May 11 – 17, 2015
“There are farmers who believe in biodiversity instead of monoculture. Farmers who build soil fertility without depending on chemicals. Farmers who go beyond organic. Farmers who do things the old way because they’ve already seen the new way and said, ‘No, thank you’.” – Douglas Gayeton
In this week’s Food List, we are introduced to the principles and philosophies that guide biodynamic farming, a system outlined by Rudolf Steiner.
Biodynamic farming is much more than a method, it is a belief system — a holistic way of seeing and understanding the natural world. This perspective challenges input intensive industrial farming and, instead, focuses on regenerative practices. As one farmer reflects, “it’s harnessing the solutions that already exist in nature.”
Farmers are not merely producers, they are stewards of the land, responsible for balancing science and intuition. They are the keepers of the living organism that is the farm, providing medicine for the Earth. In doing so, farmers bring about maximum expression of the land.
To practice biodynamic farming, experts apply a diligent set of practices to the land. This is something that the Demeter Biodynamic Certification follows closely. To achieve this stamp of approval indicates that the farmers are closely adhering to the guidelines of animal, plant, soil, and water stewardship as laid out by Rudolf Steiner.
A fundamental principle of biodynamic farming is the building and maintenance of soil vitality. As a farmer in Illinois explains, building biodynamic compost is a critical element to bringing “aliveness” to the soil. This requires careful preparations for soil amendments and critical timing according to the cosmic rhythms.
Introduction by Robert Karp, Co-Director of Biodynamic Association
Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), founder of the biodynamic approach to agriculture, was a highly trained scientist and respected philosopher in his time, who later in his life came to prominence for his spiritual-scientific approach to knowledge called “anthroposophy.” Long before many of his contemporaries, Steiner came to the conclusion that western civilization would gradually bring destruction to itself and the earth if it did not begin to develop an objective understanding of the spiritual world and its interrelationship with the physical world. Steiner’s spiritual-scientific methods and insights have given birth to practical holistic innovations in many fields, including education, banking, medicine, psychology, the arts and, not least, agriculture.
In the domain of agriculture, Steiner was the first to point to the danger of synthetic fertilizers, which were just appearing in his time. He was also the first to bring the perspective of the farm as a single, self-sustaining organism that thrives through biodiversity, the integration of crops and livestock and the creation of a closed-loop system of fertility. Steiner also brought forth a unique and comprehensive approach to soil, plant, animal and human health that recognizes the importance of the healthy interplay of cosmic and earthly influences. With this knowledge, he developed a set of homeopathic preparations used by biodynamic farmers on soil, compost and plants that help build up the farm’s innate immune system and vital forces. In the 1980s, biodynamic farmers in the northeast U.S. used Steiner’s economic ideas to pioneer the concept of community supported agriculture (CSA), which has since been adopted by thousands of farms across North America.
By applying these diverse ideas and methods, biodynamic farmers have established a worldwide reputation for creating socially responsible farms of extraordinary health and beauty and for producing organic products of the highest quality and flavor.
Robert is a long-time social entrepreneur in the sustainable food and farming movement. Robert has helped start numerous innovative food projects, including community supported agriculture projects (CSAs), farmers’ markets, institutional buying projects and farmer-buyer-consumer alliances. He is also the founder of New Spirit Farmland Partnerships, LLC, which helps organic and sustainable farmers acquire farmland by linking them with ethical investors. Robert is the former executive director of Practical Farmers of Iowa and former board chair of the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute. Robert’s writings include an analysis of the sustainable food and farming movement in the light of Rudolf Steiner’s economic insights titled Toward an Associative Economy in the Sustainable Food and Farming Movement and an essay titled “Community and Agriculture: An Iowa Pilgrimage” published by Free River Press in Eating in Place: Telling the Story of Local Foods. Robert lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Biodynamics is a holistic approach to farming and gardening that takes organic principles to a whole new level. It is about much more than simply not using things like chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides. While biodynamic farmers do follow organic practices, they expand upon these by managing their farms (including fields, woods, wetlands, plants, animals, and people) as an interconnected whole. A biodynamic farm is an “individuality” that reflects the unique qualities of its particular place, climate, and community.
Biodynamics is agriculture as stewardship, working with the ecological, ethical, and spiritual aspects of farms and gardens to restore the integrity of the natural environment to enhance the quality, flavor, and nutrition of food. Initiated 90 years ago through the work of Austrian philosopher and social reformer Rudolf Steiner, biodynamics is practices all over the world. Since the 1930’s, biodynamic practitioners have played a key role in the renewal of agriculture in North America — from helping to pioneer the early organic movement, to inspiring the work of Silent Spring author Rachel Carson, to starting the first community supported agriculture (CSA) programs in the U.S. in the 1980’s.
Biodynamic methods are designed to stimulate the farm’s inherent fertility, health, and terroir through the integration of crops and livestock, the restoration of on-farm biodiversity, and thoughtful cooperation with the influences of the sun, moon, and plants on the earth. Biodynamic farmers strive for a balance and diversity of crops and livestock so that the farm may become as self-sustaining as possible. In addition, they incorporate nine preparations made from fermented manure, herbs (yarrow, chamomile, stinging nettle, oak bark, dandelion, valerian, and horsetail), and the mineral silica. They also learn from and adopt the lessons of alternative farming techniques from the wider sustainable and ecological agriculture community.
Beyond these practices, biodynamics is ultimately about a new way of seeing, understanding, and working with both the material and non-material aspects of our world. Toward this end, biodynamic farmers also work to develop their capacity to sense and observe the subtle forces at work in nature and to use their own insights to enhance the vitality of their farms. For this reason, biodynamic methods are not set in stone, but rather are in a continuous state of evolution and individualization.
To counter the growing depletion of the vitality of our food, farms, and communities by the modern industrial agricultural system, we need more than an alternative lifestyle movement. We need more than anti-GMO activism and a big toolbox of alternative farming techniques, valuable as those are. We need a revolutionary new way of understanding nature and the role of agriculture in the life of society. We need deep medicine for the land, for our communities, and for ourselves. Biodynamics offers a pathway into deep agricultural renewal. It is a way of seeing, a way of farming, and a way of creating community that restores the very heart of what it means to be human on earth.
Thea is a farmer, organizer, educator, and artist with roots in California and the Midwest. She joined the Biodynamic Association while farming with Turtle Creek Gardens in 2011, and continued to balance both roles until she became Co-Director. Her previous work includes teaching gardening, nutrition and beekeeping; developing community and educational gardens in California, Chicago and Maine; organizing strategic communications training programs for nonprofit leaders; and farming with Blue House Farm and Mendocino Organics. Thea earned a B.S. in Earth Systems from Stanford University, a permaculture design certificate from Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, and is trained in the Art of Hosting. Her photography graced the covers of the Fall 2011 and Spring 2012 issues of Biodynamics, and was featured in A Sense of Place, a collaborative exhibition between The Greenhorns and 18 Reasons.
Location: Preston Vineyards, Healdsburg, CA
Featuring: Jeffrey Westman
Found on Page 127 in Local: The New Face of Food and Farming in America
Biodynamics is a holistic and regenerative farming practice focused on the integration of plants, animals, soil health, and biodiversity. They keep the ecosystem in balance by producing the nutrients needed to nourish all aspects of the farm with a minimum of inputs imported from off site.
In 1924, Rudolf Steiner developed the principles of biodynamics to challenge the widespread introduction of chemicals in agriculture. He advocated placing manure-filled horns in the ground to “ferment,” where they extract the silica from the horns as they transform into powerful nutrients. This preparation method is known as “BD Prep 500.” This is later mixed with water to form a “tea” which is sprayed on the ground to promote soil health and fertility. Farmers closely adhering to these principles are given “Demeter” certification.
“[Biodynamic] farming alone has told me how intelligent nature is,” reflects John Chester. In Southern California, John “focuses on harnessing the solutions that already exist in nature” through trial and error on Apricot Farm. With his wife, Molly, and their dog, Todd, John has found sanctuary on Apricot Farm, where they observe and nurture the symbiotic relationships that thrive on the land.
An interview with Jack Algiere
Algiere discusses biodynamics as a philosophy involving trust of the natural system. He describes components of his farming style in which he, as the farmer, is a part of the living system of the land.
Douglas Gayeton: What is biodynamics?
Jack Algiere: Biodynamics is a method of farming, but it’s more importantly a philosophy. The term was developed by Rudolf Steiner in the early 20th Century and it came out of the need brought upon by the introduction of synthetic chemicals in industrial agriculture. A lot of the farmers were switching to using post military products and a lot of them had always been trusting their own intuition. Then the scientific revolution came along and it was saying “your ways are traditional and they’re rutted and we have new ideas for you; we have a new age for you to get involved in.” It was stripping the power from the farmers.
Biodynamics is a way to help farmers find a balance between science and intuition in the new world of agriculture. It’s about whole system agriculture, where no single part works independently. They all share the exchange; the biological exchange is really important. It can go deeper into relating to certain herbs and astrology. Mostly, they’re tools for the farmers to actually include themselves in the system and not act like a landlord to the system. The farmer plays an intricate role in the care of that particular piece of ground.
Douglas Gayeton: What does the phrase “trusting the natural system” mean?
Jack Algiere: There is a certain fear that builds up that forces people into using chemical methods of dealing with symptomatic issues instead of systematic issues. I hear a lot of things like “People aren’t sure if we can feed the world” or “Not sure if we could farm without chemicals” and that’s a trust issue as far as I’m concerned. I think once you lose that confidence as a farmer, it’s difficult to go back, because we’re intricately involved in the system and each choice we make perpetuates. When we make strong choices–choose the right varieties, care for the soil, deal with these more ecological principles of system approach–the trust continues to grow, as opposed to using the more chemical-based solution, where you don’t have the biological exchange. We have a good system of observation and fixing problems. We try to make physical solutions. I’d say that has a lot to do with trust and observation.
Douglas Gayeton: Could you explain the term “biological exchange”?
Jack Algiere: What I like about that term is that it directs us away from just being plant growers and it provokes a concept that there is a real exchange going on with the system. I like to grow in the soil because of that; because there’s an exchange of nutrients that’s not just in and then washed away. It’s in and recycle and recycle and recycle. You’re feeding the soil; you’re not feeding the plants necessarily. The plants have needs, but mostly those needs can be met by working with the soil system. In fact, I really believe that the quality of the plants is entirely symptomatic of the soil system. So, if the soil’s healthy and functioning properly, then the plants show us that health and the exchange comes out as produce.
Jack Algiere earned degrees in horticulture and turf management at the University of Rhode Island. He worked at a biodynamic herb farm with his now-wife, Shannon. Then they moved west, first to Colorado and then to California. Algiere volunteered for the Ecological Farming Association Conference, ran olive orchards in the Sacramento Valley, and ran vegetable farming in the Sierras. Then he and his wife started a CSA farm with another couple. They set up a seventy-five member CSA and market garden. Algiere began working at Stone Barns in 2003.
On the surface, the practice of medicine—both the traditional and non-traditional approaches—would seem to have little in common with the growing of wine grapes. For Dr. Robert Gross, there is a strong connection between his training as a Psychiatrist, and viticulture. This episode draws upon the rich interplay between two completely separate fields, each helping to enhance better understanding with the other.
An Interview with Elizabeth Candelario
Douglas Gayeton: Could you explain the principles of biodynamic?
Elizabeth Candelario: It codifies the original intention of the modern sustainable farming movement. It is the most comprehensive agronomic standard anywhere in the world.
Demeter’s vision is to heal the planet through agriculture, so it’s an environmental impulse. In the US, the term “biodynamic” has one definition. It’s the Demeter farm and processing standard, and we work very hard at Demeter to ensure that standard is met.
The USDA is a regulatory function. It’s very specific about what you can do. You don’t use synthetic fertilizers. You don’t’ use synthetic pesticides. Demeter build on top of that. 10% of the total land has to be set aside in biodiversity, and the use of the preparations is a requirement. The important thing is the Demeter standard is that each farm, given its unique nature, is still on this path towards self-sustainability, and we’ll look at each farm dependent on their own particular reality.
Douglas Gayeton: My understanding about the biodynamic preparations is that if I take some cow manure, put it in the horn, bury it in the ground, take it out six months later and spray it on the ground after mixing it with water, I’m going to have increased yields. How is that possible?
Elizabeth Candelario: First of all, the one place where reasonable people could disagree is the efficacy of the preparations. I think that is a really important conversation that we need to have, and we need more research. I don’t think that anybody’s saying that you’ve prepped 500 and you’re going to have increased yields. I think what people will say is, you’ve prepped 500 and it’s going to add to the soil vitality. And the soil vitality will lend itself then to healthier crops.
Douglas Gayeton: Am I being cynical or is prep 500 more of a ritual that symbolizes an adherence to a principle than actually having a direct impact on a farm’s soil health?
Elizabeth Candelario: What we certify are the farmers using it to help them increase the quality of their soil. I would argue that there are farmers who have a deeper connection with the use of the preps, and there are farmers that might use the preps without that deeper connection, and whether or not that translates to a different level of efficacy on the farm, I don’t know.
I think that one of the mistakes the biodynamic movement in the US has made is you have a lot of people who’ve been practicing for a long time; they’re so passionate about it. And they’re trying to talk to people about it that don’t have that experience themselves, and so something gets lost in translation. My job is to go out and talk about why biodynamics is a really good exercise, with the inward smile that it could be that, two years from now, that farmer comes back and talks to me about some deeper connection that he or she is experiencing on the farm.
Douglas Gayeton: Is it true that we can say that something that’s biodynamic could be organically certified, but something that’s organically certified might not be Demeter certified?
Elizabeth Candelario: That’s absolutely correct. If something is Demeter certified, in essence, it means it’s met the NOP standard. However, if they want to be organic certified, they still need to get that certification separately because it’s regulatory, and the NOP biodynamic isn’t equal to organic. That’s why we have a separate company, the NOP Accredited Organic Certification Company. My dream is, five years from now, our membership won’t want to maintain an organic certification, because they’ll know the consumer knows that biodynamic is organic.
Elizabeth Candelario is the Co-Director of Demeter USA, the non-profit certifier of Biodynamic® farms and products in the United States. She also serves as Board President for NOP accredited organic certifier Stellar Certification Services.
Elizabeth joined Demeter in 2008 following a 25-year career in marketing, business development, and non-profit management. Elizabeth first became interested in Biodynamic agriculture while Marketing Director at Quivira Vineyards, when the wine estate transitioned from conventional to Biodynamic farming. She was so inspired by that experience she joined Demter to help them expand awareness about Biodynamic agriculture and its positive effects on the food we eat, the products we use, and the environment we live in.
Title: Biodynamic Compost
Location: Angelic Organics, Caledonia, IL
Featuring: John Peterson and Ben, the biodynamic practitioner
Found on Page 128 in Local: The New Face of Food and Farming in America
Farmer John says, “chemical fertilizers instill soil with an imposter vitality, a bit like plastic surgery. They rely on synthetic nitrogen, which provides energy that looks and feels (extra) real, but it’s not sustainable. Chemical fertilizers are like drugs for plants. But drug addicts consume themselves, and inevitably they burn out. That’s why we work with real soil. For us, a very important consideration is the carbon to nitrogen ratio; compost should be 25-30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen. This requires having the right amount of straw (carbon) in relation to manure (nitrogen). Using cover crops also increases soil fertility.”
Rudolf Steiner first outlined the principles of biodynamics, a system of organic agriculture, in 1924. He gave recipes for nine preparations. When added to compost or sprayed directly on soil and plants during the growing year, they stimulate and enhance biological activity on the farm.
The compost at Angelic Organics contain cow manure, straw, a bit of horse manure, and vegetable seconds mixed with the following biodynamic compost preparations:
Prep 502: Yarrow, to support general growth processes;
Prep 503: Chamomile, to guide calcium and potassium processes;
Prep 504: Stinging Nettles, to imbue compost with sensitive intelligence;
Prep 505: Oak Bark, to combat plant “disease” conditions;
Prep 506: Dandelion, to help plants access what they need;
Prep 507: Valerian, to enhance relationship to warmth
Biodynamics is beyond organic; it is a service to the Earth and to humanity. This is the core principle that biodynamic composting specialist, Bruno Follador, practices. As he tells Food Tank, “the concept of health is rooted in the concept of wholeness.” For this reason, biodynamic farmers strive for much more than production on their farm — they strive to foster life and actively improve the health of the farm — which in turn promotes productivity.
As an expert in composting, Follador points out that biodynamic composting is much more than just a waste management — it’s symbolic of the larger life cycles; “by taking something once living and allowing it to process, ferment, and decompose, growers can create a new substance that generates life.” Biodynamic farmers build farm resilience through regenerative soil support.
Now that we’ve been introduced to the farm as a living, unified organism, your perception of how to interact with land and food quite possibly has changed. Explore different ways you can nurture an intricate biodynamic farm system.
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