Cosmic Tilth: The Wisdom of Biodynamics

Feature Stories Spring 2013 Issue

Cosmic Tilth: The Wisdom of Biodynamics

By Jessica Luhning | Photos By Jim Klousia 3

The urge to hibernate is relentless in winter, and in our northern climate, this hibernation-fest can go on for months or more.

But as springtime peels back the snow and frozen earth, and if readied with a superhuman microscopic lens, we would witness a soil web of life; millions of organisms just getting ramped up. Soil’s humus-rich layers enter their own sort of powerhouse hibernation as the energies of spring’s rebirth, summer growth and fall return are all wrapped up beneath the surface; accumulating, concentrating, formulating and transmitting; silently and with steady resolve preparing for the coming season of growth.

Winter is soil’s healing season, when the polarities of animal, plant and mineral combine in a balancing rhythm of expansion and contraction, soaking up earth energy and cosmic forces and preparing to burst forth at the first hint of lengthening days—the very essence of biodynamic agriculture.

Beyond the mystery and skepticism, biodynamic agriculture is heralded as nature’s remedy for the plague of chemical destruction crippling our soil ecosystems.

When our soils are “farmed” out, pushed to their giving capacities, and when all presence of life has disappeared, soil is left to serve as merely an anchor for seed and crop. But when biodynamic methods are applied, health and vitality return to these living systems.

Today biodynamic farmers across the globe are building healthy farm ecosystems by repairing soil once damaged by chemical-dependent, monoculture cropping systems. They are bringing life back to the land as true stewards of the soil.

I was first introduced to biodynamics while studying sustainable agriculture in graduate school. After spending a semester touring conventional dairy farms and monoculture cropping systems— basically learning how not to farm in harmony with nature— I participated in a one-day biodynamic intensive at S&S Homestead Farm on Lopez Island, Washington. This one day of events transformed my understanding of agriculture and food production. Up until that point, I had never witnessed agriculture that functioned like a whole organism, where the plants, animals and people sustain each other, where the soil is regarded as the lifeforce sustaining all activities on the farm.

There on tiny Lopez Island, Henning Sehmsdorf and his partner, Elizabeth Simpson, farm in harmony with nature on 50 acres, all of which are managed biodynamically. Their farm is ecologically and economically secure. During my farm visit I was able to take part in the making of biodynamic preparations while witnessing firsthand the life and vitality that imbued their farm.

Admittedly, though, as the day wore on I felt my old friend Skepticism start to creep in. Biodynamic methods are shrouded in mystery with notions of cosmic energies and talk of physical and non-physical or “unseen” forces. My reductionist brain just couldn’t make peace with it all. And although I couldn’t make sense of what was happening on that farm, the place just felt good and it tasted good, which for me has always been a dependable litmus.

In the end, my ability to embrace biodynamics came down to one bite—one bite of the most delicious, ripe, juicy peach grown on a tree treated with biodynamic preparations. That one bite from that blessed tree, compared to a bite of the same peach variety grown in close proximity but without biodynamic preparations, was in no way the same peach. My skepticism melted with each juicy bite until it was no more. Sometimes it just comes down to something as simple as a peach.

BIODYNAMICS IN A NUTSHELL

In 1924, Austrian philosopher, scientist, social reformer and father of anthroposophy Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) introduced a series of eight lectures on agriculture. These lectures are known as the Agriculture Course Lectures and form the early foundation of biodynamic agriculture—the first intentional form of organic agriculture.

Steiner grew up among Austrian peasants, a child drawn to nature and inspired by the sciences. He witnessed firsthand the detrimental impacts of the Industrial Revolution on rural life, agriculture and health. He went on to study natural sciences at the Vienna Technical Institute and later earned a doctorate in philosophy at Germany’s University of Rostock. From 1912 to 1923, Steiner served as an advisor and lecturer for the Anthroposophical Society, a society based on a spiritual philosophy of freedom and social transformation. During this time, Steiner focused on developing centers for people with special needs, organic farming, medical clinics, and a nature, science and spiritualbased education philosophy known as Waldorf Education.

In the summer of 1923, working with a group of farmers and doctors in Arlesheim, Switzerland, Steiner filled twenty cow’s horns with manure and buried them in a field. The following spring, the group, with Steiner’s oversight, dug up the horns, removed the contents and prepared a water-based spray that was immediately applied to the field. This was the first application of a biodynamic preparation in agriculture(1).

One year later in June of 1924, Steiner gave a series of eight lectures at the request of a group of German farmers and doctors concerned with declining soil fertility, reduced seed vitality and the diminished nutrient content of food produced in those soils. These lectures covered the use of chemicals in agriculture, the impact of chemicals on soil health and food quality, elements needed for seed viability and the health of livestock and crops.

Steiner’s biodynamic methods provided recommendations for planting, cultivating and harvesting based on the cycles of the sun, moon, planets and stars. His lectures also covered eight biodynamic herb, animal and mineral preparations, which some liken to agricultural homeopathies, and which are the foundation of the applied practice of biodynamic agriculture. His teachings on agriculture formed a bridge between the physical and non-physical, or cosmic, forces in nature: bio meaning life and dynamics referring to rhythmic movement. To Steiner, biodynamic methods offered a renewal of nature, where the farm is considered a living organism and soil health is the primary means to healthy crops, livestock, humans and local environment.

Steiner believed that the practice of biodynamic agriculture will lead to healthy soil, high-protein crops and natural pest and disease control, all accomplished from within the farm system itself through the recycling of animal waste as compost, the inter-planting of crops and flowers to encourage pollinators, and the on-farm production of plant, animal and mineral-based fertilizers.

Preparation 506Following Steiner’s lectures, biodynamic agriculture started to gain a stronghold in Europe, with over 1,000 farms by 1931. Then during World War II, Nazi-occupied Germany banned the practice, and farmers still applying Steiner’s methods largely went underground, dissolving biodynamic farming communities and practicing in the solace of night.

Post-World War II, biodynamic agriculture was almost non-existent; yet slowly, over time, biodynamic methods again gained acceptance, especially among small, diversified organic farmers and consumers demanding food truth. The biodynamic wine industry has gained significant market strength in recent years, bringing the term “biodynamic” into the homes of consumers worldwide.

In the early 1990s, the Green Revolution’s GMO seed and chemical farming takeover of India resulted in the destruction of soil, failed crops and diminished food supplies, leading to farmer suicides in the tens of thousands. Turning to organic and biodynamic farming methods in the wake of this tragedy, India is now a leader in the biodynamic movement, returning health and vitality to its soil and farmers.

Similar to organic agriculture’s USDA certification process, biodynamic agriculture has a certification process all its own. Demeter International is a network of biodynamic certification organizations in 45 countries across the globe. Demeter owns trademarks on the terms “Biodynamic” and “Demeter,” which are held as certification marks in order to provide assurance to consumers that the product has been certified to a uniform standard. The U.S. biodynamic certifying agency is the nonprofit Demeter Association, Inc., which was formed in 1985.

The biodynamic preparations will be buried until spring.The first Demeter chapter was formed in 1927 to market biodynamic produce, and in 1928, the Demeter brand and Farm Standard publication were introduced to maintain the integrity of biodynamic methods. To achieve biodynamic certification, a farm must adhere to the guiding agronomic principles set forth in the Farm Standard for three years if conventionally farmed, or one year if organically farmed.

Is biodynamic agriculture still riddled with skepticism? Most definitely. The reductionist thinking of modern society and science produces a constant struggle with the non-physical and cosmic nature of biodynamic methods. What these preparations actually do is rather complex and some would argue unscientific. The very nature of practicing biodynamics requires us to question our understandings and assumptions of the natural world and ask the question, “Are science and biodynamics compatible?” While not an expert in the natural sciences or biodynamics, I cannot even begin to answer this question with any authority; but my gut response says, most definitely.

A recent study by Washington State University(2) investigated the effects of biodynamic preparations on the development and maturation of compost. The results indicated that when compared to non-treated compost, the biodynamically-treated compost had more microbial activity and a more neutral pH, resulting in greater enzymatic and biological activity. Additionally, the nitrate content in the treated compost was 65 percent greater, producing a more mature compost in the same amount of time.


1 : This has been referenced in two places: Ehrenfried Pfeiffer’s preface to Steiner’s Agriculture Course Lectures (Forest Row, U.K.: Rudolf Steiner Press, 2004, 5-16); and Jason Tippetts’ “The Science of Biodynamic Viticulture” (Gastronomica, Spring 2012, 91-99).

2 : Carpenter-Boggs, L., Reganold, J.P. and Kennedy, A.C. “Effects of Biodynamic Preparations on Compost Development.” Biological Agriculture and Horticulture. 2000, Vol. 17, pp. 313-328.

BIODYNAMICS IN OUR COMMUNITIES

On the full harvest moon, I spent an afternoon at the Zinniker Family Farm outside of Elkhorn, Wisconsin—the oldest biodynamic farm in the nation. Farmers, gardeners, doctors, educators and families gathered to bury a series of biodynamic herb and animal preparations in anticipation of winter.

Tap…tap…tap. Tap…tap…tap. Like drums, the rhythmic sound of hand-held horns being tapped against solid wood planks went on and on and on until the last of 100 hollowed cow’s horns was filled with fresh organic manure. The manure-filled horns were then collected and buried three feet down. This spring, a horn manure spray will be applied to fields to stimulate beneficial bacteria and micro-organisms, promoting seed germination and root growth. Yarrow, chamomile, oak bark and dandelion preparations were also buried for the winter, to be dug up in spring and used to augment the manure compost pile. A farm potluck where farmers and gardeners shared stories of the year’s challenging growing season fulfilled the fall biodynamic workday.

 

One week later and across the state, an active biodynamic group in southwestern Wisconsin gathered at Steve Adams and Marcia Halligan’s Chrysalis Farm in the rich fertile valley soil of the Kickapoo River’s west fork. A different farm and different people, but the same series of events unfolded with the same ease, heart and dedication toward upholding a biodynamic practitioner’s mission of stewarding the soil and, thus, stewarding the earth.

Southeast over several ridges and valleys, on the 106-acre farm of Mark and Jen Shepard, the teachings of Rudolf Steiner’s biodynamic agriculture are practiced in harmony with Bill Mollison’s permaculture, or “permanent agriculture.” Here Mark and Jen have revitalized former corn and soybean land into one of the most economically and ecologically thriving perennial-based farms in the country, where trees, meadows, herbs, shrubs, vines, fungus and animals are in balance as a whole-farm organism.

Biodynamic agriculture offers a solution to what ails our farmlands. We simply need to peel back the layers, bring the inherent wisdom to the surface, and act in spiritual, ethical and ecological balance.


Read on for resources to learn more about biodynamic agriculture and community groups and for descriptions of some of the biodynamic preparations mentioned in this article.

Wisconsin has an active and dedicated biodynamic farming community. Any of the following resources will further your understanding of biodynamic agriculture. 

The Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association (BDA)  

An excellent entry-point for biodynamics. The BDA was formed in 1938 and is based in East Troy, Wisconsin.

Regional Biodynamic Groups & Preparation Makers

Zinniker Farm, Inc., Elkhorn
Mark and Petra Zinniker 262-642-5923

Viroqua Biodynamic Group
Brian Wickert: 608-637-8890
Steve Adams: 608-637-2079

Additional Resources:

New Forest Farm and Forest Agriculture Enterprises, Viola
Mark Shepard 747-333-TREE
Look for Mark’s new book Restoration Agriculture: A New Vision for American Agriculture (Acres U.S.A., 2012).

Documentary Film: One Man, One Cow, One Planet (2007)

And of course, Rudolf Steiner’s Agriculture Course Lectures, available for free online at the Rudolf Steiner Archive.


BIODYNAMIC PREPARATIONS

Biodynamic high dilution sprays

Preparation 500: Horn Manure: A hollowed cow’s horn is filled with fresh cow manure and buried in the soil for the winter. The following spring the manure is removed from the horn and dynamically stirred with water for one hour and sprayed over fields. Horn manure improves overall soil health and fertility by stimulating soil’s micro-organisms and beneficial bacteria growth, and promoting root activity and seed germination. Recommended application is ¼ cup or 1 oz. horn manure in sufficient water per acre.

Preparation 501: Horn Silica: Ground silica or quartz is placed within a hollowed cow’s horn and buried in the soil for the summer. The horn is removed in the fall and stored in a dry location with direct sunlight exposure until the following spring. The silica is then removed from the horn and dynamically stirred with water for one hour and sprayed over crops. Horn silica stimulates photosynthesis and the formation of chlorophyll while enhancing the color, aroma and flavor of food crops. Recommended application is ½ tsp. or 1 gram in sufficient water per acre.

Biodynamic manure compost preparations

Preparation 502: Yarrow flowers are harvested at peak bloom, dried and sewn into a deer’s bladder. The bladder is hung for the summer with direct exposure to the sun. In fall the bladder is buried in the soil for the winter. The following spring, the yarrow is removed from the bladder and immediately inserted into the compost pile. Yarrow influences plant reproduction and growth by stimulating sulfur and potassium intake.

Preparation 503: Chamomile flowers are harvested at peak bloom, dried and stuffed into cow intestines, which are buried in the soil over the winter and then inserted into the compost pile the following spring. Chamomile influences plant reproduction and growth by stabilizing nitrogen within the compost while influencing the calcium and potassium content of the compost.

Preparation 504: Stinging nettle leaves are harvested in early summer and buried in the soil with a layer of peat moss until the following spring when removed and inserted into the compost pile. Stinging nettle is thought to “enliven” the soil by influencing sulfur, potassium, calcium and iron content.

Preparation 505: The bark of an oak tree is chopped up and stuffed into an animal skull in the fall. The skull is buried for the winter in a place where water or rainwater will wash over it. In spring, the oak bark is removed from the skull and inserted into the compost pile. Oak bark is thought to provide healing forces by increasing calcium intake and combatting harmful plant diseases.

Preparation 506: Dandelion flowers are harvested in peak bloom, pressed together and sewn up in a cow mesentery. The mesentery is buried for the winter and inserted into the compost pile in the spring. Dandelion influences silicic acid content and is thought to attract cosmic forces to the soil.

Preparation 507: Valerian flowers are harvested in peak bloom and pressed to make a high dilution juice. The dilution is dynamically stirred for ten minutes in one gallon of water. Half of the liquid prep is inserted into the compost pile while the remaining half is sprayed over the compost pile. Valerian stimulates the compost so phosphorus can be properly used by the soil.

Preparation 508: Horsetail (Equisetum arvense) is collected, dried and made into a fresh or fermented tea. The tea is sprayed over crops to prevent or lessen the effects of plant fungal issues. This biodynamic preparation is the easiest to prepare but less explored. According to Steiner, one teaspoon or one gram of the above compost preparations can treat 10 to 15 tons of compost material. It is advised that smaller compost piles receive the same amount of preparation.


Source for Biodynamic Preparations descriptions: Rudolf Steiner’s Agriculture Course Lectures, lectures 4, 5 and 6, and Jason Tippetts’ “The Science of Biodynamic Viticulture” (Gastronomica, Spring 2012, 91-99).

Jessica Luhning is inspired by people and places that care about good food. Her education and work in sustainable food systems and natural resource planning and geography gives her a natural lens for writing about food and farming. She has managed a farmland preservation program and is a founding member of the Valley Stewardship Network’s Food & Farm Initiative. Currently, she manages her own grant writing and project development consulting business, Earth Vision LLC, which focuses on renewable energy and sustainable agriculture projects. She lives in Viroqua with her husband, Macon, and son, Camas.

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