Cultivating Health and Vitality through Biodynamic Farming
Looking back, even though I didn’t know it then, the seeds of my career in biodynamic farming were sewn early on. When I was growing up in the 80's, one of my mother's highest priorities was feeding my sister and me the healthiest food she could find. Earning her living as a musician and music teacher while raising two children on her own, my mother always found ways to minimize spending on other things so that we could eat well. We did most of our shopping at the local natural food store and farmers’ market, choosing organic produce whenever available, regardless of how many bugs or blemishes we found on it. Every spring we also planted a small vegetable and flower garden in the backyard, though its yields varied with the sporadic attention and water we gave it in the busy months that followed.
Although organic food was important for my family, as a child and young adult I never imagined that my career would be in food and farming. I entered college planning to study environmental science, and it was only through a study abroad semester in the Brazilian Amazon that I came to see the tremendous impact that the way we grow our food has on the earth. After seeing the Amazon rainforest being destroyed in front of my eyes to make way for agriculture, I returned to the United States determined to find and practice an approach to agriculture that could benefit nature. I explored sustainable agriculture, agroecology, organic agriculture, permaculture, and biointensive gardening, but biodynamics was the path that resonated most deeply with me.
Biodynamics integrates a scientific understanding of agriculture with a recognition of the living, spiritual nature of soil, plants, animals, humans, earth, and cosmos
Biodynamics is a holistic, ecological, and ethical approach to stewarding land and growing nutritious and vibrant food which originated in Europe in the 1920's and is now practiced all over the world. Grounded in the insights of Dr. Rudolf Steiner, a philosopher and scientist who also developed, among other things, the Waldorf method of education, biodynamics integrates a scientific understanding of agriculture with a recognition of the living, spiritual nature of soil, plants, animals, humans, earth, and cosmos. It can be practiced on any scale, from a home garden to a farm encompassing thousands of acres.
A precursor to organic farming, the biodynamic model relies on the interconnectedness of the earth and its inhabitants with the entire universe. The goal is to create a self-sustaining farm or garden organism which unites plants, animals, soil, minerals, water, and other elements into interconnected balance and harmony to bring health to soil and produce abundant and nutritious food. Biodynamic farming and gardening focuses on minimizing external inputs, and chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides are strictly avoided. Generating fertility and health from within the farm or garden is achieved through integrating plants and animals, composting, using cover crops, encouraging biodiversity, and using biodynamic preparations made from fermented herbs and minerals. Planting and harvesting are guided by the movements of the sun, moon, and planets in relation to the stars (think: Farmers’ Almanac!) and biodynamic farmers and gardeners work with their senses, listening to the land they steward and helping to bring it to its full potential.
First-hand farming, biodynamic style
I began my work in biodynamics at Mendocino Organics, a small farm in Northern California, the summer before my last year of college. As soon as the school year ended in June, I got a ride up to Redwood Valley and set my suitcase down in the screened-in porch that was to be my bedroom for the summer. The next morning—and six days a week for the rest of the summer—I was up at 6 a.m. to feed the chickens, turkeys, and pigs, and take the sheep out to pasture.
I had never worked with farm animals before, and needed a lot of guidance to learn to attend to their needs. I was especially intimidated by the mother pig, who had recently birthed 14 piglets of whom she was very protective, and who charged straight towards me with all 200 pounds of her body when I brought her food. But my daily interactions with her and the other animals over the course of the summer brought enjoyment and a recognition of the value of integrating animals into the farm organism, a core principle of biodynamics.
The magic of manure
As they ate grasses, brush, vegetable and fruit scraps, and the grain I rationed out in the mornings, the animals all created abundant manure. Manure is a precious gift given by all animals—something I hadn’t considered as such before arriving at the farm! From a biodynamic perspective, this manure wasn’t just full of nutrients, it also contained something of the essence of the animal and important information for the farm. Sheep, for example, keep their heads to the ground most of the day as they graze, and as they eat they are also sensing the conditions of the pasture and its soil. As they digest the grass through their ruminant stomachs and then deposit their poop, they are providing the land with nitrogen and other nutrients, including new populations of beneficial microbes, as well as subtle messages about what might be needed to bring the land to greater balance. Each animal's contribution to this feedback loop is unique due to the differences in what they eat, the characteristics of their digestive systems, and their habits and nature. Including a variety of animals in the farm organism supports the farm's health in many ways, and also enables the farm to feed its community a diverse and balanced diet.
Biodynamic Compost Essentials
Composting is a core element of every biodynamic garden and farm. Biodynamic compost is enhanced and enlivened through the use of six preparations made from yarrow, chamomile, stinging nettle, oak bark, dandelion, and valerian. Each of these medicinal herbs is transformed through a unique process that brings it into relationship with the animal kingdom, the earth, and the cycle of the year. Bringing these elements together magnifies their healing qualities, fosters the growth of beneficial bacteria and fungi, and creates powerfully concentrated substances to guide the development of the compost. A small quantity of each preparation is added to the compost pile just after it is built, and again after it is turned. Biodynamic preparations strengthen the quality of the compost by stabilizing nitrogen and other nutrients, multiplying microbial diversity, and bringing more sensitivity to the composting process. Biodynamic compost helps attune the soil to the whole farm organism and wider influences while increasing soil life and stable organic matter. Biodynamic compost also brings more carbon into the living realm, helping to restore balance to the climate. Ready-to-use biodynamic preparations can be purchased from several national distributors as well as local biodynamic groups. Visit biodynamics.com/preparations for sources.
After the animal chores were done, we would move on to the plants. Although Mendocino Organics was a small farm, the diversity of plants was astounding, with an orchard full of plums, apples, and grapes, an enormous raspberry patch, and a wide variety of medicinal herbs tucked into hidden gardens and planted between vine rows at the neighboring Frey Vineyards. Some days we would harvest, sow seeds, or transplant seedlings, but most of each day was spent weeding. I learned to identify all of the plant species that popped up next to the crops, which weeds I could snack on, and which weeds could poison me. I experimented with different postures for pulling weeds by hand and holding a hoe, attempting to find ways to care for my body and the plants at the same time. With weeks of practice I increased my speed and efficiency and reduced the accidental damage I caused the crops and drip irrigation lines with wayward tools.
Biodynamic farms and gardens are nurturing biodiversity, wildlife habitat, local adaptation of vegetable varieties and animal breeds, and clean air and water, as well as giving people meaningful connections with the natural world.
I learned that cultivating biodiversity is a key element of biodynamic farming, and the integration of crop plants with natural habitat is also essential to the healthy functioning of the farm or garden organism. For example, the wooded areas between the fields sheltered many species of native plants and animals. I also began to learn that, from a biodynamic perspective, plants are imbued with spirit and are intimately connected to and influenced by the cycles of the sun, moon, planets, and stars in relationship to the earth. Biodynamics correlates the different parts of a plant—roots, leaves, flowers, and fruit—with the four elements—earth, water, air, and fire. I began to pay more attention to the night sky as well as the spirit of the plants I tended every day, and came to understand the subtleties of biodynamic planting calendars, which offered optimal days for sowing or cultivating a root crop, such as carrots (when the moon is in an earth sign of the zodiac).
Biodynamic Gardening for Beginners
You can grow your own food using biodynamic practices, whether you have a small urban garden or room to spare in the country. Start with building healthy soil through composting, growing cover crops, and integrating animals such as earthworms, chickens, bees, rabbits, or goats, according to the space and type of land you have available. Increase your biodiversity by trying new varieties of annual and perennial vegetables, fruit, herbs, and flowers. Take your compost and soil to the next level by using the biodynamic preparations, which you can purchase from several local and national distributors. There are growing numbers of books, online resources, and courses available to help you learn how to garden biodynamically, many of which are linked through the Biodynamic Association website.
The soul of soil
Soil care was also an important aspect of life on the farm and was woven together with the plant and animal work. Every morning we picked up and moved the pastured chicken enclosures to give them fresh grass and distribute their manure across the land. Once we pulled out all the crops (or weeds) from an area, we scattered cover crop seed to protect and feed the soil and build additional organic matter. Every time we harvested and washed vegetables, cleaned the manure out of the laying hens' coop, or generated any other organic material, we added it to a compost pile.
Composting is an integral part of biodynamic farming and gardening and serves a much greater purpose than just recycling "waste" materials. Biodynamic composting is a living process that brings together and transforms the various elements of the farm, aided by six biodynamic compost preparations made from fermented medicinal herbs. In biodynamics, we see the compost pile itself as a living organism within the larger organism of the whole farm or garden. In some ways it is the heart of the farm, where everything comes together, is renewed and enlivened, and then goes back out to the soil to bring it fresh nutrients, life, and attunement to the rest of the farm organism and the wider cosmos.
Throughout the daily rhythms of animal, plant, and soil care at Mendocino Organics, my mentor farmer, Adam Gaska, was always talking. He helped me to understand the core principles of biodynamic agriculture, centered on creating a living farm organism where a diversity of plants and animals work together to create a healthy and self-sustaining whole. Through these conversations and my own observations over the course of the summer, I started to sense that we were working not just with the physical and biological presence of the plants and animals and soil, but also with the spirit or subtle energy that stood behind them, and behind the farm itself as its own entity. As we laid out garden beds with undulating borders, Adam quipped that "elemental beings don't like straight lines," and I began to question the mechanistic and reductionist ways of thinking so prevalent in society and in my formal education. During that summer on the farm, I found new ways to engage with the living reality of the natural world as I worked in relationship with it day in and day out. And I began to realize my goal of knowing how to grow healthy and vibrant food while giving back to the earth.
When September arrived I brought my new insights and questions to my classes on soil science and plant ecology, and continued to explore how I might contribute to building a healthier food system. I graduated with a degree in earth systems, and went on to spend my twenties working in ecological landscaping, school garden and nutrition education, urban agriculture, community organizing, and strategic communications. Eventually, I found my way back to biodynamic farming and the Biodynamic Association, whose staff I joined in 2011.
Although it has been popular in Europe for decades under the brand "Demeter," biodynamic food has just recently begun to be widely available in the United States and Canada. Around the world, biodynamic farms and products are certified under the Demeter Biodynamic Certification standard, which was established in 1928. In North America, Demeter USA and Demeter Canada are responsible for biodynamic certification. In the United States, the Demeter Biodynamic® Farm and Processing Standard encompasses all the elements of the USDA National Organic Program with a number of additional requirements, such as an emphasis on generating fertility and animal feed from within the farm and minimizing off-farm inputs, plus each farm must set aside of at least 10% of the land for biodiversity and habitat. You can ask for biodynamic products at your local grocery store or farmers’ market, or search Demeter's online directory of certified biodynamic farms and processors.
Another way to support and participate in the biodynamic movement is to become a member of the Biodynamic Association, or a regional biodynamic group near you. At 1650 members and growing, the BDA is made up of farmers, gardeners, parents, educators, researchers, entrepreneurs, land stewards, chefs, innovators, and leaders of all kinds. Join us in fulfilling our mission to awaken and enliven co-creative relationships between humans and the planet, transforming the practice and culture of agriculture to renew the vitality of the earth, the integrity of our food, and the health and wholeness of our communities.
I believe in the incredible potential I see in biodynamic farming, gardening, and land stewardship to transform not just our food system, but the way we relate to the earth, the cosmos, and each other. By building healthy soil, biodynamic farmers and gardeners are literally bringing more carbon into the living realm, helping to restore balance to our climate. Biodynamic practices help crops to become more resilient to the ever more common weather extremes, as well as to pests and diseases. Biodynamic farms and gardens are nurturing biodiversity, wildlife habitat, local adaptation of vegetable varieties and animal breeds, and clean air and water, as well as giving people meaningful connections with the natural world. And biodynamic initiatives are innovating new social and economic structures to support ways of working together that are truly collaborative, regenerative, and healing — from community supported agriculture (CSA) to farm-based education and therapy. And beyond those broad benefits, biodynamic food is simply the most flavorful and nourishing food I've ever encountered!