arms holding a basket of peaches

So What Is Veganic Farming, Anyway?

Some growers are going beyond organic and embracing a new type agriculture, which avoids using animal-derived fertilizers to add nutrients to soil (so long, manure!). EatingWell explores the trend.

Alisha Utter was spreading blood meal—a common fertilizer made from dried animal blood—into the soil around tomato plants at the University of Vermont's Farmer Training Program when it suddenly occurred to her: "Perhaps a tomato isn't vegan." A vegan herself, Utter had never made the connection between animal-based inputs, such as that blood meal, and the fruits and vegetables she ate. That realization led her and Kyle Bowley to establish Arbor Farmstead on Grand Isle, Vermont in 2016. Utter stewards the farm independently today, and grows all of its produce—heirloom tomatoes, lettuces, pattypan squash, peppers, raspberries—veganically.  

This type of agriculture resembles organic farming in many respects, emphasizing practices like cover cropping (plants grown to enhance soil nutrients and prevent erosion) and avoiding the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Where it differs: veganic farmers also eschew natural animal-based fertilizers like manure, blood, fish, bone meal or bone char that organic growers rely on.

person spreading vegan fertilizer
Alisa Utter spreading vegan fertilizer
| Credit: Oliver Parini

"Veganic farming right now is where organic farming was about 50 years ago," says Mona Seymour, Ph.D., an associate professor of urban and environmental studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, who has been tracking the growth of this type of agriculture. There are roughly 55 known veganic farms in the United States, and Seymour sees momentum building among both producers and consumers. Nick Frank, a sous chef at a Burlington, Vermont, restaurant, was excited to learn about the veganic practices at Arbor Farmstead. "The organic sticker is a big seller for everyone and, in Vermont, you don't have to try too hard to find locally grown organic food," Frank says. "But what they are doing at Arbor Farmstead is going that extra mile." 

handful of strawberries (left) person picking peaches (right)
Credit: Oliver Parini

Many farmers and gardeners may already use a veganic method of growing produce—fertilizing with seaweed, alfalfa pellets and vegetable-based compost, for instance—but haven't actually heard the term before, or may shy away from using a word that is sometimes viewed as divisive. Veganic farming advocates believe they are upholding practices that positively impact climate change by reducing livestock dependency and contribute to food safety by avoiding possible contaminants that may be found in traditional fertilizer. "For these reasons, among others, veganics isn't that different from other forms of sustainable agriculture," adds Seymour.

But that doesn't mean it's necessarily better than other environmentally minded farming practices. "Animals can be good for the soil because their manure is high in nutrients, and some animals like sheep can help manage weeds," says John Reganold, Ph.D., regents professor of soil science and agroecology at Washington State University. He adds that without using chemical fertilizers and animal products, vegan farmers rely on plant-based fertility, such as compost and green-manure legumes, and natural mineral supplements, if needed. 

Arbor Farmstead
Arbor Farmstead in Grand Isle, Vermont
| Credit: Oliver Parini

"I would never say that veganic is the only form of farming that everyone should do," says Utter. "We are dependent on the existing stewards of the land for their knowledge and it's important to respect that. Ours is just one tool in a toolbox for sustainable agriculture."