When Bob Jones made the decision decades ago to go vegan, it meant more than just avoiding any food or product that came from animals.
For Jones — as well as a growing number of farmers across the country — that meant producing his own food in accordance with this vegan lifestyle.
You won’t find any chemical or animal-based compost on land that practices vegan agriculture – referred to as “vegan” agriculture. Even ethically sourced animal manure is prohibited. Instead, farmers like Jones create their own homemade soil additives that can take up to a year longer to process than animal-based options that rely on cattle manure.
It’s the manure, according to vegan farmer Warren Berkowitz, that provides the heat needed to break down the other compost materials into a usable soil amendment. With enough manure, this process can take as little as six weeks.
“You have to dedicate yourself to making vegan compost,” said Berkowitz, farm manager and board member of The Good Life Center and Forest Farm at Blue Hill – the former home of his friends, the late Scott and Helen Nearing, famous Maine farmers credited with starting the “back to the land” movement.
Instead of manure, Berkowitze uses seaweed to heat its compost during the year when it needs compostable kitchen scraps, garden scraps and weeds to decompose.
“I don’t mind waiting a year for this,” he said. “You just can’t rush the process like you do with manure.”
There are no hard numbers on vegan agriculture in Maine, but the Veganic Agriculture Network lists five certified vegan farms in the state. Nationally, it lists 54 certified farms. Vegan farms are certified annually by US Vegan Certified.
Their Sweet dog farm on the Blue Hill Peninsula, Jones and his partner, Doris Groves, make their own compost from seaweed, weeds and kitchen scraps combined with rainwater to make a kind of compost tea.
“We feed our plants with this, and they explode with this massive amount of beneficial nutrients,” Jones said.
Jones and Groves also make an algae-based spray that he says is perfect for keeping fungus away from plants such as tomatoes.
“We wouldn’t even consider buying animal products for our farm since we don’t eat them,” Chris Lover said. “It just doesn’t make sense.”
Lover and his wife, Sloane Rogers, operate October Fields Herb Farm in Albion. They cultivate over 200 rare plants used in the extracts, oils, essences, herbs, dried flowers and skin care products they manufacture and sell to customers around the world.
“We use things like grass clippings, leaf mulch, food scraps, and yard scraps to build our own compost,” Lover said. “Every plot of land on our property is nourished by the compost we make”
Jones has repeatedly heard the argument that manure is a perfectly natural material produced by animals, regardless of how they are treated. He doesn’t care how ethically or humanely an animal is raised, that’s no excuse for exploiting an animal.
Too often, he says, these animals are bred to be eaten or killed to make something for humans. At worst, it means the creature was raised in inhumane conditions. At best, it shortens the natural life of the animal.
Vegan farming also means not harming living pests that can damage crops, and Jones admits that can sometimes be a challenge. Porcupines in particular are a real problem when it comes to plants such as broccoli, kale, and fruit trees.
Typically, farmers eliminate or deter pests using lethal means such as shooting or poison. Even live trapping is frowned upon by vegan farmers because it can cause undue stress to the animal.
To keep them out of his garden, Jones placed large wire cages over his crops. To save his fruit trees, he installed low-wattage bulbs on dusk-to-dawn timers near the trees and placed metal fences around each tree.
“In the old days [porcupines] destroyed or caused serious damage to our little orchard,” Jones said. “We found that the combination of fencing and light eliminated the damage, so now I have a huge abundance of peaches in the fall.”
The Nearings partially solved the pest problem by building stone walls around their gardens to keep animals out. It has worked to some extent to keep deer and groundhogs away from crops.
Lover said they don’t really have a problem with rodents and have worked to create a balanced ecosystem to control pests and encourage natural pollinators.
“We try to develop our gardens to invite natural predators to take care of the bad bugs,” Lover said. “We’re not averse to killing tiny little bugs, but we won’t use chemicals to do that.”
Despite the extra time and effort vegan farming can take, those who practice it say it may be the single most important thing humans can do to save the planet.
Every little bit counts, Lover said.
“When you walk into a hardware store, look at this bag of bone meal [fertilizer] and think beyond yourself,” he said. “Not just the distance traveled by the way in this bag, a lot of animal suffering has occurred.”