What is biodynamic farming?

February 2006

Hi folks! This month I have to admit, I am asking myself a question. Somehow, while making dinner with my boyfriend a few weeks ago, the topic of Biodynamic agriculture came up. I was halfway launched into my explanation of what it is and why this kind of farming is really interesting, when I realized that I didn't really know what I was talking about! I knew, at the time, that it had everything to do with holistic farming where animal husbandry was integrated into crop and vegetable farming but beyond that I was at a loss. So off I went in search of some more interesting facts to bring back to my kitchen and what a treasure trove I found!

As I am sitting down to write this morning, I am still overwhelmed by the amount and depth of information that I found on Biodynamic farming. I will do my very best to speak simply, in an organized way, about this subject that is neither linear nor easily fit into short paragraphs!

Here goes:

The History

The principals of Biodynamic farming were introduced by Austrian scientist and philosopher Rudolph Steiner in 1924 through a series of eight lectures in response to a group of farmers' observations on the negative impacts of chemical fertilizers on soil and livestock health at the turn of the century.

Steiner's work is often referred to as anthroposophy - or a new approach to science that integrates keen observation of natural occurrences, reflection thereof and knowledge of the spirit. In Biodynamics, this philosophy translates agriculture into a science of life forces and a kind of stewardship that addresses the farm as an entity with biological, spiritual and social needs and impacts. Let's try and break that down a little, shall we?

The Biology

According to Steiner, agriculture should be based on the ideal of a mixed farm where the animals are fed from crops grown on the farm and in turn those crops, along with food crops, are fertilized with composted manure from the same animals. A Biodynamic farm, at its base, imitates the self-sufficiency of nature. Animals are treated with great respect for their role in strengthening food production and in turn benefit by being able to eat grain and grass that is of the highest quality.

The technical applications of the philosophy are fairly complex. Similar to homeopathic medicines, Biodynamic agriculture calls for nine highly diluted preparations based on plant extracts, composted manure or mineral powders, which are numbered BD500-508. Three of these applications are applied to the roots or foliage while the remaining six are used in compost and soil development. These solutions promote growth or foster resistance to weather or disease. For example, the first of these standard preparations, BD500, which is made from cow manure that is fermented in a cow's horn for exactly six months, when used as a soil application will stimulate root growth while BD508, which is based on the silica-rich horsetail plant, suppresses fungal diseases. Green composting (the integration of plant clippings, roots or other green matter into the soil), crop rotations and cover crops also enrich soils in Biodynamic agriculture. The ultimate goal of this intense stewardship is to produce abundant and completely natural food in a way that has a positive impact on the land and soil.

For some more concrete details on Biodynamic production, check out the Demeter Association's Biodynamic certification criteria.

The Spirituality

By spirituality, and I know this can be a loaded word, I mean the interaction of the farm as a unique entity with the rhythms and nature of the universe. Some of this is a little hard to grasp but if you suspend your disbelief for a moment I promise that there is some really interesting material here.

Practically speaking, Biodynamic farmers plow, plant and harvest on a schedule that reflects the natural rhythms of the earth's rotation as well as the regular patterns of the sun and moon. Farmers refer to a guide called the Stella Natura to help identify the optimum time for each step in the life cycle of each crop. Through this careful stewardship, a farmer can maximize the vitality of the land and in doing so give respect to the spirit, or intrinsic uniqueness of the farm itself.

The Social Impact

Steiner considered the farmer or farm family one part of the farm entity. Accordingly, the care of the farmer as steward is just as important to the success and health of the farm as is proper planting techniques or animal husbandry. According to Biodynamic theory, if a farmer is not properly supported by his community as a whole, if he or she is tired, sick or over worked, then he or she cannot produce the best quality food possible for the consumer. Following this logic, it is in the best interest of the community to support each farmer that they buy from as a matter of personal investment.

Since this notion of mutual benefit, between the farmer and the consumer, is so fundamental to this philosophy, Community Supported Agriculture programs, where people can buy a share of a farm's total harvest in advance of the growing season, are very popular among Biodynamic farmers. In this way, consumers become a part of the farm as a dynamic entity. Their financial support helps to get the seeds in the ground and ensure that the farmer has a stable income. Community workdays add an extra labor force to the farm staff and, most importantly, CSA members have access to fresh, healthy food for the duration of the growing season.

Alright, at this point, I am surely over my word limit. This is just an introduction to a very complex topic but I hope that it has piqued your interest. I highly recommend snooping around Rudolph Steiner and the modern manifestations of his work - like Angelic Organics (the country's largest CSA farm) and the CSA Learning Center which is a project that Farm Aid has been proud to fund for the last two years. Also, I found a ton of useful information at the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Assocation's web site. Lastly, I think it is also worthwhile to look into Steiner in general (because I find him completely fascinating) at The Rudolf Steiner College's web site.