Beyond Organic: Discovering the Secrets of Biodynamics

From small family farms threatened by big agribusiness and suburban sprawl to environmental destruction from soil erosion and overuse of pesticides, agriculture today faces many challenges. Consumers and farmers alike are looking for more natural approaches. Bill Hill, owner of Warrups Farm in West Redding, Connecticut, has been searching for better ways to raise his tomatoes, garlic, peppers, Swiss chard, scallions and squash, and he might have found it with biodynamic agriculture.

Bill Hill sprays his crops at Warrups Farm in West Redding, Connecticut…with organic preparations that strictly adhere to biodynamic principles. © Daniel Scollan

Biodynamics is not new; it predates the now-popular organic farming movement. It resembles organic agriculture in many ways, but adds a spiritual or mystical component. Hill describes biodynamics as “deep organic.” However, the biodynamic movement is relatively unknown in the U.S., having only earned mainstream attention in the world of wine making. But just about anything can be, and is, grown and sold using biodynamic principles.

The Austrian philosopher, scientist and artist Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) laid the foundations for biodynamics in a series of lectures he gave in 1924. Steiner founded a school of philosophy known as anthroposophy, meaning “wisdom of the human being,” which he defined as “a way of knowledge—a cognitive path—that leads the spiritual in the human being to the spiritual in the universe.”

Steiner applied this thinking to a diverse range of practical fields. He designed the Goetheanum in Dornach, Switzerland, a building considered a landmark of 20th century architecture. He also developed a method of teaching that centers on educating the whole child—head, heart and hands—that later became known as Waldorf education. Today, Waldorf schools can be found all over the world, including more than 150 in the U.S.

Philosophical Roots

Steiner’s 1924 lectures, known as the “Spiritual Foundations for the Renewal of Agriculture,” presented a critique of the contemporary agricultural practices of the day and set forth the key principles of biodynamics. Like organic farming, biodynamics rejects the use of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, but for different reasons. Steiner believed such substances were spiritually dead, rather than chemically or biologically troublesome.

Steiner believed that everything in the material world has a spiritual counterpart. So, biodynamic farmers are called to view the farm as a unique organism with a spirit, with each part integrated into the whole. A more concrete manifestation of this idea is that each farm is seen as a self-contained unit, and farmers aspire to have all inputs such as fertilizers come from within the farm. Composting then becomes an essential tool.

Farmers are also called to pay close attention to their environments and tailor their practices to those that best suit their specific local conditions. Harold Brown, who has studied biodynamics as outreach coordinator at Farm Sanctuary, says, “Biodynamic farmers don’t push the land beyond what it’s capable of doing, as is the case with modern agribusiness.”

A key difference between organic and biodynamic techniques is that animal husbandry is required for the latter. Animal manure is seen as especially important for its contributions to compost. Further, biodynamic farmers often work in connection with solar, lunar and astrological rhythms. For example, plantings are conducted on certain days of the year. Such practices, however, are not specifically required by the international biodynamic certification agency, Demeter.

Something unique to biodynamics is the use of eight specific homeopathic preparations, two of which are sprayed on crops and six of which are added to compost. The preparations are believed to increase the “life forces” in the soil and plants. Since they are difficult to produce, many farmers buy their preparations from the Josephine Porter Institute and other producers. The remedies are mostly herbs, usually stored in an animal organ, and are buried underground to ferment for a time period coordinating with cosmic cycles. The specific organs are thought to enhance the life forces of each material.

The two spray preparations, manure and grounded quartz, are stored in the horns of a cow. Small amounts of the manure or quartz are then mixed in water. The compost preparations include chamomile and dandelion flowers and oak bark, and are stored in a variety of organs such as animal intestines, skulls and bladders, and then applied directly to compost. In Steiner’s view, the preparations are both natural and spiritual.

Some people, especially vegans (who refuse to eat any animal-derived foods), may object to such use of animal parts in farming. Brown, of the farm animal rescue and protection group Farm Sanctuary, explains, “The whole point of veganism is to alleviate suffering, and using animal parts necessarily involves suffering.” Brown, however, finds other aspects of biodynamics appealing, especially its view of the farm as a living organism. “Biodynamics works in harmony with nature and, with experimentation, it may be able to evolve to be more animal friendly,” he says.

Jim Fullmer, president of Demeter USA, advises, “Animals on biodynamic farms are revered, and the goal of the movement is to mimic the wisdom put forth by nature. Vegetarians and vegans should look at the whole picture of biodynamics.”

Success in Wine-Making

The biodynamics movement, although currently occupying a small niche, is growing. It has received the greatest attention and commercial success in the wine-making business, where it has gained a reputation for especially high-quality products. In the U.S., biodynamic wines, or, more accurately, wines made with biodynamic grapes, are produced by such major California vineyards as Fetzer, Benziger and Frey Vineyards.

“The success of biodynamics in wine can be attributed to the industry’s focus on quality rather than quantity,” says Fullmer. He also points to the intense media interest in wine ratings, which have often been very high for biodynamic offerings. In addition, biodynamics” focus on farm individuality is especially suitable to the popular vineyard concept of “terroir,” referring to a quality in the wine that expresses the place where the grapes are grown.

Biodynamics is reaching beyond wine, however. Clean Foods of Santa Paula, California sells several blends of biodynamic coffees sold under the Café Altura brand. Owner Chris Shepherd says sales are increasing. “Consumers new to biodynamics are attracted to its holistic nature, and often become intrigued through their knowledge of Steiner’s Waldorf schools,” says Shepherd. “It just tastes better.”

Biodynamic grower Seven Stars Farm in Pennsylvania has also seen success with its line of yogurts, which are sold in major natural food stores throughout the Northeast.

A Sustainable System?

John Reganold, a professor of soil science at Washington State University, has studied biodynamics for nearly 15 years. His research suggests that the special preparations do indeed have a positive effect on compost. However, he says, “the jury is still out” on how effective they ultimately are, or whether there

truly is much difference between the health of biodynamic farms and typical organic farms.

“We just finished a study that looked at a number of soil properties over six years, and there were no significant differences between biodynamic and organic practices,” says Reganold. However, he adds, “Biodynamic farms may be the most holistic farms that I’ve seen.”

Jim Fullmer says many farmers are beginning to turn to biodynamics because they are dissatisfied with the current U.S. National Organic Program. “Many of the folks looking closely at biodynamics as an alternative are the good organic farmers who see that the National Organic Program is losing the basic foundations of organic farming—the emphasis on sustainability and reduction of inputs. The National Organic Program has basically boiled down to a list of materials you can or cannot use.

“Biodynamics means creating a living system,” says Fullmer. “Biodynamic farmers are certainly not the only organic farmers who do this, but it is the only existing organized movement with such roots.”

However holistic biodynamics may be, it’s still difficult for some people to stomach the idea of those unusual preparations. According to Bill Hill, “It’s not for everybody.”

DANIEL SCOLLAN is a former E intern currently serving in AmeriCorps.