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Stockless Agriculture Programme on Radio 4 by Harry mather, Vegan Views 100 (Spring 2004)

Do you usually listen to Radio 4 at 6.35 a.m. on a Sunday morning? If, as I suppose you are then slumbering in sweet dreams of restfulness, you will have missed the Farming Today programme discussing Stockless Agriculture, or as vegans prefer to call it Vegan Organic Growing.

Many farmers who hear about veganism will criticise it on the grounds that animal manure is essential for maintaining soil fertility There are huge amounts of animal manure produced on farms and this is conveniently spread on the land to be cultivated. This is however no proof that this practice is necessary and we can point to the fact that the fertile soil of the forests relies mostly on the decay of vegetable matter to maintain this fertility for centuries.

There have been examples of gardens which were cultivated on vegan organic principle. Kathleen Jannaway and her husband Jack maintained the fertility of their half-acre fruit and vegetable plot for at least 15 years. The Elm Tree Farm project proved that stockless farming on a larger scale was also viable. Other vegans have also tended their gardens without artificial or animal inputs to their satisfaction.

The present story began in December when a question was put to a panel on the Radio 4 'Farming Today' programme asking what would happen to the countryside "if everyone went vegan" meaning there would be no animal manure. The panel gave negative answers. Action by Jenny Hall of the Vegan Organic Trust , supported by many other e-mailers, resulted in a broadcast on 16 January prompted by Tony Weston of the Vegan Society emphasising the immense damage done by livestock production, land degradation deforestation and pollution.

The farming team of Radio 4 became much more interested and devoted a half-hour programme to the visit of the vegan organic (also called 'stockless') market garden of Iain Tolhurst who supplies box scheme customers near Reading from his market garden at Whitchurch on Thames, Berkshire. He has a 1 acre walled garden in the 16 acres under stockless cultivation. There is no input of fertiliser or manure. Soil is sampled regularly and he has found no loss of fertility over 3 decades. He maintains this fertility with green manuring. There is a 9 year rotation in the garden and 4 year rotation in the polytunnels. Green manuring means that plants are grown which add fertility to the soil these are mainly leguminous plants that fix nitrogen in the soil and take it into the leaves. Peas and beans do not add nitrogen to the soil as popularly supposed because the plant is taken out. The green manuring plants are returned to the soil. Under this system as much as 35% of the land is lying fallow long term (that is for more than 1 year). So out of 17 acres, 6 acres are not producing.

The obvious comment is that this must be a great waste of land but Iain argues that if you had livestock on these acres considered to be out of production, you could only keep 6 or 8 beef animals with a gross income of £6,000. With the cost of fencing, providing water, vet fees, housing, straw, abattoir costs, it would not be profitable. It is better to get rid of the cattle and grow green manure, which means not having to buy fertility from outside. There are some who produce cereals on a large scale using green manuring systems. The Chinese have used this sustainable agriculture for centuries. Even conventional farmers could benefit by using some green manuring system.

Could he expand on a larger scale? Iain does not want to be so big that he would be just a supervisor and organiser. He enjoys being involved with the actual production. The sales are taken care of by the box scheme. A number of drop-off points in the area of Reading take his produce and some 15 regular customers will come to the drop-off point to pick up their boxes, which consist of whatever is in season. Customers are local to the drop-off point so travel is reduced to a minimum. The system promotes social contact and people appreciate knowing where their food is coming from.

He makes a profit, although not a great one, and is able to pay a number of staff Stockless Growing is environmentally friendly and lessens Global Warming. No pesticides are used that might polluted the water courses and stubble is left to provide over wintering habitat for insects and other wildlife.

Iain gives advice on stockless farming in many countries. He has advised over 1,000 farms on all aspects of conversion and maintenance of organic growing He also mentioned the work of the Vegan Organic Trust which is setting standards for vegan organic cultivation under the wing of the Soil Association. Eventually, vegan organic growers will be able to certify that their produce satisfies the required standards.

Promotional material is also being developed for guidance, in the form of a video that will include scenes from Iain's garden. The Vegan Organic Trust will publish in 2004 a textbook for vegetable growers. A booklet on grain and pulse production is also being considered.

Vegan Organic Trust: www.veganorganic.net

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Cross-reference: Growing Fruit & Veg