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Growing Ahimsa Veganically by Kelle Kersten

Note: This article was originally published in American Vegan, Fall 2015.


Ahimsa Village homestead

In 2005 my husband and I set out to create Ahimsa Village, a vegan community and sustainable living education center, in the mountains of central Pennsylvania. We purposely chose the word Ahimsa, the Sanskrit word for “nonviolence”, because we aspired to embody nonviolence in all aspects of our lives. The Village part of the name signified our vision of a group of people with a variety of different interests and skills coming together to establish a sustainable and relatively self-sufficient community. Although the community has not yet manifested, we have planted and nurtured several gardens, a fruit and nut orchard, and a blueberry patch, providing much of our food, especially in the warmer months. We have also conducted many educational programs over the years. It seems that we are evolving into being a resource for vegan homesteading. In this article I will share some of my thoughts about our veganic growing practices and veganic growing in general.

The word veganic merges “vegan” with “organic.” Like organic growing, veganic growing does not use any of the chemical fertilizers, pesticides, genetically engineered materials, sewage sludge, or irradiated materials that are used by conventional growers; and it emphasizes maintaining the health of the soil in order to grow healthy plants. However, veganic growing goes beyond organic growing in that it endeavors to minimize and/or eliminate harm to animals. As a way of explaining the important elements of veganic growing, I will look at veganic growing from three different levels. In actuality, these levels are not clearly separate, but the separation aids in the explanation.


Ahimsa veganic garden

The first level involves the materials used in growing crops. Since veganic growers do not want to be part of any animal suffering, they do not use any materials that are derived from animals. Instead of using materials such as manure, blood meal, bonemeal, feathermeal, and fish emulsion, veganic growers use plant materials for fertilization. I use grass and hay mulch, plant-based compost, green manures (crops, such as buckwheat and clover, that are cultivated into the soil or left on the surface to provide nutrients for the food crops), crop residues, and comfrey tea (water from soaked comfrey plants) to nourish my crops. When I first began to grow veganically I called a local fertilizer manufacturer to inquire about the availability of fertilizer without any materials from animals that I could add to my potting mix. The salesperson actually seemed irate with me for even thinking about growing without manure and other materials from animals. So I blended my own potting soil using peat, perlite, vermiculite, and alfalfa meal. A few years later I found a local company that made potting soil out of coir (coconut husk), perlite, and other plant based materials. After using that potting mix for a couple years, the company added a fertilizer blend to their potting mixes that contained bloodmeal and bonemeal. Accordingly I went back to blending my own mix, using what I thought was plant-based compost from the local town. This year I found out that the town collects kitchen waste and composts it with the yard waste, and so there may be small amounts of animal foods in the compost. I use a large amount of this compost because I also apply it to my garden beds. I am questioning whether or not I should be a strict veganic grower and not use the compost or be more flexible since the compost is still mostly plant material. Ideally I would make enough compost myself and not have to import compost. Therefore one of my future goals involves developing a method for composting our copious weeds. I contemplate also transitioning to more of a permaculture system (creating gardens that follow the patterns of natural ecosystems) in which crops would eventually self-fertilize, thereby eliminating the need for applying compost.


Veganic basil

The second level of veganic growing flows naturally from veganism and ahimsa: Veganic growers hold a clear intention to avoid or minimize harming animals in and around the garden. In my gardens and orchard I use fences, netting, hardware cloth, and floating row covers to exclude animals. I also grow a variety of flowers around the garden to attract beneficial insects. Additionally, I rotate crops and grow a diversity of crop species, helping to keep pest populations low enough that crop damage is generally minimal.

I disclose that I use diatomaceous earth (DE) to prevent slugs from decimating my young seedlings. The organic mulch creates the perfect environment for slugs and every year their population explodes. Before using DE I had an entire planting of lettuce totally eaten down to soil level overnight. Hence, in spite of my conflicted feelings about causing harm to slugs, I apply DE to most of my seedlings after transplanting or germination. I quit applying it when the plants are big enough to survive predation. I also take care to not harm nontarget species such as bees by never applying DE to plants when they are flowering and not applying it on a windy day.


Veganic garlic

Protecting the soil with its community of living creatures constitutes another important aspect of veganic gardening. Because any disturbance of the soil, such as tilling, will adversely affect the soil community, vegan growers minimize tillage. They also protect the soil from erosion and drying out by keeping the soil covered with plants and mulch. Since establishing my gardens I have not done any rototilling in my main garden. I try to keep mulch on the beds most of the time, transplanting directly into the mulch with minimal soil disturbance. For direct-seeded crops like carrots and beets I clear away the mulch, loosen the soil with a shovel, plant the seeds, and then replace the mulch when the plants are big enough to not be buried.

The third level of veganic growing has to do with the relationship the grower has with the animals and plants in the garden. I am aware of people that communicate with the spirits of animals and negotiate sharing of produce from the garden. Instead of waging war against the animals, the humans respect the animals and honor their need for food. Similarly, when people are in touch with the spirits of their plants, they find out specifically what the plants need for optimum growth and are then able provide what is needed. While I am open to the possibility of this type of communion with plants and animals and also recognize its value for creating an ethos of ahimsa, as of yet I have not experienced it myself.

In closing I will touch on an aspect of veganic gardening that is often forgotten: Ahimsa includes compassion toward ourselves as well as toward animals. I can be very hard on myself for not being the “perfect” veganic gardener.” This attitude leads to feelings of anxiety, deficiency, frustration, and a mental state that is not conducive to envisioning creative ways to enact ahimsa more fully in my growing practices. Therefore, in the spirit of ahimsa, I aim to accept my imperfections and remain open to discerning more compassionate ways of gardening veganically.

Veganic Gardening Resources
Organic Vegan Network,
Veganic Agriculture Network,


World Peace Diet and Vegan Food Production

We are currently studying Will Tuttle’s book World Peace Diet: Eating For Spiritual Health And Social Harmony.  He sees eating and food as the ultimate spiritual practice/act as we literally become our food, we embody our food (i.e. “we are what we eat” on all levels).  He makes the case that the historical development of herding, breeding, and killing animals for food is the fundamental disconnect between ourselves and the rest of the natural world.  The commodification and killing of animals has laid the foundation of the dominant world culture (Western Industrial Civilization) that views animals, nature, and humans as resources to be used and exploited for power and financial gain.  He theorizes that we have to deny/bury our authentic selves (more loving and compassionate) in order to continue with this business of commodifying and killing/consuming animals (apx. 75 million animals a day are killed for food) to feed most of us everyday.  The fundamental single thing that we can do for ourselves, the planet, and the animals is, of course, giving up meat/dairy consumption and switching to a vegan diet.  Tuttle’s thesis is provocative and has gotten us thinking about veganism on a deeper level.  Here’s a video to a talk he gave at Villanova that gives a good overview of his philosophy:

After reading this book (and others by vegan writers) it got us thinking about what about veganic food?  Where are vegans getting their food?  For the most part they are getting it mostly from large scale commercial farms that most likely use animal products and manure on their farms and may also be engaged in animal agriculture.   To “complete the cycle” of veganism there really needs to be veganic farms that produce “humane” food i.e. food production that does not involve animal exploitation. We feel we are a very small part of this movement here on our veganic homestead.


Maple Sugaring Season

We are in the midst of our maple sugaring season at Ahimsa homestead and its been a strange one!  Maple sugaring season generally runs from late February to mid-to-late March in our part of the world (Central Pennsylvania) however this year’s been different.  We tapped when we always do – late February.  It was a nice, sunny winter day and the flow was good.  Then it got cold, very cold – highs below freezing – for a couple weeks.  The taps stopped cold literally!  The weather has been erratic ever since – mostly too cold for good flows.  So we’ve been boiling whenever we get enough to make a few quarts (the ratio is approximately 40:1 – 40 gals of sap = 1 gal. of syrup).  We usually wait until we have enough to make a couple gallons before firing up our small maple arch.


Finished syrup

The process is a pretty simple one.  Basically it involves tapping the trees, hanging buckets, gathering the sap daily.  Once we get enough to do a boil we fire up our small maple arch (we use dead pine wood), get a good rolling boil going, and boiling it down until its close to syrup.  We take it off and finish it in the kitchen (in our opinion its too risky to boil it down to syrup in the pan – we’ve lost a couple batches trying to do this).  We have a lot more control in the kitchen.  We use a maple hydrometer to test the density of the syrup (66% sugar content).  When its done we take it off and can it.


Boiling sap in our maple arch.

Boiling sap in our maple arch.

Every year we are always happy to have people come out and help with the process!

Check out our Maple Sugaring 2014 photo album.


During the long, cold winter months a great deal of our time is taken up by cutting, splitting, moving, and stacking firewood.  We heat our home with a large Kitchen Queen Amish Cookstove.  Working with wood is our primary outdoor activity from December until the end of February when the maple sugaring season starts (which actually involves working with a lot of firewood as well!).  We often feel like staying indoors next to the warm cookstove however the rewards of the winter landscape are many and varied.  It is actually one of my favorite seasons for enjoying the beauty of nature.  The quiet and stillness of winter is simply awesome, unrivaled by any other season. I feel a special joy in working outside on a cold, sunny, windless winter day. I love breathing the clean and crisp winter air and feeling the warmth of the sun on my hands and face.


This is our Kitchen Queen Cookstove hard at work keeping us warm.

I generally enjoy all aspects of “wood work” save one: felling dead trees.  Even though I’ve done it many, many times, each time is still nerve wracking.  I’ll study the tree for quite sometime to determine which way I think its leaning.  The problem is that in the woods, on a slop, it can often be difficult to determine which way the tree is leaning (if at all).  I’ll then notch it on the “leaning” side and make a second cut at an angel from the other side towards the notch.  Theoretically this will prevent the tree from falling on you.  The idea is that your saw will bind up in the upper cut and stop the saw before the tree falls.  This has always been the case for me.  The problem is that you now have a doubly challenging situation: the notch on the wrong side and your saw bound up.  I’ve had this happen before which requires a harried and dangerous recut (the opposite way) with a second chainsaw.


Wood storage area #1

We cut all our firewood using a Stihl Farmboss chainsaw.  In a prior lifetime (when we were much younger) we cut all our wood using crosscut and bow saws.  Although there is definitely environmental, health, and noise benefits to cutting wood with people powered tools there is the time constraint to consider.  Given that we no longer homestead full-time (we both have other work in the “outside” world) and have multiple other responsibilities on the homestead we reluctantly gave up that practice many years ago.  We definitely miss the days of being able to have a conversation over cutting firewood and hearing the gentle song of the crosscut making its cut and the sounds of nature.  However the chainsaw is such a huge time saver plus it allows one to harvest wood much more efficiently.  The problem with a crosscut saw is that your wood cutting space needs to be arranged just right in order to effectively cut firewood.  I remember many times being in too tight a space or not have the log’s weight properly balanced so that the blade would bind.  We have made peace with the carbon footprint trade off because we can gather so much more wood so much faster and use wood that we never would have been able to cut with the crosscut.


Wood storage area #2

We split and stack all our wood in an open lean-to style woodshed (for maximum air flow) and try to get a year’s worth of wood in advance.  There’s nothing worse than burning wood high in moisture content.  Its bad for you, the environment, and causes rapid creosote build up.  My wife Kelle does almost all the splitting.  She actually really enjoys the work and is really good at it.  It’s part of her winter exercise routine!  We have three storage areas (see pictures) that we try to fill up.  We go through most of it in a winter…Amish cookstoves are not very efficient!


Wood storage area #3.

Vegan Eating in the Winter and Our Favorite Black Bean Soup

One of the primary goals of our vegan homesteading effort is local food self-sufficiency.  Specifically, the goal is to eat “off the land” as much as possible.  Many have asserted that a year-round locally-based vegan diet is not possible in a northern climate.  People say, “maybe (a year-round, local vegan diet) is possible in Hawaii or Florida but definitely not in Pennsylvania” claiming that instead meat (from domestic or wild animals) is the only way to sustain a local diet during the long winter season.  It is definitely more challenging to be  eating a “local vegan” diet in a northern climate than a southern one where plants and fruits grow year round.  However it is far from impossible.  During the winter we regularly eat from our garden using our squash, potatoes, carrots, and beets from the root cellar; our cucumbers and tomatoes from the canning shelves; our corn and beans stored in jars; and lots of frozen produce.

We actually eat pretty well in the winter.  We regularly make soups and various casseroles using our own stored produce as the base.  Another luxury we have is eating our frozen fruits and ginger as smoothies all winter long.  Here’s one of our winter staples that incorporates a lot of food that we grow (* marked with an asterick):

6 Cups Black Beans* (soaked overnight)
1 Gallon Water
4-5 Cups Onions* (chopped)
1-2 Cups Carrots* (chopped)
2-3 Large Sweet Potatoes* (chopped)
Handful of Crushed Basil* and Oregano*
6-7 Gloves Garlic* (chopped)
1/2 Cup Maple Syrup*
2 Tablespoons Apple Cider Vinegar
1/2 Cup Tamari

Soak beans overnight, boil till soft, drain and discard water.  Put all chopped vegetables and beans into 1 gallon of water, bring to low boil, turn down, let simmer until everything is tender.  Add seasonings.  Simmer for another 20-30 minutes.  Tastes even better the second day.

We make a large amount to last the week or freeze for later.

More on Why Vegan Homesteading

Lots of rain today, a good day to do some writing indoors.  We already feel overwhelmed with the gardens! We’ve been pondering why do vegan homesteading? Basically it boils down to the fact that we feel its the best way for us to respond to the unfolding environmental, economic, and energy crisis that we are in the midst of.  When we feel overwhelmed by the work or lack of interest in what we are doing we ask ourselves: “well, what else should we be doing?”  And, our answer, (so far) has always been the same: this feels right to be doing.  The most important work we feel to be engaged in these challenging times is helping build a local food system.  Food, of course, is life when it becomes scarce everything else in our lives diminishes and our focus turns entirely to food.  Our view is that a locally-based vegan food system is the most direct, most practical, and  most humane food system in the world, not to mention the fact that its the least energy intensive.  Of course we are referring to a small, home-based agricultural system that mimics nature as much as practically possible – in our system we try to minimize tilling and maximize mulching and gardening by hand.  We plant things close together and interplant different vegetables, herbs, and flowers.  We supplement our soil with compost and grass mulch and use drip irrigation.

What is Vegan Homesteading?

Vegan homesteading is the practice of homesteading without exploiting animals.

This blog will share random thoughts and things we come across that are relevant to vegan homesteading.