Veganic Farming: What Do The Farmers Think?
The dominant agricultural model is industrial, and dependent on pesticides. However, alternatives to this model (e.g., organic farming) have gained significant traction with the public. One alternative that is less well-known is veganic agriculture, also called vegan organic, stockfree organic, or biocyclic vegan agriculture. Veganic farming is essentially farming that is both vegan (free of animal farming and animal-based inputs, including manure or blood meal) and organic (free of synthetic chemicals). Veganic farming may also encompass other practices. For example, biocyclic vegan agriculture tends to focus on biodiversity and soil health. Plant-based fertility inputs such as mulches, composts, or green manures are often used instead of animal-based fertilizers.
The researchers for this study set out to explore the experiences of veganic farmers in the United States. They wanted to find out: 1) how these farmers define veganic agriculture, 2) why and how they practice veganic agriculture, and 3) what veganic-specific challenges they face. Twenty-five veganic farmers from 19 farms completed the study. Interestingly, most of these participants had no formal education in agriculture, and 40% began their farming journey in a veganic framework.
Many respondents struggled to come up with a definition of veganic farming. All noted that being free from all animal products was the most important criterion for a veganic farm. However, only one-third of participants stated that by-products and waste from farmed animals must be excluded altogether. Some said fecal droppings from free-roaming wild animals aligned with veganic principles. There was a variety of opinions on whether worm castings, bat guano, and manure from animal sanctuary residents were acceptable. For some, the veganic “status” of an animal by-product hinged on whether it was intentionally introduced, while for others the key was whether animals were confined or exploited to produce the product. Others were unsure how to make this judgment.
Most participants had either practiced veganic farming for almost all of their farming career (9 farms) or had switched from organic to veganic farming (7 farms). Most farmers in the former group had previous experience with gardening or organic/sustainable agriculture. Participants used veganic-specific resources (e.g., books, video tutorials), non-veganic resources (e.g., scientific literature, sustainable agriculture workshops), and independent trial-and-error to learn veganic farming. Most participants connected in person or online with other veganic farmers for advice.
Farmers discussed a wide variety of motivations, benefits, and rewards associated with veganic farming, but several common themes emerged. 64% of participants self-identified as vegan and cited their veganism (namely, ethical veganism) as a driving force behind their decision to farm veganically. It was immensely rewarding for participants to have respectful relationships with free-roaming animals, rather than having to treat them as obstacles to their production. Interestingly, food safety emerged as another key motivator. Participants were concerned about the risk of cross-contamination from animal-based inputs (e.g., bacteria from improperly composted manure). Some mentioned that excluding animal products made the food safety regulatory process significantly easier.
Participants were also driven to adopt veganic practices to achieve positive outcomes for plant and soil health, as well as environmental sustainability. They stated that green waste and compost can help avoid issues such as nutrient leaching, while boosting the health of soil fungal webs and worm populations. Farmers also mentioned links between animal agriculture, pollution, and climate change.
Finally, participants viewed market opportunities for veganic produce as important benefits of (although not motivators for) veganic farming. They described the vegan community as their main market, and roughly half of the surveyed farms used “veganic” in their advertising and labels. Overall, 9 farmers (including farmers using the term and farmers not using the term) felt indifferent about the utility of “veganic” as a marketing tool. These farmers felt the term was a draw for customers who were already vegan, but were concerned about confrontations with vegans who might call into question their adherence to veganism (e.g., for using bat guano). They were also worried that the term might deter non-vegan customers, or even provoke time-consuming “quibbles” over the true meaning of the term.
Almost all participants reflected on challenges specific to veganic farming. The most prominent one was product sourcing, including fertilizers and compost, due to scarcity, cost, and unclear product labeling. It was particularly difficult to find veganic fertilizers that were rich in nitrogen. However, availability of veganic inputs varied widely by location, with one farmer in California claiming there was no shortage of plant-based agriculture products in his community.
The second main challenge faced was access to information and knowledge about veganic-specific practices, especially crop fertility, optimal nutrient sources, and nutrient cycling. Farmers reported that both veganic and non-veganic agricultural contacts could seldom help them. Encouragingly, almost one-third of participants felt they had refined their veganic method and reported that once they got to this point, they only struggled with challenges faced by all farmers, veganic or not.
It is important to keep in mind that study participants were pulled from a limited pool: they were found through web searches for veganic farms and personal contacts with the study researchers. Most were white (75%), and 65% were men. Since veganic itself is a new term, it is possible that many more veganic farms exist, but are simply not calling themselves veganic.
Consumer education and awareness campaigns targeted specifically toward vegan communities are poised to bring large gains for veganic agriculture, as most vegans are not aware that such an alternative exists. Animal advocates should also be pleased to learn that veganic agriculture is not only appealing to vegans. In fact, veganic farmers share many values with the broader sustainable agriculture movement, such as food safety and soil health.
Important steps needed to move veganic farming forward include U.S. veganic farming certification programs, a national veganic farming association, and supportive academic research. Specifically, it would help to get agricultural universities to conduct fertility research with plant-based inputs. Fortunately, the veganic agriculture movement appears to be following the same trajectory as organic farming: that is, it is set to expand significantly in the coming decades.