Why you should care about Biodynamic Farming – Part 2 of History of Modern Organic Agriculture Series
Posted by Tom Boyden in Biodynamic Farming, Organic Agriculture on November 24, 2012
The recent North American Biodynamic Conference played a significant part in the enjoyably long length of time that this part of the series took to write. Biodynamic farming has played a distinct role in the shaping of the modern organic agriculture movement, but nowadays there is often a distinction made between that of organic and biodynamic; permaculture is in the discussion as well and I’m lumping it along with biodynamic, wait until the permaculture part of the series to see more on that. There is a definite difference, but when comparing either organic or biodynamic to conventional agriculture, it’s like comparing a pear to a lemon.
Often, there is animosity between biodynamic farmers and organic farmers; some organic farmers describe a sense of elitism in their interactions with biodynamic farmers. At this year’s conference, there were organic farmers and biodynamic farmers putting away their “differences” and realizing that we were all there to work together to change the agricultural landscape from destructive and ill-fated to that of a regenerative and sustainable agriculture community. Yes, there are significant differences in the way organic and biodynamic farmers run their farms, but there are also significant differences in the way each biodynamic farmer runs their farm. The conference was a refreshing look at what passionate individuals can accomplish when working together for a common goal. That air of elitism that I have heard about was not apparent, to be honest, the
opposite air of acceptance and openness was present and will hopefully persevere in the future. Woo, that’s off my chest, let’s talk about the basic concepts of biodynamic farming and their role in the shaping of the organic agriculture movement.
Biodynamic farming was developed by German farmers following Rudolf Steiner’s 1924 eight-part lectures series on agriculture. These lectures looked at how agriculture from an anthroposophical viewpoint could counter that of the chemical agriculture methods that were being used more and more often by farmers. The group of farmers that attended the lectures, also known as the Agricultural Experimental Circle, took much of Steiner’s musings and applied them directly to their respective farms in an experimental state. Each farmer examined the merits and benefits, garnering sufficiently brilliant results while eschewing the information from the public. The Agricultural Circle agreed to only release the polished version of biodynamic farming to the public and their farming peers. Pioneers like Ehrenfried Pfeiffer built on Steiner’s concepts, publishing several editions of Bio-dynamic Farming and Gardening: Soil Fertility Renewal and Preservation that would prevail as the best source of information on biodynamic farming for decades to come and is acknowledged for laying the framework for modern day soil ecology. Steiner created a foundation of ideals and concepts, allowing the experienced farmers of his followers to bring biodynamics to fruition.
Steiner stressed the importance of your farm asan organism, not just treating it as such. The core of biodynamics was rooted in individuals of the farm; animals located in and above the soil, microorganisms, plants and the people involved with the farm working together in a unified ecosystem. Each farm is a self-sustaining system with little or no outside inputs and a large amount of beneficial outputs. This spiritual science was in stark contrast to the reductionism science that had become increasingly popular since the advent of the industrial revolution. Steiner attributed these modern intellectual and cultural trends to the destructive nature of chemical agriculture; wryly stating, “Science can be quite correct, but real life can’t always afford to act according to scientific “correctness.’”
True to the nature of anthroposophy, there were unseen cosmic and ego forces surrounding the farm organism. These forces were pivotal to a biodynamic farm’s vitality and the fertility of the soil. This was the beginnings of modern soil ecology, many farmers did not make the connection between the fertility of their soil and the success of their farm until Steiner began
approaching ecology from a spiritual perspective. Cosmic forces were also present in the planting and harvesting cycles, in which farmers relied upon the lunar cycles to dictate their cultivation times. Astral forces also play a distinct role in the cultivation methods of plants in a biodynamic system. These astral and cosmic forces could not be worked against, a successful biodynamic farmer is able to balance the forces to create unity and harmony in their farm.
Steiner brought about a key concept of biodynamic farming with the use of preparations for maintenance and enlivenment of soil fertility and vitality, preparations that have largely remained unchanged for almost ninety years. The preparations involve herbs and animal by-products coming from in and around the farm, including: hollowed out female cow horns with cow manure buried in the ground during specific seasons, quartz, yarrow, chamomile, nettles, oak bark, dandelion, horsetail, and valerian. Scientific studies have yet to find a concrete reason to why and how these preparations work, but biodynamic practitioners swear by the efficacy of the preparations on their farms. The spiritual-ethical-ecological approach of biodynamic is comparable to the rituals of Native American farmers and the spiritual aspects of Indian farmers. These base concepts of biodynamic farming add up to a very holistic approach to agriculture; this holistic approach shaped the importance of ecology and ethics in modern organic agriculture.
Now, I know some of you may have lulled into a zone-out of sorts while reading about cosmic forces and the efficacy of putting aged cow manure in a cow horn, then burying it to up soil fertility, but be reassured that I am also struggling to wrap my meta spiritual head (what does that even mean?) around many of the core biodynamic concepts. Having no background in anthroposophy, his lectures proved to be a challenging piece of literature. I have read through Steiner’s lectures twice and still have to take a break from the book every time I go through his explanation of the carbon framework built up by the spirit with the help of sulfur. His drawing (above) did not clarify, but just confused me even more. If you have a problem embracing the spiritual aspect, I understand, but please look at the immensely beneficial, more concrete, aspects of biodynamic farming from an objective viewpoint. Organic agriculture’s focus on soil fertility may have been further developed scientifically by Sir Albert Howard and others, but biodynamic farmers planted the seed of the foundation of sustainable and regenerative agriculture being the soil upon which we stand.
Biodynamic farming was monumental in its establishment of the importance of the soil in a holistic approach to agriculture; farmers began to think of themselves as stewards of the land again, not just as producers. The importance of animal husbandry through high quality feed, grown on high quality humus, resonated throughout Steiner’s lectures. Ethical treatment of animals results in manure that is rich in etheric and astral forces, both enliven and vitalize the compost pile in which they are integrated into. A biodynamic cannot be truly biodynamic if it does not integrate some sort of animal manure into its soil building regime. Cow manure is preferable, but chickens, pigs, and other livestock could also fill the niche. Nutrient dense compost and a fertile soil rely upon the farmer’s humane and just treatment of each animal residing on the farm.
The presence of livestock in the farm organism, among other requirements, is required for a farm to be considered Demeter certified; the highest form of organic certification in the world and also the only biodynamic farming certifying body. Demeter certification was also the first form of organic certification present in modern day organic agriculture. Demeter certification formed the basis of certifying bodies in the U.S., Europe, and other countries around the world. Along with establishing the first organic certification, biodynamics also brought the idea of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) to North America. Biodynamic gardeners traveled to the U.S. in the 1980s and spurred the establishment of CSAs. Community was a central theme since the inception of biodynamic agriculture, when Rudolf Steiner invited the German farmers to hear his lectures. These two accomplishments were the culmination of the development of biodynamic farming as a foundational part of modern organic agriculture.
The methodologies of biodynamic farming are quite detailed and rather spiritually complex at times. A quick explanation of the basic ideas and concepts show the important foundational contributions to the modern agricultural movement. Soil as the center of agriculture and health became a continuing trend in spiritual science and scientific circles in years to come. Lady Eve Balfour, Sir Albert Howard and the English agricultural community would take many of these soil fertility ideas and develop them through scientific research and studies. Look for the next part in the series, Permaculture concepts and effect on modern day organic agriculture, next week.
The Agriculture Course – Rudolf Steiner
Organic Farming: An International History – W. Lockeretz