When Bob Jones made the decision decades ago to become vegan, it meant more than just avoiding any food or products that come from animals.
For Jones — along with a growing number of farmers across the country — it meant producing his own food in keeping with that vegan lifestyle.
You won’t find any chemical- or animal-based compost on land that practices vegan farming — referred to as “veganic” farming. Even manure from ethically sourced animals is off limits. 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 livestock manure.
It’s the manure, according to veganic farmer Warren Berkowitz, that provides the heat needed to decompose the other compost materials into a usable soil amendment. With enough manure, that process can take as little as six weeks.
“You have to be dedicated to making vegan compost,” said Berkowitz, farm manager and board member of The Good Life Center and the Forest Farm Homestead in Blue Hill — the former home of his friends the late Scott and Helen Nearing, famed Maine homesteaders credited with starting the “back to the land” movement.
Instead of manure, Berkowitze uses seaweed to heat his compost for the year it takes the compostable kitchen scraps, garden scraps and weeds to decompose.
“I don’t mind waiting a year for it,” he said. “You just can’t rush the process like you do with manure.”
There are no hard numbers on veganic farming in Maine, but the Veganic Agriculture Network lists five certified vegan farms in the state. Nationwide it lists 54 certified farms. Vegan farms are certified annually by Certified Veganic US.
At their Sweet Dog Farm on the Blue Hill Peninsula, Jones and his partner, Doris Groves, make their own compost out of seaweed, weeds and kitchen scraps combined with rainwater to make a sort of compost tea.
“We feed that to our plants, and they just explode with that huge amount of beneficial nutrients,” Jones said.
Jones and Groves also make a spray out of seaweed he says is perfect for keeping fungus off plants such as tomatoes.
“We would not even consider buying animal products for our farm since we don’t eat them,” said Chris Lover. “It just does not make sense.”
Lover and his wife, Sloane Rogers, operate October Fields herb farm in Albion. They grow more than 200 rare plants used in extracts, oils, essences, herbs, dried flowers and skin care products they make and sell to clients around the world.
“We use things like grass clippings, leaf mulching, food scraps and garden scraps to build our own compost,” Lover said. “Every bit of soil on our property is nourished with compost we make”
Jones has heard the argument numerous times that manure is a perfectly natural material produced by animals regardless of how they are treated. He doesn’t care how ethically or humanely any animal is raised, it’s no excuse to exploit an animal.
Too often, he said, those animals are raised to be eaten or killed to make something for humans. At worst it means the creature was raised in inhumane conditions. At best it’s shortening the natural life of the animal.
Veganic farming also means not harming the living pests that can damage crops, and Jones admits that can be a challenge at times. 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 by using lethal means such as shooting or poison. Even live trapping is frowned upon by veganic farmers as it can cause undue stress to the animal.
To keep them out of his garden, Jones has placed large wire cages over his crops. To save his fruit trees, he’s set up low wattage bulbs on dusk to dawn timers near the trees and placed wire fencing around each tree.
“In the past [porcupines] have destroyed or done severe damage in our small orchard,” Jones said. “We found that the combination of fencing and light has 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 worked to some extent to keep deer and groundhogs away from crops.
Lover said they don’t have much of a problem with rodents and have worked to create a balanced ecosystem to deal with insect pests and encourage natural pollinators.
“We try to develop our gardens to invite in natural predators to take care of the bad bugs,” Lover said. “We are not opposed to killing tiny little bugs, but we won’t use chemicals to do it.”
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 go into a hardware store, look at that bag of bone meal [fertilizer] and think beyond yourself,” he said. “Not just how far it traveled by how in that one bag a lot of animal suffering happened.”