Saturday, May 16, 2009

Aren't all organic vegetables "safe" and "vegetarian?" Apparently not.

Kate Khosla had a dream — to operate a small farm. Her husband, Ron, came to share her vision. With Ag-related degrees, but no practical experience, they took the plunge in 1999 and purchased 77 acres in the rolling hills of the Hudson Valley.

For 10 years, the Khoslas, who are Sierrans (Sierra Club members), have been transforming their dream into a successful reality: a full-fledged organic operation that provides their customers with more than 125 varieties of vegetables, fruits and cut flowers. They are a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) serving 200 families in the area.

Their Huguenot Street Farm is also veganic: unlike many organic farms, they won’t use slaughterhouse byproducts. They consider these wastes toxic and find their use completely counter to organic clean living.

They gave up their “certified organic” status when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) took over certification of farms, but they haven’t changed their growing practices, which are far stricter than the USDA. Ron credits support from the
Sierra Club’s Mid-Hudson Group and Atlantic Chapter with helping him to start a low-cost and less bureaucratic alternative to the USDA program. In 2002, the Chapter was the first organization to endorse his plan for a “certified naturally grown” initiative. (See www.naturallygrown.org) Last year almost 100 farmers from around the country and world visited the farm to learn about their methods.

Ron works with the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements. He serves the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization as its international organic certification consultant.

Ron and Kate have made veganic farming a viable occupation, in part because they’re growing truly great food. But they’ll be the first to tell you it takes much more than that. To make their business cost effective they have had to be innovative, as well as becoming efficiency experts. Among the impressive list of Ron’s innovations are a solar electric tractor (instructions are on their website), a radiant heating system for their greenhouse and the CoolBot, a system to run their walk-in cooler using a standard air conditioner.

Ron considers the latter to be his most precious invention so far. The New York State Energy Research and Development Agency is supporting it and the United Nations wants to put them in developing countries to reduce losses due to food spoilage. Ron took time from his busy schedule to answer questions from the editors of Vegetarian Voice magazine.



In what ways is veganic/organic growing similar to traditional organic practices and where are the departures?


RK: The biggest difference is just in our fertility choices. Historically, organic farmers were very partial to the idea that animals and animal wastes are a necessary part of a healthy and holistic farm nutrient system. The farmer would keep animals
(which were eating hay grown on that farm) and recycle the wastes back into the fields. Whether or not you are vegetarian, you can appreciate the “full-circle” ideals of those first organic farmers.

Now, of course, modern USDA certified organic farms are nothing like that. The organic industry on both large and small farms in the U.S. is completely wedded to confinement animal operations. Mostly it’s the chicken industry, but there’s also fish emulsion, bone meal, blood meal and leathermeal that you’ll find in labeled organic fertilizers.

Many other farms just get bulk drop-offs either by the dump truck load or in what are known as “1000-lb. Super Sacks” of offal, including the waste from the live animals as well the ground up and sometimes pelletized bodies of the culls. It’s not just the cruelty that this represents but what you end up eating. When you bite into that USDA certified organic carrot that you probably bought at the health food store, you have to think about what those animals are fed, including antibiotics, hormones and growth regulators like arsenic. All that stuff builds up in the animals’ bodies and then it’s spread onto the organic fields. And right now, no one really seems to care.

There’s a great report from the University of Minnesota from last fall about how the antibiotics used in the factory chicken farms does not break down in the chickens’ bodies...does not break down after the [organic] farmer spreads it on his fields... and does not break down as it’s taken up by the carrots and potatoes and lettuce you buy in your local health food store. But would you rather buy conventionally grown carrots (which also use factory farmed wastes) or conventional potatoes that are grown with “systemic” pesticides that enter the tissue of the plant so the farmer only has to spray once a year (though you can never wash them off!)? It’s just a really weird time to be trying to live “healthy” in the U.S. right now.

How do you maintain soil fertility? How do veganic methods create healthy, well-balanced soil? Do you depend on outside sources for any soil amendments? Do you think you could ever create a completely closed cycle on your farm?

RK: This could be a whole article in and of itself, but the crux is that we plant a lot of “green manure” cover crops. Basically, where another farmer might plant a hay crop to feed to his cows... and then he takes the manure from the cows and uses it to fertilize his vegetable crop fields and build up his soil, we do the same thing, but we just eliminate the cow from the picture. So... we grow crops to feed the micro-organisms in the soil. Some leguminous crops, like soybeans, peas and vetches, have a relationship with beneficial bacteria that fix nitrogen from the soil. Then there are others that we grow just to build up the carbon in the soil, which helps us to build up organic matter in general and helps hold water like a sponge. By eliminating the cow, we’re actually more efficient.

Can we ever create a completely closed cycle on our farm? Well, we can’t really make a completely closed cycle unless we want to start collecting all the waste from the hundreds of humans who get their summer produce here (including their bodies when they’re done with them!). We compost everything we can, and encourage the farm members to bring their compost back to the farm as well. The local tree trimmers bring truck loads of wood chips, too. I think we’re about as close as we can practically hope to be to run a closed system.

Would you say that your farm is more environmentally friendly than the standard organic farm that raises animals?


RK: Well... we visit a lot of farms, and I think most of the small organic farmers I know take excellent care of the animals they have, and they are actually a pretty healthy component of the farm. I don’t get how they can be so nice to them, and then eat them. One guy proudly claimed he makes such great friends with his pigs that they happily follow him right up the ramp to the slaughterhouse each fall. It’s so weird to me.

I think the far bigger negative environmental issue is all the farms that rely on factory farm wastes for their primary nutrient source — and that now certainly includes the majority of farms we visit, which is such a shame.

I got a call from a small NOFA-NY [Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York] USDA-certified organic farmer this year who was telling me how messed up his soil tests were from putting tons of factory farmed chicken waste (which are high in salts and phosphorous from their crushed bones).

I hear the same stories from California, where they have even less rain. The salts build up, the land is destroyed. So I wouldn’t say it’s the keeping of animals that’s so much the problem as the using of animal wastes.

What type of equipment do you use? With rapidly rising energy costs, do you think your farm serves as an eco model for others running small-scale farms?


RK: We’re all about appropriate technology. There’s great stuff out there that’s so helpful to small farmers — it’s just finding and modifying it so that it works to improve our methods and reduce labor. We farm with two solar electric tractors that I designed and built myself using the old Allis-Chalmers “G” tractors from 1947. [The instructions are posted for free at www.flyingbeet.com/electricg. Dozens have been built around the country.]

Our farm is also part of an exhibit in the Museum of Natural History called “Water” because we use a hightech system of solenoids on timers with an oddly configured electric pump to manage irrigation on the farm, minimizing waste of water, labor
and pumping fuel.

In 2006, I patented a new approach to cooling for small farms [www.storeitcold.com] which wouldn’t even have been technically possible just 10 years back but now
saves us over 50% on electricity costs (now small grocery stores, food coops, restaurants... and ironically mortuaries use our system, too!) We use sensors and small motors to take a new approach to heating the greenhouse that saves us hundreds
of dollars in propane each year. So, we love technology!



One important concern for farmers, of course, is crop yields. Have you been able compare yours to that of other organic and conventional (chemical) growers?

RK: This is a great question. Our yields have been increasing steadily per acre every year. We harvest about four times the tons of vegetables per acre as we did six years ago, and certainly our harvests per acre of most crops are well above even conventional national acreage yields. I wish I could say it’s just because of how great our veganic growing methods are, but I don’t believe it’s true. After 10 years in this, I think it’s more a question of spacing, weed control, and managing nutrients and water in a healthy soil environment. No doubt veganic farming builds up an excellent soil, but I’ve also seen some excellent healthy soils and management practices on both conventional and more “normal” organic farms.

Modern day veganic/organic growing appears to have its roots in Europe. Khadigar Farm in Maine has been using veganic methods for decades, but there appear to be few other such farms in North America. Do you see this situation changing here?


RK: We have a great new program called the North American Vegan Agricultural Network and, with their help, we’ve launched a new certification program for veganic farmers
here, but we haven’t had a chance to publicize it at all… The certification program is at www.certifiedveganic.org. It’s a free system, based on the Certified Naturally Grown program we started in 2002, which has grown to almost 800 farmers around the country (and is not veganic). I hope both those things will give the movement a great boost forward!

There appears to be a growing number of outbreaks of food poisoning attributed to plant foods, such as the recent case of tomatoes contaminated with salmonella. What is the real source of such contamination? As the number of conventional farmers switches to using standard organic methods, do you envision the situation growing worse? Do vegan/organic methods reduce the risks?


RK: There’s no doubt veganic methods limit our exposure to salmonella and other pathogens in our vegetable crops. Animal production is a major source of contamination, with 10 percent of cows acting as carriers for salmonella not to mention the salmonella (and so many other disease organisms) present in poultry. But as a veganic farmer, I often hear that organic farming with manures is the culprit, and although I agree that organic farmers should stop using manures from factory farms, it’s for reasons other than salmonella contamination, because the standards require long intervals between the application of the manure and harvest of the crop (there are no interval requirements for conventionally grown produce). Rather, I am more concerned with long-term sustainability issues and contamination of our food supplies with antibiotics and hormones as well as antibiotic resistance from factory farming techniques (not to mention the ethical considerations).

The CDC claims there are over a billion cases of salmonella poisoning in the world each year. It doesn’t just happen on organic farms. Many conventional farms use animal waste in their food production, and skyrocketing fertilizer costs means the use of animal manures is increasing everywhere. But even if you eliminated manure, animal waste is impossible to avoid. It comes from neighboring farms, from irrigation water that’s come from hundreds of miles away (or flooding, which happens more now with global warming) and it comes from the humans in processing and cleaning plants — not to mention wild animals.

It’s more important now than ever before to buy local and to get to know your farmer. Ask them if they use factory farm wastes in their crop production and about sanitation and storage of crops before you pick them up. We visited one small farm that was giving out carrots they’d picked the night before. Rats had obviously been climbing over the carrots and munching away, so chewed up pieces of carrot and fecal matter littered the bins. They rinsed them out, but it was pretty gross. We didn’t hang around, but I wondered if the CSA members noticed, cared or were just too afraid to ask. You have so much more power than you know just by asking questions! Most people aren’t bad, they just need an extra push to goodness!

Contamination can happen at so many different stages, and I think in general it’s going to hit the plants post harvest. Organic farmers are very regulated in the timing and use of manures, so that stops contamination from those sources actually. Conventional farmers using manures are not beholden to those rules, so I’d actually be more afraid of what they are doing, but again, I think the real problem is in the packing and sorting facilities post harvest.

What advice would you offer the home gardener who wants to grow vegan/organic?

RK: Get the book Growing Green from Chelsea Green publishing and get started! And go easy on yourself. I’ve seen so many people try to get started and then give up. The first three years are the hardest, so don’t make things so hard on yourself that
you’re likely to fail and then stop forever. There is a great program in India I worked with (that I was initially ideologically opposed to, but I’ve since completely changed my mind) that prohibited small farmers from using pesticides but allowed them to “fall back” on using smaller and smaller amounts of chemical fertilizers. The net effect on transitioning hundreds of thousands of peasant farmers to a system of truly sustainable production over three to five years was much greater than when they got them all excited about changing everything overnight. Farming teaches you to be patient. I’m a big proponent of incremental, yet constant, progress forward!



This article is adapted from a longer interview in the Vegetarian Voice, which is published by the North American Vegetarian Society, PO Box 72,
Dolgeville, NY 13329; www.navsonline.org


Source: Hudson Valley Veganic Farm Attracting Worldwide Attention: Creative Technology, Ban on Manure Draws Backing from UN, Sierra Club - Atlantic Chapter - Spring 2009 newsletter

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