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Beyond Organic: Healing the Earth Through Biodynamic Agriculture

There are those who say that “organic” doesn’t mean what it used to. Once part of a counterculture movement to get back to the earth and grow better food with better nutrition, organic was not simply an alternative to the conventional method of agricultural production that has dominated our food supply over the last century. More than that, it was another way of thinking about food and, for some, a whole lifestyle choice. 

Over the past several decades, thinking about organic food has shifted from a high-minded if esoteric idea to a well-known marketing tool. With the advent of the US Department of Agriculture’s standard for organic, the debate over what is truly organic is not one that can be meaningfully had between environmentally conscious farmers so much as between legislators and lobbyists. It is no doubt true that consumers can feel secure when purchasing their organic produce that theywill not expose their families or friends to lingering synthetic pesticides that are used when growing the conventional equivalent. Organic eaters can also support claims that the negative environmental impact is generally less than what results from conventional farming methods. However, while many small farmers may diligently work to preserve the fertility of their soil and the health of local ecosystems while they take on the arduous challenge of pursuing organic certification, access to the organic market is very much open to far-flung and distant large-scale operations less concerned with the long-term health and productivity of the land. 

While the big name brand organics may offer the value and price you desire of your food, there are still widespread, if less well-known, philosophies on agriculture that see farming as a means to enrich the land and all those who depend on it, rather than a mere means of production with the unfortunate consequence of depleting this most necessary of natural resources. One such methodology is biodynamics, which sees a farm or garden as not just rows of planted seeds and pasture from which vegetation and animal products may be garnered, but rather as an interconnected ecological system, in which all parts contribute to the whole of a collective organism. Those who practice bio-dynamics pursue not only the production of highest-quality food, but also to actively heal the earth through their efforts. 

What is Biodynamics?

Robert Karp and Thea Maria Carlson of the Biodynamic Association define Biodynamic Agriculture as a “farm forward approach to healing the planet through conscious agriculture” that requires “integrated holistic management of a farm’s ecosystem.” To that end, not only the farm or garden, but the surrounding ecosystem—including surrounding wetlands, fields, woods, and even the plants, animals and people that inhabit them—are all seen as integral members of a contained and self-sustaining organism. As part of this method, biodynamic practices reject the use of synthetic chemicals, fertilizers and pesticides as well as genetically modified organisms, making it similar to organic in base practices, although substantially different in terms of philosophy, conception and overall implementation. Instead of simply removing the inputs seen as harmful and replacing them with more benign counterparts, the biodynamic farmer creates and enforces an interconnectivity between different members of the system. For example, livestock are kept at specific quantity in order to provide manure, which will serve as a fertilizing additive. This manure will be fermented in combination with herbs and other plants, some of which may occur in the unsettled parts of the farm or as weeds; such as yarrow, nettles, dandelion, chamomile, and horsetail. In this way, some beneficial inputs are utilized from organisms which may have otherwise been perceived as a nuisance. Along with mineral silica, these fertilizing mixtures are prepared in nine specific forms and applied to crops to provide a nutritional additive. This example of combining naturally occurring wild plants and domestic animal waste products in order to be reused within the farm’s ecosystem demonstrates the biodynamic theory of self-containment and the holism of connection between all parts of the collective. Since the hazards of carbon dioxide and methane-release from decomposition as well as the runoff of fecal matter into the water system are avoided through this containment, it reduces the potential for air, water and soil pollution. 

One of the more colorful and distinctive aspects of biodynamics is its utilization of less tangible, astrological influences and the worldview that informs these practices. Biodynamics subscribes to the idea that cosmic forces are at work in the garden and pasture, and celestial bodies such as the moon and the planets have a subtle impact on the growth and development of each organism within the system. This view stems a from belief in a spiritual science, a view that both physical and nonphysical forces can be observed and manipulated. Biodynamic practices make manifest this view in a practical way via the use of specific timetables for planting, harvesting, and other farming techniques based on lunar, solar calendars and other celestial occurrences. In addition to adding a spiritual component to the lifestyle of biodynamic practitioners, it also works to take advantage of the relationship between the earth’s natural rhythms and an organism’s lifecycle. Although many may interpret the spiritual side of biodynamics as an adherence to superstition, it does provide a deeper psychological connection between farmer and land, a desire from which the origin of biodynamics sprung. 

Rudolf Steiner and the History of Biodynamics

The genesis of biodynamics is credited to one man: Rudolf Steiner. Known as a prolific thinker and writer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Steiner’s most prominent brainchild was his spiritual-scientific approach to knowledge known as “anthroposophy.” Steiner’s focus on holistic systems and his writings on fields ranging from education, banking, economics and medicine to psychology, the arts and even dance contributed to his significant reputation and his insight was an attractive commodity during his life. As a result, farmers solicited Steiner for his recommendations after having witnessed degraded soil conditions and a decline in the vitality of their crops and livestock after employing chemical fertilizers. Steiner, foreseeing a danger in the employment of these synthetic inputs, responded with a series of lectures in 1924 on agriculture, marking the genesis of biodynamics. Steiner’s thoughts on the interplay between crops, livestock, and soil, as well as plant, animal, human and cosmic participants within a closed loop system, inspired an approach to agriculture that has spread to 47 nations and 350,000 acres of farmland throughout the world over the past century. Arriving in North America during the 1930s, the concepts of biodynamics would be connected with the development of community-supported agriculture and the work of Rachel Carson. Today, the biodynamic movement can still be witnessed through journals, conferences, trainings, apprenticeships, the continuing work of the Biodynamic Association, and certification standards solidified under Demeter Association, Incorporated. 

Debate over Efficacy and Scientific Legitimacy

In spite of its international popularity, the practices and worldview encompassed by biodynamics have certainly not escaped controversy. Due to its focus on the spiritual and astrological aspects as inherent to its philosophy and methodology, biodynamics is often labeled as pseudoscience. And because of its similarities to traditional agricultural and folklore practices sometimes labeled by the moniker “sympathetic magic” (including a reliance on “cosmic forces” unobservable within the scope of agronomical science) the impact of many unique aspects of biodynamics and its benefits have been called into question. Some critics take an intensely harsh view of biodynamics, at times choosing to cast aspersions on its founder. Producers utilizing alternative production methods in the competitive agriculture marketplace have issued challenges to biodynamic supporters to provide firm scientific evidence in order to support its claims, even going so far as to proclaim Steiner a charlatan. 

While many aspects of biodynamics may border on the superstitious (such as the practice of burying a horn of ground quartz in order utilize cosmic forces), and some are just downright weird (including the burning of mouse hair), both fair and not-so-fair critiques of biodynamics in general need to be considered in context and according to their source. While biodynamics encompasses a point of view that represents more than simply an alternative approach to agriculture, not all biodynamic farmers subscribe exhaustively to the particulars, preferring to use the timetables and planting calendars as suggestive and indicative while leaving room for more down-to-earth realities and events such as the inability to plant during a thunderstorm, (even if it is the vernal equinox). 

Also, while some tenets of biodynamic philosophy and the belief in a superior product as a result exceed the bounds of objective observation, scientific studies continue to take place to evaluate its practices through performing trials and the publishing of findings. Whether or not many of the more unique aspects of biodynamics can be credited with producing a superior product, biodynamics has become an accepted standard among certain agricultural fields. For example, sommeliers have observed greater flavor and quality from wines produced through viniculture utilizing biodynamic standards. Whether or not there is definitive evidence that the harnessing of cosmic forces can improve the quality of food far beyond other organic approaches, the holistic approach involved does create an opportunity for greater ecological preservation and enrichment, as well as challenging the conventional view on agriculture’s significance to our society.  

Cultural Significance

As noted above, the influence of biodynamics has been linked with different perspectives on how we regard the environment and the natural resources we depend on in producing our food. It has also been credited with inspiring alternative marketing techniques such as community supported agriculture, which allows consumers to purchase food from farmers more directly, have a say in what kinds of crops and livestock might be produced, and engage with growers about what practices they utilize to bring that food to our tables, whether their methods be organic, biodynamic or otherwise. Additionally, biodynamic practitioners and the leaders in their community have a stake in education. The Biodynamic Association works to provide learning opportunities for would-be farmers and communities through conferences, training, apprenticeships, and relevant texts. Farmers and writers such as UW-Madison alumnus Daron Joffe see a biodynamic approach as a more impactful way to grow great food while preserving the planet. Through opportunities, trainings, and personal interactions related to agriculture and lifestyle that goes beyond simply organic, Joffe sees a chance to inspire others,  to develop practical skills, and at times even ensure a livelihood. Indeed, the ability to holistically connect economic and ecological networks between small or local producers to conscious eaters  while simultaneously enriching our environment is necessary for the sustainability of our society, and is more than complementary to our cooperative movement.  

Availability, Labeling and Local Importance

So how can one participate in the biodynamic movement? One of the tastiest ways is to simply seek out biodynamic products. This seemingly elusive method of agricultural may not be as hard to find in your everyday life as you might think, thanks in part to the work of Demeter Association, Inc. This certifying agency is part of an international organization focused on promoting biodiversity by enabling farmers to employ these practices through the provision of education. It also performs the essential function of certifying farms and products that officially adhere to the biodynamic standard. These standards employ the same organic standards prescribed by the US Department of Agriculture, but they also include additional requirements such as Farm Standards for the integration of crops and livestock with nearby wild ecological systems. Demeter also supports their certified producers and those consumers looking for food of this quality by providing a directory of all farms and facilities that have achieved this certification (www.biodynamicfood.org). 

 

By utilizing this directory, you might discover the tantalizing flavors of biodynamic vintners such as Dark Horse, whose wines carrying the Demeter stamp of approval, lining the shelves of Willy West. The sweet taste of biodynamic fruits can be spread on your morning toast just by picking up a jar of Crofters from your nearest Co-op location. In addition to asking about the great biodynamic certified products available at Willy Street Co-op, your participation in the biodynamic movement can take on other forms as well. The Biodynamic Association website has a vast number of resources on getting involved, scientific articles, learning opportunities, ways that biodynamics is working to build communities throughout the world, and a few recommendations for your next trip to the bookstore. If you want to know what connections your locally grown food have with biodynamics and the integrative approaches that go beyond ordinary organic standards, connect with growers and ranchers in your community through CSAs, your nearby farmers’ market or putting in product requests and customer comments at Willy Street Co-op. If you want to get more hands-on, experiment with immersion into a biodynamic lifestyle by finding ways to connect your kitchen and your garden to the wild organisms it interacts with. In this way, you may create a more self-sustaining ecosystem in which you are an active member. Using planting calendars and recycling food scraps might just have a positive impact on your vegetable yield. Perhaps you may find that there is even something a little magical and rejuvenating about burying the horn of a cow. 

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