Please regard the author’s notes at the conclusion of this article.
AS I BEGAN TO RESEARCH PURELY VEGAN PRODUCTS for a vegan, organic café and market that my husband and I owned and managed, in 2008 (Vej Naturals, Malden, MA), I came upon a shocking realization. My husband had asked me,” How far back in the process are we going to take our standards?” Puzzled, I asked him what he meant.
It was then I learned that organic farmers often use fertilizer containing a variety of combinations of animal feathers, blood, bone meal, or fish emulsion, on their fields, as well as manure. At first, this was difficult for me to comprehend. I assumed that to be “organically grown” there were no animal by-products incorporated into the soil during the preparation, planting, or growing process. I also assumed that there must be farmers out there who grow their crops using “veganic” methods, without the use of manure or animal products. That’s the type of produce we wanted to promote and stock in our market and utilize in our cafe.
The next day I called NOFA, the Northeast Organic Farming Association, to ask if they had a list of veganic farms in the area. They informed me that they had no such list, but that they would be interested in receiving such a list if I created one. I then began to ask questions regarding the use of animal products on “organic” farms. Did these animal products need to be from organically-raised animals, so as to be appropriate for use on organic farms? They did not. I was told that I should speak to an organic certifier, and was given the name of the executive director of Baystate Organic Certifiers, Don Franczyk. Don confirmed what I had learned up to that point.
I spent some time discussing the use of animal products, in organic farming practices, with Don. I wanted to understand why these products were included in the commonly used fertilizers, and why manure was used so often, instead of plant-based compost. My concerns were two-fold. First I was disturbed that the vegan foods I chose to eat were being raised in soil into which animal products were added by growers. And equally disturbing to me was the possibility of residues from antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, and genetically-modified ingredients making their way into the ground. Until this time, I had been under the impression that my vegan, organic diet had allowed me to avoid these substances.
I inquired about the possibility of residues ending up in the soil, as we’re all aware that commercially raised animals are often given feed that contains genetically modified crops, as well as crops that have been sprayed, often heavily, with pesticides. These animals are also fed a mix of hormones and antibiotics to achieve the results desired by their “owners.” Don explained that an animal’s digestive process breaks these substances down thoroughly and assured me that “negligible amounts,” if any at all, would make their way through that process intact. He also explained that plants would not take up the strands of DNA from GMO residue, even if it were found in the soil. These substances would most likely all be broken down to their constituent “natural” components.
I appreciated Don’s explanation, but did not feel at ease with growing plants in this way. He suggested that I could go on the website for his organization – http://baystateorganic.org – and find the contact information for the local organic farms. I thought, “Great! Surely I’ll find veganic farms if I call every farm in Massachusetts…”
And so I did call all 50 or so farms. Not all farms had voice mail options, and I wasn’t able to reach a human being in all cases. At those that did have voice mail, I left messages, explaining that I was doing research on organic farming practices and was seeking information about the use of fertilizers and manure on their land. Some farmers I reached easily, while others called me when they received my message. In all, I spoke to about 30 farmers, and they confirmed the widespread use of animal products in current organic farming methods.
I spoke with only one farmer who doesn’t use any animal products on his land. His name is Dan Kittredge. In 2008, he was farming a plot of land on his family’s farm in Barre, Mass. His parents raise animals and use the manure and fish emulsion fertilizer on their fields. But Dan has researched the topic and has concluded – and has proven – that you don’t need animal products to grow healthy plants. He stated to me, “My personal predilection is to maximize plant nutrition and nutrient density. This is what I’m working on, and the lack of animal products happens to be a coincidence.” He uses a combination of rock dust – see his group’s website http://reminerali`ze.org – and good bacteria with which he “inoculates” the earth. The plants achieve the appropriate balance of minerals and are resistant to pests, all without the use of animal products.
I attempted to pass this information on to some of the farmers I spoke with, all of whom still used animal products on their land, in the days following my conversation with Dan. I was told repeatedly that Dan’s method is too expensive for large plots of land, and therefore not realistic for most farms. This feedback was confusing to me, as Dan has told me that this method is cost effective and being used by farmers around the world, often on huge plots of land. It appeared that getting Massachusetts farmers to look into and try different methods to those which they are accustomed might be a challenge!
I found a couple of farms that only used manure from organically raised animals as fertilizer. This generally meant that the farm was raising animals, directly or indirectly for slaughter, or had a farm down the road that raised animals. From a vegan standpoint, this is not a huge improvement, although it does mean that factory farmed animal remnants are not being added to the soil. But from the animal’s perspective, they’re still being raised and treated as a commodity. And so I continued to research.
On the last day of my research, I left a message at Heavens Harvest Farm, a certified organic farm in New Braintree. Owner Ashley Howard, who raises produce mainly for CSAs, Community Supported Agriculture, and sometimes for local stores, returned my call. He explained that he doesn’t currently raise animals, but occasionally, as needed, spreads manure from an organic chicken farm down the road, on his fields. Like many of the farmers with whom I spoke, Ashley was not aware of the ingredients in his fertilizer, but recognized that it might contain ingredients derived from animal sources. As we were speaking, an idea was born.
Birth of a veganic CSA
I asked Ashley if he would consider farming a veganic CSA, if there were enough support for the project. He said if at least 50 people were looking for such a CSA, he would commit to farming veganically, and seek alternatives to his usual fertilizer and manure for all his CSA crops. And so the search for enough interested members began. Posters went up, e-mails were sent, and postings on websites, all with the goal of attracting enough members to make it financially worthwhile for Ashley to spend a bit more money, to do a bit more research, and to, in the end, provide truly vegan produce.
As I embarked on this venture, some questions remained: If rock dust and inoculating with the right bacteria and fungi are perceived as too expensive by many local farmers, what would be other replacements for manure and animal product containing fertilizers? First we have to understand why farmers are using feather, bone, blood, and fish emulsion. The main reason is for the wealth of minerals and nutrients contained within them. In particular, blood and fish emulsion are very high in nitrogen. Many farmers I spoke with, as well as Don Franczyk, noted the importance of nitrogen to plant growth. Nitrogen is found in the amino acids that make up protein, so it makes sense that animal products would contain a higher proportion of nitrogen than plants, as they are often higher in protein. But what are current veganic gardeners using as nitrogen sources?
In the days following my conversation with Ashley, I spoke with a cranberry farmer, Edward DeNike, owner of DeNike Bog, in South Plymouth. He informed me that cranberry leaves are very high in nitrogen, and this was a good lead. If someone had access to cranberry leaves, this could be one source, added to a plant-based compost, to increase nitrogen. But not all of us are near a cranberry bog, so I continued to research.
Helen and Steve Rayshick, of Massachusetts Animal Rights Coalition (MARC), have gardened a plot of land veganically for many years. Their comments, when asked, were as follows: “We use compost, grass clippings, hay mulch, lime, rock phosphate, and liquid seaweed fertilizer from Johnny’s Seed in Maine. Johnny’s liquid seaweed fertilizer is great for providing micronutrients but not nitrogen.
“We’re currently researching two veganic natural fertilizers: seaweed and cottonseed meal. Our research indicates that at least one red seaweed, Chondrus crispus, which is harvested in New England, is high in nitrogen. It was used in the past as a fertilizer and would make a great veganic fertilizer for most crops except for beans.
Cottonseed meal fertilizer is second to blood meal in nitrogen. However, one needs to add extra lime because cottonseed meal is an acidifier. Nine pounds of lime is needed to neutralize the acidity caused by 100 pounds of cottonseed meal. Some combination of these would be great and a farmer or gardener would want to use compost and any local source of green matter one can get cheaply. For example, grass clipping are fairly high in nitrogen.”
I decided to conduct my own Internet search. I found a variety of useful sites and links on veganic farming methods. An informative site on veganic gardening that lists veganic fertilizer options is the Vegan Organic section on The Vegetarian Site. I learned that neem cakes, from the neem seed, are rich in nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.
I found a site that sold single ingredient fertilizers, some animal derived, and others vegan, such as alfalfa meal, relatively high in nitrogen, as compared to other vegan options. They also sold a multi-ingredient vegan fertilizer, Vegan Mix 3-2-2. However, soybean is the prime ingredient, in this vegan mix, which concerns me because most soy is genetically modified and laden with pesticides.
GMO soy is allowed as an ingredient in “organic” fertilizers. Don Franczyk explained, “If the genetically modified part of the plant is expressed in the plant residue, then it’s not allowed for use in organic production. If the genetically modified part of the plant is not expressed in the final product then it is allowed.” According to Don, in the case of soy, the GMO part of the plant is not “expressed” in the meal, whereas in corn or cottonseed it is.
Finding the right balance
Once again, I contacted Dan Kittredge. Of all the farmers I’d spoken with, he was the most knowledgeable regarding the needs of the plants and how one might accomplish this goal of growing produce without any animal products. I mentioned the various responses to his methods that I’d received from the other farmers. Dan explained, “I do disagree with farmers that argue that using rock dust is too expensive. I have data and numerous farmers to back that up, and would argue that these farmers do not know the facts.”
“You need a variety of rock dusts; often two of the most valuable required by volume for typical farms in this region are calcium lime and soft rock phosphate, and you need the right balance of soil microbes (achieved through soil ‘inoculation’ to achieve a more natural, ideal balance of beneficial bacteria and fungi). Nitrogen-fixing fungi and bacteria have a relationship with legumes, such as beans, peas, and clover. Legumes have nitrogen-fixing nodules in their roots, designed to feed sugar to the bacteria that draw nitrogen from the air and put it into the soil, thus feeding the legumes in a mutually beneficial relationship. I would argue that the techniques recommended are much more cost effective that others, because the increase in quality and quantity of yield makes following a biological vitality producing protocol much more lucrative than other processes.”
Dan also explained that the soil’s mineral balance determines what bacteria and fungi can exist in the soil. So if the mineral balance is not correct, you have to add nitrogen to the soil. Thus farmers who need these high nitrogen sources in their fertilizer have less than ideally mineralized and colonized soil. He suggested that the first step for a farmer who wishes to farm veganically is to have the soil tested, by a company such as International Ag Labs. For $25, Ag Labs will test the soil, and for an additional $25, they’ll suggest what to use on your soil, though not necessarily organic or vegan products. However, if the farmer specifies that he or she is farming organically and does not want to use animal derived ingredients, the recommendations provided will meet vegan and organic standards.
I asked Dan his feelings regarding the possibility of GMO residues making their way from animal products into the soil. He agreed that there was reason for concern, as he had seen research noting that genetically modified DNA has been found incorporated into the stomach lining of animals. This raises concern about whether it is also incorporated into the blood or bone.
Dan agreed with Don that the digestive system is impressive, if operating at full capacity, but noted that if an organism – plant, animal, human, or other – is demineralized, not getting the ideal mineral balance for health, then it likely is not functioning in the ideal manner. So theoretically, pesticide, hormone, antibiotic, and GMO residues may still be present in manure and the soil. How this could potentially affect the plants growing in the soils, and ultimately us is the fuel for future research.
I’ve learned that the vegan food that I cherish is for the most part currently grown using products that I’ve avoided for most of my adult life. From my research, I’ve developed new concerns, beyond the simple addition of animal based ingredients. I’ve found a link in the organic farming industry that leads directly to the factory farms that I’ve despised for years. I see that the “renderings” from such farms are making their way back into “organic” gardens and farms. But I also see an opportunity. The opportunity is to educate ourselves and the so-called farming “experts.” Most won’t change their standards based on animal suffering. Unless someone is vegan or hugely compassionate, most people don’t connect this use of animal products to animal cruelty.
But if we can shed some light on possible plant uptake of DNA that is still “changed” or any lingering effect of pesticides, hormones, or antibiotics originally fed to the animals who now grace our fields in fractionated form, then we may have a Pandora’s Box on our hands. If we open it carefully, perhaps we can change the organic farming industry.
*Author’s note. The research and original printing of this article took place in 2008. It is possible that some farms have changed their practices and it is my hope that this is so. Unfortunately, it is likely that not much has changed, as change often requires some effort, and if there is no push, things often remain “status quo.” As the season for farmer’s markets and CSAs is upon us, I urge you to speak to farmers and inquire about their practices. Begin putting the idea into receptive farmers that there is a growing group of individuals seeking organic produce grown veganically.
Although Ashley Howard, the owner of Heaven’s Harvest of New Braintree, MA, was open to farming veganically in 2008, despite my best efforts, only 21 folks answered my plea to join with me. Hence, Ashley has not “gone veganic.” If enough people walk past a farm stand that uses animal matter on the field, informing the farmer that they choose to buy produce that is grown without animal derivatives, perhaps that farmer will take a hint. Better yet, copy the parts of this article that inform about veganic practices, and spread the word. If you have ever read The Hundredth Monkey, by Ken Keyes, Jr., you understand the theory that each of our individual efforts towards change contributes to ultimate change, a sudden spontaneous and mysterious leap of consciousness achieved when an allegedly “critical mass” point is reached (of people doing things another way, the veganic way)…