturally by creating or maintaining habitat for pest-eating birds, bats, insects, fungi, bacteria and soil microorganisms,” Atthowe explains.
Photo courtesy of Helen Atthowe
As far as fertilizers, veganic versions are plant- or mineral-based, and utilize slower-to-release “plant-available” nutrients. The soil enrichment process uses an array of plants — primarily nitrogen-fixing legumes — to set the stage for growing.
The legumes serve as green manures, cover crops and living mulches, says Atthowe. Green manures and cover crops are incorporated into the soil with spring tillage, before the primary crops are planted. Living mulches don’t get tilled, but grow in between crops and are occasionally mowed to add plant residues back into the soil.
“Legumes can provide as much nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium as animal products and manures, usually without such a rapid release that nitrogen or phosphorus pollution occur. Good examples are clovers, alfalfa, medics, beans and Austrian field peas.”
Now, nobody said this was as easy as buying fertilizer and raised beds at Walmart. Veganic farming does require a time and energy investment. “Veganic farming can be more difficult, especially in the early years of a new farm as it builds its soil organic matter and soil fertility framework,” Atthowe explains.
Basically, plant-based fertilizers break down and release nutrients more slowly than organic fertilizers (which often use fish-based ingredients) and much more slowly than chemical fertilizers, which release nutrients so quickly that the water supply can face pollution from the nitrogen and phosphorous.
Photo courtesy of Helen Atthowe
Are all veganic farmers vegan? Not necessarily. “People who are concerned about animal rights and vegans use veganic farming,” explains Atthowe. “But also farmers like my husband — who is not a vegan or even a vegetarian when he is not eating what I cook for us — use veganic farming. My husband stopped using manures and animal products on his farm in northern California 20 years ago because he thinks that plant-based fertilizers are better for the soil and plant nutrition.”
While there’s no way to know for sure how many veganic farmers there are in the U.S. (since there’s no official tally) — Atthowe thinks the process is on the rise.
Hannah Sentenac is a freelance writer and journalist who covers veg food, drink, pop culture, travel, and animal advocacy issues. She’s written for Live Happy magazine, Foxnews.com, MindBodyGreen.com, and numerous other publications and websites. Hannah is also the Editor-in-Chief of LatestVeganNews.com, a publication dedicated to positive, original news from the vegan and plant-based world.