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June 2001
Cruelty-free Agriculture: Beyond Organic—Vegetarian Vegetable Gardening

By Kate and Ron Khosla

 


We started farming organically because of our concern over the ever-increasing use of toxic chemicals that American 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 didn’t 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, clean, 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. It’s actually not just the manure, but also ground-up, discarded—oftentimes diseased—chickens and chicken parts. From a plant-food point of view, it’s great! Packed with nitrogen, calcium, and with significant amounts of phosphorous and potassium, plants thrive on the stuff.

Looked at from another perspective, it’s not so great at all, when you know about the cruel lives of the animals who are turned into the 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, and 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 it’s spread on the fields at rates of 1,000 pounds or more per acre.

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 can’t grow good organic vegetables without cow or horse manure. It’s certainly true that these substances don’t 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 don’t have, it’s not really an option. Most importantly, it’s not necessary to use any of these products at all.


Green Manures

Vegetarian farming methods that don’t 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 for any crop that is not harvested, but grown simply to till back into the soil. Nature has her own fertilizer-producing plants—legumes—that, 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 can 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 can absorb.

Our long-term goal is to never have to add anything to the fields, but we aren’t there yet. When we do need to add extra nutrients, we use soybean meal. Just as in our bodies, the ground-up soybeans perfectly 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 sources.

As far as we know, we are currently the only commercial “vegetarian-vegetable” farmers in the Hudson Valley. Vegetarian methods aren’t at all more complicated or difficult than the methods most farmers use today, they just aren’t widely practiced enough yet to gain widespread acceptance.

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.

 


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