It seems that buzzwords in the food industry are endless. If you have been paying attention, it is likely that you have heard terms such as “organic,” “conventional,” “all-natural,” and “free-range” with increasing regularity. Of late, a word describing one method of farming has been gaining popularity, especially in the aisles of the Willy Street Co-op: biodynamic. The particularly astute may even have noticed that recently our Produce department featured biodynamically grown limes in one of our sales. Though this word may be new to many people, biodynamic farming and certification practices actually predate organic standards and certification by approximately 30 years. But what exactly is biodynamic farming?

A history

Biodynamic farming was originally developed and articulated by Austrian scientist Rudolf Steiner in 1924 in a series of eight lectures on agriculture given to a group of farmers in what is now Poland. Steiner is sometimes credited with spearheading a natural farming movement in the midst of a shift—at least among industrialized nations—toward increased utilization of chemical fertilizers. However, his theory actually emerged from the context of two nascent discourses that critiqued the use of chemical fertilizers. The first discourse came from farmers who resisted chemical usage after first-hand observations of soil depletion as well as crop and animal health deterioration following exposure to chemical fertilizers. The other was a developing scientific discourse, which aimed to prove the ecological and nutritional benefits of more natural farming practices. The development of Steiner’s theory of biodynamic farming as well as the implementation of its tenets by individual farmers in the 1920s are important contributions to the history of agricultural activism, both of which helped to set the stage for later political mobilization around organic farming practices.

The ideas

What were the ideas espoused by Steiner in this new theory? Biodynamic farming was intended as a holistic approach to agriculture that cited rebuilding of the soil and ecosystem as one of its major goals, which in turn would result in higher nutritional values of crops. In addition, Steiner’s philosophy urged farms to participate in animal husbandry, and to eventually become completely self-sufficient in the production of compost, manures, and animal feeds. To best accomplish these goals, Steiner argued for a multifaceted approach to agriculture which addressed both the biological concerns of soil and organisms as well as tactics to foster the spiritual energy of a farm. This emphasis on both the physical and the spiritual energy of food production can be likened to concepts such as yin and yang, though Steiner called this spiritual science that he founded “anthroposophy.”

Initially I intended to divide this article into two sections, labeled “Biological Practices of Biodynamics,” and “Spiritual Practices of Biodynamics.” The more I read, however, the more I came to realize that biodynamic practices do not necessarily fit into only one of these binaries. Many biodynamic practices have both a biological as well as a spiritual function. As a result, I will instead outline some basic practices that form the framework of biodynamics. This article is not an exhaustive discussion of biodynamic farming, as it is a very complex ideology with a rich set of practices and meanings. However, I will explain some practices that make biodynamic farming unique and interesting.

The basics of biodynamics

The biological components of biodynamic farming are similar, though not identical, to those of organic farming. I like to think of biodynamic farming as organic farming plus some additional practices that make it unique. Others call biodynamics the highest grade of organic farming. Both abstain from the use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides and pesticides. However, in addition, biodynamic agriculture prescribes the use of eight specific preparations intended to enrich soil and plant life. Like homeopathic treatments, these preparations are used in extremely small quantities. The biodynamic preparations include two sprays and six herbal compost preparations comprised of herbs coupled with specific animal organs intended to act as a catalyst for compost fermentation.

Horn-manure: The first biodynamic spray preparation is referred to as horn-manure. This is created by mixing water with a small amount of cow manure that has been fermented in a cow horn while buried underground for six months throughout autumn and winter. Applied immediately prior to sowing, horn-manure is said to encourage healthy root growth and help the plant to absorb nutrients from the soil.

Horn-silica: The other such spray, horn-silica, consists of water mixed with powdered quartz crystal that undergone the same process of burial and fermentation in a cow horn for six months throughout the spring and summer months. Horn-silica is sprayed onto growing plants in the morning, and is said to help plant metabolism and growth.

The creation of these sprays is rather labor-intensive and time consuming. The burial and fermentation processes of the components of horn-manure and horn-silica take six months, and once unearthed, the process is not yet complete. The handling of these substances as they are made into field sprays is extremely important, and must be performed in a very specific manner. Edict dictates that the horn-manure and horn-silica be stirred into water (preferably) by hand for one full hour. The farmer is instructed to stir in one direction until a deep crater is formed in the bucket, and then change direction until another crater is formed. The farmer must repeat this pattern of until the whole hour has passed. This method of stirring is said to release the positive cosmic or spiritual energy inherent in the specially treated manure or crystal into the water so it can then be absorbed and utilized by plants.

Herbal compost preparations: In addition to these spray preparations, biodynamic farmers use six herbal compost preparations made from common medicinal herbs: yarrow blossoms, chamomile blossoms, stinging nettle, oak bark, dandelion flowers, and valerian flowers. Four of these herbs are coupled with animal organs chosen according to their functions in the animal’s body, which synergistically enhance the effects of the herbs in enriching the compost. Chamomile is coupled with bovine intestine, oak bark is paired with a mature cow, sheep, pig, or horse skull, dandelion flowers are used in conjunction with bovine mesentery, and yarrow flowers are paired with the bladder of a male deer. Herbs are matched with their animal organ counterparts according to how the herb’s medicinal function relates to the former function of the organ. As one farmer explained to me, chamomile is a medicinal herb used to aid digestion. Bovine intestine is an organ whose function is to facilitate digestion in the cow. These used in conjunction with one another are argued to complement one another in the initiation of fermentation in the compost.

The astrological calendar: Another practice somewhat unique to biodynamic farmers is planting and harvesting according to the astrological calendar. Each of the sign of the zodiac is associated with one of the four elements: earth, water, fire, or air. Each of these elements is perceived as connected to a portion of a plant. The root of a plant is related to the earth element, its leaf is connected to the water element, its flower is associated with the air element, and the fruit is linked to the fire element. If one were planting sunflowers, for example, one would do so on a day that corresponds to the air element in the astrological calendar. Spinach, however, would best be planted on a water-element day according to this theory. If you are interested, a biodynamic calendar outlining the best dates to plant this year according to the elements is available at http://www.biodynamics.com/advisory.html.

Biodynamic third-party certification: Demeter

Biodynamic farmers initiated the first third-party certification agency to ensure compliance with their rigorous agricultural standards. (In contrast, third-party organic certification practices began in the 1970s. Technically, this makes biodynamic farmers the first to create a mode of institutionalized organic agriculture, complete with certification standards and enforcement.) The agency devoted to this certification process, Demeter, was founded in 1928, and is a non-profit organization committed to upholding high quality agriculture, ecosystems and biodiversity. Conversion to biodynamic agriculture for certification initially takes three years, and then certification must be renewed annually. In order to qualify, one must follow the guidelines mentioned above as well as other cover-cropping techniques, crop rotation, animal husbandry practices, and honor proscriptions against the use of genetically engineered organisms. Farms who apply for certification that meet all biodynamic guidelines receive permission to use the Demeter label. As is the case with organic farming, farmers may incorporate organic or biodynamic practices into their farming methods, but only those who meet all criteria will be certified. It is true that some farms may “be biodynamic,” that is, they may meet all biodynamic criteria, but for whatever reason may opt to not apply for third-party certification. Such reasons may include the inability to pay fees associated with inspection, or prohibitively elaborate paperwork.

Closing thoughts

In closing, I hope I have educated you on some of the specifics of biodynamic farming. Though I have long been a supporter and practitioner of organic agriculture, I have never implemented any of these biodynamic strategies into my own gardening methods. However, I think I may be a convert. The research for this article was fascinating. I admit, had I not been previously exposed to the exceptionally high quality of biodynamically grown foods as a fruit stocker here at the Co-op, it is likely that I would have dismissed these practices as too involved or rather New Age. However, I have long noticed the exceptionally high quality of the fruit we receive that is labeled with the Demeter label as well as the USDA certified organic label. (The biodynamic fruit we tend to receive are lemons, limes, kumquats, and Meyer lemons.) My curiosity about this consistently high quality is exactly what motivated me to write this article in the first place! I have to say that with regard to biodynamic farming: the proof is in the pudding!