Agriculture: Beyond OrganicVegetarian Vegetable Gardening
By Kate and Ron Khosla
We started farming organically because
of our concern over the ever-increasing use of toxic chemicals that
farmers have been convinced are necessary. It came as a real surprise
for us to learn how much commercial organic farmers rely on the by-products
of the meat and slaughterhouse industries for their soil nutrients.
So, we started using vegetarian methods because we were vegetarians
ourselves, and didnt feel right raising carnivorous vegetables, or
supporting the slaughterhouse industry in any way. To us and to other
farmers who promote and use vegetarian methods for growing good,
happy vegetables, use of animal-derived products for fertilizer seems
cruel and unnecessary.
The most common forms of added organic fertilizers on commercial farms
are chicken manure, blood meal, bone meal, and fish emulsion. The pre-mixed,
bagged organic fertilizers available in commercial quantities often
include feather and leather meal as well. The only commercial source
for these products are huge agribusiness factory farms and slaughterhouses.
Composted chicken manure from factory chicken farms tops
the list of organic fertilizers used in New York state. Its actually
not just the manure, but also ground-up, discardedoftentimes diseasedchickens
and chicken parts. From a plant-food point of view, its great!
Packed with nitrogen, calcium, and with significant amounts of phosphorous
and potassium, plants thrive on the stuff.
Looked at from another perspective, its not so great at all,
when you know about the cruel lives of the animals who are turned into
fertilizer and about the toxins fed to or pumped into them. On large
commercial farms, chickens are packed together in low-slung metal barns,
and several generations may pass through these smelly prisons before
the waste is cleaned out (hence the need for massive doses of antibiotics
to keep disease down). In addition to antibiotics, many birds are also
given steroid and hormone treatments to speed up their development.
These toxins bio-accumulate (build up) in the bodies of the birds,
are excreted in their wastes.
Even their basic feed is toxic: genetically modified grains (some varieties
of which are expressly disallowed for human consumption) grown without
the same regulations for pesticide use that human food has. These poisons
also build up in the bodies and waste of the animals.
When the time comes, the waste is scraped out, dried and packed into
one-ton supersacks and shipped to your local farm where
its spread on the fields at rates of 1,000 pounds or more per
Leather, feather, bone and blood meal come from equally disagreeable
sources. To make matters even more disturbing, bone meal has been implicated
in the mad cow disease scare overseas.
Old-time vegetable gardeners and farmers will tell you that you just
cant grow good organic vegetables without cow or horse manure.
Its certainly true that these substances dont have any slaughtered
animal parts in them, but do we really want to support the feed-lot
beef industry, or a dairy industry that is really just the flip-side
of the cruel veal industry? Furthermore, these animals are pumped up
on hormones and antibiotics just like the chickens. On the other hand,
horses are generally well treated and fed on grass and hay and not dosed
up on drugs unless they get sick. From a practical standpoint though,
the quantities of manure necessary for vegetable production (10-50 tons
per acre) are so huge that unless you have a dairy or horse farm near-by,
which most of us dont have, its not really an option. Most
importantly, its not necessary to use any of these products at
Vegetarian farming methods that dont
use manure or animal products have been around and understood for centuries.
Back in the 19th century, a New York farmer wrote about his successful
experience substituting green manures for his lost dairy
manure supply. And he was simply building on farming ideas that go at
least as far back as the ancient Romans, who also made use of vegetarian
farming methods. With the advent and convenience of modern commercial
fertilizers and cheap transportation, the knowledge and practice of
vegetarian farming became less and less common, to the point now that
one organic certifier haughtily informed us that it was impossible for
us to grow our vegetables on a commercial scale without using either
chemical fertilizers or the widely available chicken manure.
The key to vegetarian vegetable growing lies in alternating fields
between vegetables and green manures. Green manures are a catch phrase
crop that is not harvested, but grown simply to till back into the
soil. Nature has her own fertilizer-producing plantslegumesthat,
with the help of rhizobium bacteria, pull nitrogen from the air and
consolidate it in the legume roots in a form that all other plants
make use of. All clovers, beans, peas, alfalfas, vetch, and even some
trees, like locusts, do this naturally.
On our farm, we plant a series of legumes and then plow them in leaving
all that organic matter and atmospheric nitrogen for the soil and future
veggies. We follow the legumes with catch crops of heavy
feeders, like rye, which hold the natural fertilizers in their green
bodies through the winter. Then, come spring, we plow those under as
well, where they slowly break down, like a time-release vitamin pill,
feeding nutrients to the vegetables all summer long.
Some ancient crops, like alfalfa, with their long tap roots, can bring
needed micronutrients up from deep underground. Another ancient crop,
buckwheat, has the ability to take insoluble rock forms of phosphorous
and turn them into soluble forms that the more finicky vegetable crops
Our long-term goal is to never have to add anything to the fields,
but we arent there yet. When we do need to add extra nutrients,
we use soybean meal. Just as in our bodies, the ground-up soybeans
replace the blood, fish and chicken wastes other farmers use. It is
a natural, cruelty-free product that we assure you from our own experience
that plants will respond to! Ground rock powders replace the bone meal
to supply potassium and many micronutrients.
Perhaps most interesting of all, and not at all a part of our original
intention, is how much better this method is for the soil and the long-term
health of the vegetable plants. The alternation between production vegetables
and then green manures disrupts pest and disease cycles, provides prime
habitat for beneficial insects, and adds much larger amounts of organic
matter and humus to the soil than we could ever obtain from animal-based
As far as we know, we are currently the only commercial vegetarian-vegetable
farmers in the Hudson Valley. Vegetarian methods arent at all
more complicated or difficult than the methods most farmers use today,
they just arent widely practiced enough yet to gain widespread
Kate and Ron Khosla own and operate Huguenot Street
Farm, an organic /veganic vegetable farm and CSA in New Paltz, upstate
New York. Their CSA shares are also available in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
For information, call 845-256-0686 or see www.flyingbeet.com.