By David Templeton Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Before the diagnosis, and long before any thoughts about "veganic farming," Janet McKee was devoting physical and mental energy to a frenzied corporate career.
That lifestyle caught up with her when she learned she had ulcerative colitis, inflammation of the lining of the large intestine, linked to stress, medications and poor diet. Her doctor prescribed drugs while warning she'd likely be on them for the rest of her life and also might need surgery.
She accepted the diagnosis but not the prognosis.
Instead, she dove headlong into scientific research that prompted lifestyle changes and adoption of a whole-plant vegan diet, which cured the colitis. She sought formal education to help others fight health problems through dietary and lifestyle changes, which eventually led to her decision to use veganic farming to raise more nutritious fruits, vegetables, herbs and seeds.
Veganic? Combine the vegan idea of avoiding cow and chicken manure and blood and bone meal as fertilizer, with the concept of organic farming, avoiding genetically modified plants and chemical fertilizers. Among other practices, veganic farmers use cover crops rather than manure to restore nitrogen to the soil.
"Why would you spread animal manure on your fields when you eat a vegan diet?" McKee said. "I wanted to grow the healthiest produce for the public that's possible, and one of the concerns is E. coli, which comes from the manure and not from the spinach or vegetables."
E. coli is a bacterium that causes food poisoning. Her opinions were bolstered when she learned that the bone and blood meals used in organic farming "are byproducts of slaughterhouse production."
"If you think about it logically, the practical reality is that there is not enough poop available to grow the vegetables we need," said Ron Khosla, a champion of veganic farming who supports www.goveganic.org . He operates Huguenot Street Farm, a 77-acre veganic farm in New Paltz, N.Y.
Still a rare agricultural practice, he said, veganic farming offers a more environmentally sound way to recondition the soil and reduce greenhouse gases produced by manure and also has cost advantages. Animals and the soil both contain microbes to convert plants into fertilizer.
"You have to eliminate the middle men, the cows and the chickens," Khosla said.
McKee's road to veganic farming was a winding one.
After returning to good health through a vegan diet, managed stress and improved sleep, she no longer needed medications.
Quitting her corporate job in 1997, she became board-certified as a holistic health counselor, among other credentials. In time she would become a preferred provider for the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute Hillman Cancer Center and advisory board member of the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort's new Holistic Healing Center.
In 2012, she started SanaView (www.sanaview.com ) to take her message online with videos and webinars.
The 50-year-old Franklin Park, Penn., resident remains a popular speaker on health topics while counseling individuals and groups about combining a whole-plant diet, especially raw plant foods, smoothies and high-nutrition juicing, with stress control and quality sleep. Her website includes testimonials from people who have used her methods to improve health, several involving cancer.
Sherina Tiberia represents a dramatic example. The former New Castle, Penn., resident now living in Bonita Springs, Fla., had lung cancer (bronchioloalveolar adenocarcinoma) with aggressive tumor growth. Her doctor told her to get her finances in order, saying she had three to six months to live.
She went on experimental drugs that stopped the tumors' progression but left them intact. About then she began seeing McKee, who put her on a raw-plant diet with flaxseed powder, juicing and exercise, all of which made Tiberia feel so much healthier that she decided to quit the medications she'd been taking for 14 months. Within six months, she said, the tumors were shrinking, and seven years later there is no evidence of tumors.
"She saved my life," Tiberia said. "I am living proof that a clean, good, organic diet works."
In a word of caution, McKee said she always recommends that the people she counsels continue following physicians' advice and treatments.
McKee said she eventually realized that store-bought organic vegetables, picked before ripe and shipped long distances, weren't providing optimal nutrition. "They lose their life force," she said. "The things that benefit health and life are diminished. And I was guilty as anyone of eating blueberries from Ecuador in January."
Three years ago, she and her son Nathan crested a hill and spotted a 52-acre historic farm for sale in Donegal Township, Penn., with a log cabin covered by wood siding as the main house.
She bought that farm, restored the large barn and several outbuildings, including a springhouse. Farm manager Kevin Keslar, 40, continues building greenhouses heated and lit by solar panels, which also power electric fencing. No-till farming practices help preserve soil biology.
"It's funny that I'm ordering beneficial insects that will eat the non-beneficial ones," McKee said. "If the soil is healthy, there aren't as many pests. I'm still in the learning phase."
She already sells vegetables and herbs to local restaurants and an area country market.
The Fruit Tree Planting Foundation, based in Pittsburgh, is growing seedlings on her farm and giving them away for donations to help the Pittsburgh Food Bank. The farm also houses 30 rescued bee hives to pollinate her crops.
For now, she continues soliciting advice from farmers about alternatives to herbicides, pesticides and manure. In time she says she wants to grow most of her own food and have greens available year-round in her greenhouses.
"There is nothing more fulfilling and healthy than growing your own food, and it is so rewarding when you have that, although it obviously involves freezing and canning, with dried herbs, kale chips and jars and jars of fermented red and green cabbage," she said.
The farm is available for tours, meetings and workshops.
Good health requires sufficient sleep, hydration and managed stress, but "the key is food," she said. "Food is medicine."
Khosla, formerly an international organic certification consultant to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, said veganic farming avoids the salts and remnants of antibiotics and growth factors found in manure, all of which can end up in the vegetables and groundwater.
Transporting manure from factory chicken farms and spreading it on fields in large quantities is costly and labor-intensive and also causes the release of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
The veganic alternative involves legumes and other crops that draw nitrogen from the air and are then plowed into the soil. Veganic methods also help control weeds.
"The biggest advantages go to the soil, planet and water table," Khosla said. "Most of the folks attracted to organic farming come from an idealistic perspective. But if you just cared about money and looked at this system, you'd say, 'Gosh, the numbers work, and this is what we should be doing.'"