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  • Stories and relationships in the Land at Week from Medieval times to the near future… 19th September 2014 Last Sunday was balmy and still, and perfect for a morning walk. ‘Green Lanes’ expert Val Belsey took a small group through Week and up through 36 acres of land ...
    Posted 19 Oct 2014, 04:59 by Marina - Mark O'Connell
  • Scaling up the Apricot Centre provides unique research opportunities An invitation to invest in securing 36 acres of farmland at Week in South Devon. In recent years “permaculture” has steadily gained in popularity and the reasons for people from ...
    Posted 15 Aug 2014, 23:45 by Marina - Mark O'Connell
  • Care farming, children and chickens The children and the chickens A story that Marina O'Connell still remembers very fondly from her time working as an organic horticulturalist at Dartington Hall is the one about ...
    Posted 12 Aug 2014, 12:51 by Marina - Mark O'Connell
  • Children on Farms - The Apricot Centre approach The Concept When I first started market gardening at Dartington Hall we kept chickens on the 8 acre site. Every day the local pre-school group would wend their way ...
    Posted 1 Aug 2014, 00:47 by Marina - Mark O'Connell
  • Biodynamic Growing Biodynamic agriculture was born 90 years ago when Rudolf Steiner gave a series of eight lectures to a group of farmers in 1924. These eight lectures were delivered in German ...
    Posted 1 Aug 2014, 00:47 by Marina - Mark O'Connell
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Stories and relationships in the Land at Week from Medieval times to the near future… 19th September 2014

posted 19 Oct 2014, 04:49 by Marina - Mark O'Connell   [ updated 19 Oct 2014, 04:59 ]

Last Sunday was balmy and still, and perfect for a morning walk. ‘Green Lanes’ expert Val Belsey took a small group through Week and up through 36 acres of land above the village. The event was to tell stories of people’s relationship with this land through time. The event was set up by Mark O’Connell of the Apricot Centre for Sustainable Living and the Gabriel Kaye of the Biodynamic Land Trust who are working to raise community shares to secure this land for sustainable farming and wellbeing projects for the future. As Mark and Gabriel introduced the vision of working respectfully with nature and the local community, Val quickly followed-on stating that ‘in Medieval times people were more focused on dominating nature’. Val has a particular ability of enabling you to travel back in time and imagine the slow and bustling movement of people and animals during these times. She explained as we walked through Week village how this was once a central route for driving cattle back and forth between the moors and the winter shealings (‘pastures’), down Barracks Hill through Week and up past Huxham’s Cross to higher ground.

The group spent some time dating the hedgerows. Counting the number of tree species on a 30 yards stretch one side of the lane; Ash, Hazel, Hawthorn, Beech, Oak, and Field Maple, each species representing 600 years, and so the hedge was about 600 years old taking it back to the medieval period. Val named the fields next to the village; ‘Screeches Orchard’, ‘Abbey’s Close’, and ‘Tom’s orchard’. Tom Putt was a good cider apple grown in this area. Val shared the medieval Devonshire ballad  'The Earl of Totnes'  in which valiant knight Sir Arthur Champernowne wagers his manor of Dartington against the Earl of Totnes' Haccombe Hall, and loses the manor and his life.

Val explained how many of the local farms had enclosure for protection around them during the 1300s. Next to the ‘Great Meadow’ you will find ‘Billany’ which is a corruption of ‘hedged enclosure’.  From the times of the enclosures to more recent times many of the hedgerows have been gradually removed. The movement of people and the forms of agriculture have changed and adapted to changing times. The Second World War saw a rapid development of new technologies in what was called the second agricultural revolution, allowing large scale food production, with the unfortunate consequence that soils have become damaged and depleted.

What future stories are set to happen in and around Week? There may be opportunities for local people to find renewed relationships to the land. Is locally produced high quality food of importance? Can local schools and children learn and experience improved wellbeing through a connection with the land at Week. Is the time right for more sustainable approaches to agriculture and the regeneration of the vitality of the soil and environment? Both the BDLT and the Apricot Centre are inviting you to join us in the first steps towards creating a new eco-friendly story…  


Establishing Huxham's Farm at Week, Dartington - Community Land Shares - The Apricot Centre is involved in a pioneering project with in partnership with The Biodynamic Land Trust (BDLT) with view to establishing a 36 acre Biodynamic farm on land at Week in Dartington Devon. With our now more than 25 years experience in working with Biodynamic, Organic, agroforestry and Permacultural methods of food growing, Week Farm would be a unique integration of these compatible approaches. We are fully confident in our ability working with the land and community to design and develop a vibrant farm, and are comfortable with communicating these concepts and ideas to a broad range of people. The project would also involve a continuation of our creative work with children and schools in participation with nature, and will be closely linked with our wellbeing work with children and families. http://www.biodynamiclandtrust.org.uk/content/why-secure-week-land-trust

Scaling up the Apricot Centre provides unique research opportunities

posted 12 Aug 2014, 13:19 by Marina - Mark O'Connell   [ updated 15 Aug 2014, 23:45 ]

An invitation to invest in securing 36 acres of farmland at Week in South Devon.

Satellite picture of the apricot centre
In recent years “permaculture” has steadily gained in popularity and the reasons for people from all walks of life to be drawn to it are manifold: climate change, food security, the economic situation, social unrest, our children's and grandchildren's conditions of living, the loss of biodiversity and soil fertility. However, underneath these different reasons lies one reoccurring pattern that is connected to all of the above, the anxiety of an uncertain future. Permaculture not only yields hope that a brighter future is still possible but it also provides a rich toolbox of practical solutions. 

Through many of these 'do it yourself' suggestions people start to feel (re-)empowered: yes, step by step they can contribute to the change they want to see. It is a great way of translating the principle 'small and slow solutions' into action. On a broad scale this movement can lead to more individual independence, self-reliance, autonomy, resilience and sustainability. However, as Mark Shepard, who runs a 106 acres perennial agricultural forest farm, recently highlighted in Scott Mann's The Permaculture Podcast, by implementing these small changes we shall not get stuck in our culture's habit to focus on details rather than patterns and systems. I think these small changes are one great way to start, to get as many people involved as possible but at the same time there need to be projects that explore permaculture's capability to be applied to larger-scale systems in order to tackle the above mentioned problems. 

At the moment only about 1/3 of our food is produced in the UK. The rest gets trucked, trained, flown or shipped in, sometimes from the other side of the

world by using huge amounts of fossil fuels. The food production in the UK is also depending on fossil fuels in the form of fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, for machinery, heating greenhouses, etc. Permaculture teacher Geoff Lawton: "The world gets more and more complicated all the time but the solution to fix the major problems of the world’s ecosystems remains reasonably simple. We have to go ahead on a major scale now. Everybody can do their backyard but we have to change the major eroded landscapes into the functional ecosystems they should be."

In order to feed the growing population while working organically with a low carbon footprint we need to look at larger systems and explore how they can be designed to work long-term. According to the Permaculture Association’s 2012 Permaculture Farm survey only 31% of all respondents manage 25 acres and more, among them are for example Westfield Farm (30 ac), Ragman’s Farm (60 ac) and Dyfed Permaculture Farm (20 ac). This is a very small percentage and we still lack experience of and the research into setting large scale farm systems up, what makes them work and what doesn’t. 

Of course, the idea of permaculture is that no system is exactly alike and regional differences will require unique approaches but hopefully, by looking at a wide range of different examples some key ingredients can be distilled in order to make it easier for the next farmer to start. Therefore, a lot more needs to be done in order to cover questions such as: How applicable are permaculture design principles for larger scale, commercial food growing? What challenges are large scale farmers facing in particular? What design skills are particularly necessary to convert conventionally farmed land into a sustainable, organic or biodynamic farm?

A collaboration of the Apricot Centre and the Biodynamic Land Trust

15 years ago Marina O'Connell, a horticulturalist, permaculture practitioner and teacher, together with her husband Mark transformed a bare piece of land into a flourishing and successful farm using permaculture design methods. Upon their arrival on the 4 acres near Manningtree in Essex they first planted a variety of 3,000 trees and shrubs to create a mini woodland, hedgerows and fruit and nut trees to establish an orchard. A satellite picture of the Apricot Centre and their neighbour's unchanged land shows the stark difference between what the site looked like in the past and what it looks like today. Biodiversity and wildlife have enormously increased and grass snakes, stag beetles and the very rare turtle dove have recently been spotted on site. Besides growing a variety of fruits and flowers commercially the centre runs a range of courses on permaculture, biodynamics, organic horticulture, transition skills, cooking and preserving. Mark is a trained process-oriented psychotherapist and child psychotherapist and as a care farm they offer therapy sessions on site and welcome families, schools, individuals with learning difficulties and disabilities to experience the benefits of spending time outdoors and connecting with nature. 

Through the Biodynamic Land Trust (BDLT) the Apricot Centre has been given the opportunity to expand their existing project to a larger-scale system. The BDLT was founded in 2011 with the aim to secure land into trust for healthy and sustainable farming and to revive a working and living countryside. They made a start with buying Brambletye Fields in Sussex and Rush Farm in Worcestershire to be stewarded by biodynamic growers. This time they are seeking to secure 36 acres near Week in Devon for the Apricot Centre. The aim is to develop a viable, community connected care farm, orchard and educational market garden that also offers a research, learning and demonstration platform. Uniquely, Marina O‘Connell will draw on a rich tool box of biodynamic, organic, permaculture and other agro-ecological methods to once again transform bare land into a place of abundance. 

The land lies between Martin Crawford’s forest garden, Dartington Hall, Schumacher College and Totnes from where the Transition Town movement originated. The Apricot Centre would thus be set within a very supporting community, which is already very experienced in radically working towards resilience and sustainability. This is not only a fantastic opportunity to scale up the sustainability of a whole region but this aggregation of projects would provide fertile grounds for further research into their combined effects on the wider community. 

A vision for the future

The challenges are great because up to now wheat and maize have been grown on the land using nitrates for many years. This means that the soil on this plot of land is not only tired but the living and life-supporting soil food web has been destroyed. To rebuild this complex network will take time and even more effort. However, by seeing the problem as the solution the project provides the opportunity to research and monitor the transition from conventionally farmed land to organic and biodynamic farming. How long does it take for the soil to recover? When do the first earthworms come back to inhabit the soil? How much humus can be built in 3, 5, 10 years? Looking at the project as a whole the following questions can be explored: How can viable, sustainable livelihoods be made from such a multifunctional farm? What is the balance between paid and volunteer work? These are just a few of the questions that need to be urgently answered if we want to find out how large-scale farms can be managed in sustainable and environmentally friendly ways. Here the permaculture design approach is a fantastic tool to guide the process of conversion. Matt Dunwell of Ragman’s Farm points out: “Home garden permaculture accommodates the principles of permaculture design more readily, broadscale permaculture in commercial situations tends to be less intricate. It is more compromised by the practicalities of the market but this does not mean to say that you cannot build in permaculture design on a big scale.”

 At the heart lie the three principles of earth care, people care and fair share which will find expression in restoring soil fertility, growing nutritious food, increasing biodiversity, enhancing the landscape, care farming, welcoming children, providing volunteering opportunities, training apprentices and serving the local community. However, the transformation of these 36 acres of bare, exploited land needs to happen in manageable steps. During the first year the fields would be sown in with green manure while detailed, protracted site surveys will be carried out. Two PDCs will be run to gather ideas for the design of the site, to receive feedback from the local community and to finish a detailed plan for the conversion process. With the start of the second year fruit trees and shrubs as well as agroforestry rows will be planted while the training centre will be built. The following spring the market garden will be established and the chickens shall arrive. By the third year the box scheme shall deliver the first produce.

Once fully established, after around 3 to 5 years, the project aims to support a variety of functions in four main areas: economically through creating a local, resilient food system supporting 100-150 families via a CSA model, to provide rural jobs, offering training and courses. Ecologically by having a low impact carbon footprint through investing in renewables such as biomass, rainwater harvesting and solar panels. Psychologically by improving health and wellbeing through therapy and by reconnecting people, especially children, with nature. Social benefits include offering courses and practical skills workshops for the local community, schools and groups. Access to the land will be given via public footpaths and bridleways. The local community is encouraged to participate all along the way and events such as Easter egg hunts, apple pressing and harvest festivals will be organised to celebrate together.

Andy Goldring, CEO of the Permaculture Association: "I was very excited when I found out that Marina was going to take the plunge and scale up her wonderful work. 36 acres of permaculture designed biodynamic farm led by Marina will be truly awesome. I'll be supporting it, I hope you can too. The Permaculture Association is very keen to see how we can get all the baseline data in place before the project starts so we can monitor progress and to get an excellent case study of what can be achieved with these systems." 

If you would like to become part in realising this vision please donate or buy shares. To secure the land at Week £326,000 need to be raised by the 22nd of September. All contributions, small and large, are very welcome! To find out more go to Share Offer Prospectus  or www.apricotcentre.co.uk.

Care farming, children and chickens

posted 12 Aug 2014, 12:51 by Marina - Mark O'Connell

The children and the chickens

A story that Marina O'Connell still remembers very fondly from her time working as an organic horticulturalist at Dartington Hall is the one about the children and the chickens. Every day the preschoolers would delight the group of chickens kept at the garden with their leftovers from lunch. After some months when the chickens saw the children snaking across the field, they knew they were in for a treat. They would start flapping and squawking and the children for their part also got excited, happy that the chickens recognised them and snickering about their eagerness to catch the best bits. Once on a rainy day the chickens were penned in the field tidying up after a crop only enclosed with a flimsy electric fence, which wasn't even turned on when the children arrived. Greeting each other, the chickens flapped towards them, the children leaned over the fence and the chickens were already out! Suddenly chickens and children were all over the place, their cackling and giggling accompanying this hilarious, wild and muddy medley. Observations like these made Marina realise how much children can benefit from a relationship not only with animals – and as it seems with chickens in particular – but also with plants. She later noticed how sowing seeds, digging up potatoes and picking strawberries sparks off delighted excitement in them, leading to increased motivation, a boost in self-confidence and the improvement of their coordination and dexterity. 

Care Farming at the Apricot Centre

Inspired by these early experiences Marina, together with her husband Mark, who's a Child Psychotherapist and Process Oriented Psychologist, developed unique programmes for children of all ages, inviting them to their 4 acres farm to introduce them to food growing, preparing and preserving fresh produce and sharing meals together. Over the years they have worked with children and teenagers from 20 different schools, some of which are from the most deprived areas in Essex and from specialist schools for autism. Marina and Mark's aim is to design these visits as flexible as possible in order to be able to respond to children's feedback, adapting the programme to their interests and needs at the time. However, the experience shall be as sensory as possible, seeing, touching, smelling, hearing and tasting what the site has to offer at any particular time of the year. Activities include: all aspects of gardening, building dens, creating wildlife habitats such as bug hotels, making art from natural materials found on site, teaching related science such as plant life-cycles, pollination and composting, play pretend selling produce at a market stall and pressing fresh apple juice. During the 14 years they already work with children on the farm they observed that children form new relationships with plants, animals and food, which in the long term can lead to a healthier diet, a broader palette of skills and a greater sense of well-being. Furthermore, these activities seem to have a therapeutic effect on children who have experienced trauma and it is Marina and Mark's aim to explore these effects further. They say: “Just as children “attach” to a parent, we believe that children “attach” to nature (or chickens) and given the opportunity, this connection forms the basis for a greater respect for place and nature, which in the long term could contribute towards them living a more sustainable lifestyle.”

The Evidence

When Marina and Mark started their work with children this was still new territory and little to no knowledge existed, at least in mainstream perception, as to the possible effects or benefits of working with children in nature. However, the last few years have seen an increased interest in scientific evaluations of what has now become known as “care farming” and “green exercise”. Interestingly it was the nearby University of Essex that pioneered in researching some of these concepts. In their 2008 report “Care farming in the UK: Evidence and Opportunities” the researchers found that 64% of participants experienced a notable improvement in self-esteem and the statistics showed that the experience not only significantly enhances mood, activity and energy levels but also reduces feelings of anger, confusion, depression, tension and fatigue. “Evidence from both Europe and the UK has demonstrated that care farming is a win-win situation for farmers and rural communities, allowing the farm to stay economically viable, the farmer to continue in agriculture and a chance to provide a health, social rehabilitation or education service for the wider society. Care farming represents an example of multifunctional agriculture and offers a way to recognise the variety of different public goods and services our farms provide rather than simply focusing on food production, thus deriving extra value from the land.”

In 2010 the RSPB's report “Every Child Outdoors” found that some of the key benefits of children’s contact with nature are: 1) Learning outdoors and first-hand experiences make subjects such as science more interesting and enhance pupils' understanding of them. 2) Being outdoors increases physical activity levels counteracting obesity and children with ADHD seem to greatly benefit from their contact with nature. 3) It boosts children's confidence, develops a more positive self-image and dealing with uncertainty helps to face the wider world and enhances social skills. In their 2013 follow-up study they looked at children's connection to nature in the UK. Based on previous research they chose four descriptions of children’s feelings towards nature, which they used as parameters to define what they mean by 'connecting to nature'. They are: enjoyment of nature, empathy for creatures, sense of oneness and a sense of responsibility. They conclude that: “The effects of disconnection may include lower achievement at school, poorer mental and physical health, or under-developed social skills.” On the other hand, “if children are connected with nature, they are more likely to be interested in their environment and in taking part in nature-based activities. In other words, by connecting children with nature, they will enjoy it and want to save it – now and in the future.”

These studies confirm what years ago Marina and Mark felt intuitively and the research backs up their and the children's positive experiences they had over the years. Yet, farming, experiencing nature and animals does not only have positive effects on the individual but being with animals in particular can have lasting effects on the society as a whole in regards to how we view and treat each other. An article in the New Scientist (Dec 2012) called 'The human cost of devaluing animals' details a study that found that 'how we treat animals directly affects how we treat each other' and that children who have positive views on animals, that is they see humans and animals more equal rather than humans superior to animals, are less likely to develop racial prejudices and are less likely to later engage in dehumanising practices such as discrimination and torture. Shouldn't this fascinating research encourage us to bring more children and chickens together, not only for the instantaneous fun but to enhance our social skills long-term?

A vision for the future

It is the Apricot Centre's vision to take this important work to a new level. They are currently based in Manningtree, Essex but have been offered to steward a 36 acres site in Totnes, Devon. Through the purchase of the land at Week they could expand their offer of care farming, set up an educational market garden and small holding to grow biodynamic produce. Through this new project they could invite more children, schools, families, individuals with learning difficulties and disabilities to the farm to experience a connection with nature: to feed chickens, to see cows jumping in the meadows, to hear the wind rustling through the trees, to have a ladybug crawl along your finger, to weave with willows, to get your hands muddy, to pick fresh fruit and veg and to see how they can be prepared into deliciously fresh meals that can be shared with others.

If you would like to become part in realising this vision please donate or buy shares. All contributions, small and large, are very welcome! The Week Farm co-op buyout offers people the opportunity to invest in a local, organic farming future, children’s wellbeing, health, food security, soil fertility, biodiversity and a living, working countryside. Just as Fordhall Farm, Market Drayton in Shropshire was saved in 2006 when 8000 people invested £800,000, so Week Farm can be secured into co-op trusteeship for the Apricot Centre if many people give or invest.

www.biodynamiclandtrust.org.uk

www.apricotcentre.co.uk


Children on Farms - The Apricot Centre approach

posted 2 Jul 2014, 15:02 by Mark O'Connell   [ updated 1 Aug 2014, 00:47 by Marina - Mark O'Connell ]

The Concept

When I first started market gardening at Dartington Hall we kept chickens on the 8 acre site. Every day the local pre-school group would wend their way after lunch to the garden for their walk, and brought their left over lunch to feed the chickens. After some months, the chickens saw the children snaking across the field and knew they were in for a treat, they would start flapping and squawking, the children also knew they were in for a treat and also got excited! One rainy afternoon, the chickens were penned in the field tidying up after a crop for us, enclosed with a flimsy electric fence – turned-off of course. As the children approached the chickens flapped, the children leaned on the fence and suddenly the chickens got out into the field, the children got in to the chicken pen and muddy mayhem happened. It was hilarious and one of the highlights of my 10 year career at Dartington Hall. These observations made me realise that children love chickens and chickens love children, and that this excitement around collecting eggs and feeding animals also carried through to digging up potatoes, picking a strawberry, sowing a seed and more.

Over the years we have worked with more than 20 schools introducing outdoor classrooms, inviting them to our small farm, for food growing and eating experience,  including youngsters from some of the most deprived areas of Essex.  We have observed that if children are given the opportunity to make connections to nature and healthy food on; a farm, a school garden or allotment then in the long term this will lead to them having; a healthier diet, a broader palette, a greater sense of wellbeing, and it forms the basis for respect for place and nature. Just as children "attach" to a parent, we believe that children "attach" to nature (or chickens) given the opportunity, which in the long term could contribute towards them living a more sustainable lifestyle and having a greater sense of wellbeing. We have no proof for this other than experience and observation of 14 years of work with children in these settings.

The Practice

We invite school groups, home education groups, pre-school groups, specialist schools for autism,  and other groups to the Apricot centre. The format is normally a tour of our small farm with age/ ability appropriate explanations of what they are seeing and looking at. We make this as sensory as possible with ‘tastings’, smelling, touching, looking and hearing what the site has to offer at any particular time of the year. We follow the children’s feedback as much as possible so the visit might change depending upon the interest of the children.

Once the tour is over we have an activity that is tailored to the group and what they want to learn. So far we have covered areas such as;

  • ·       Setting up a market stall and selling produce to each other
  • ·       Science - plant lifecycles, pollination, composting,
  • ·       Making apple juice, picking and pressing and drinking the fresh juice.
  • ·       English focus - drawing and labelling the apple pressing machine and descriptions of the process.
  • ·       Social history of the site and who came before us on the farm
  • ·       Art - using the garden as the creative source and resources for art projects
  • ·       Cookery - one of our most favourite activities, picking cooking and eating lunch.
  • ·       Ecotherapy - activities in nature - such as hugging a tree, or just sitting quietly for 10 minutes by a tree. 
  • ·       Making dens
  • ·       Wildlife habitats - making bug hotels, and exploring the wildlife on site
  • ·       Making clay ovens
  • ·       Exploring the concept of local food
  • ·       Making a labyrinth
  • ·       Using a compost toilet  
  • ·       Mud pie corner - playing with mud for those that have not so far in their lives !
  • ·       Making jam or elderflower cordial

Our aim is that the children have fun, and have experiences they might not have at school or at home, that can be used by the teachers or parents as an aid to build on learning in the future. We use mostly kinesetic and tactile learning methods on site.

We carry our risk and benefit analysis for all of the tasks, and we are fully insured. We use HLS funding to pay for the visits.

Predominantly we work on site at the Apricot centre but we have in the past worked in schools making outdoor classrooms and creative outdoor learning experiences. We are currently piloting local food mapping with Ardleigh primary school in collaboration with Transition Network and CPRE using some of these techniques, and mostly working in the school itself.

Mark O'Connell is a child psychotherapist and it is our observation that these activities have a therapeutic value for children who have experienced trauma. We are very slowly exploring how we can offer these activities to these groups of parents, carers and children.

Expanding this work

Currently we are based in Manningtree Essex on a 4 acre site where we grow organic fruit, and 500 square meters of glass house, we have a centre and a kitchen where we process the food to eat and preserve. We have recently been offered a larger site 36 acres for a demonstration Biodynamic farm in Totnes Devon where we could expand this experience to include outdoor vegetables, fruit, chickens and cows. The Biodynamic land trust would facilitate a community buy out of the farm and we are looking for funding to build a new training centre, and kitchens so that we can offer this experience to more children in the West country. 

Establishing a Biodynamic Farm at Week, Dartington - Community Land Shares - The Apricot Centre is involved in a pioneering project with in partnership with The Biodynamic Land Trust (BDLT) with view to establishing a 36 acre Biodynamic farm on land at Week in Dartington Devon. With our now more than 25 years experience in working with Biodynamic, Organic, agroforestry and Permacultural methods of food growing, Week Farm would be a unique integration of these compatible approaches. We are fully confident in our ability working with the land and community to design and develop a vibrant farm, and are comfortable with communicating these concepts and ideas to a broad range of people. The project would also involve a continuation of our creative work with children and schools in participation with nature, and will be closely linked with our wellbeing work with children and families. 

Biodynamic Growing

posted 2 Jul 2014, 14:55 by Mark O'Connell   [ updated 1 Aug 2014, 00:47 by Marina - Mark O'Connell ]


Biodynamic agriculture was born 90 years ago when Rudolf Steiner gave a series of eight lectures to a group of farmers in 1924. These eight lectures were delivered in German, and have been translated into English, and have developed into a worldwide system of farming and food production. This was 30 years before Lady Eve Balfour developed Organic farming systems and 50 years before Bill Mollision developed Permaculture. Steiner was asked to speak about farming because the farmers of the region had noticed that the fertility of their farms was in decline as was the quality of their produce, as they introduced modern farming practices.

To put this into context the 1920s saw massive depression in farming and food production, land was cheap, people were leaving the world of farming to move to the cities and urban life, emigration sparked cheaper food production in new colonies across the world  and cheap imports destroyed the market for home grown produce. At this time the Second Agricultural Revolution began, with the development of nitrogen based fertilisers, the development of intensive animal husbandry such as battery chickens, mechanisation and pesticides. The aim was to increase food production by using less people, lowering the cost and making it more profitable. Yields were increased dramatically, but now Organic yields lag behind conventional systems by only 20%. These were laudable aims, but  we know now the "cost" of these actions to biodiversity and health over the next 90 years. Currently there is a wholesale drop in Biodiversity in the UK in the main due to modern farming practice and the loss of wild land.  Over the next 30-50 years food production in the UK  will need to re-localise and reduce its carbon footprint, whilst producing more food for a rising population and supporting more biodiversity.  Depressing statistics, indeed, but there are solutions ! Some of which are described below.

Steiner drew on two sources of knowledge for the formation of Biodynamic practices. Firstly traditional farming practices that he would have been familiar  with from his upbringing in what is now Croatia but was then Austria. And indeed Biodynamic farming and growing is based on good organic practice.  Secondly he drew on a spiritual path to inform his practices - more of which in a future article.

There are two practices that distinguish Biodynamic from  from organic growing systems. One is the use of astronomy to govern the planting and harvesting of crops, and the other is the use of special preparations on the soil.

The use of astronomy, or the syndonic  calendar is an ancient way of working with the land and crops and is still used widely around the world today, and this information is found in almanacs still widely available in  France. In England William Cobbett wrote about to the local astronomer to be found in rural farming communities in the 1800's in his book "Rural Rides". This practice observes when the moon is in "front" of the constellations that make up the zodiac. We commonly read our "stars" and we know that the sun takes a year to pass "in front" of all 12 constellations or signs of the zodiac. The moon takes one month to rotate through the constellations.  Those of you who know a bit more about the signs of the zodiac will know that the 12 signs are divided in to 4 groups, water, air, fire and earth. So in the Syndonic system of growing, if the moon is in a water sign we work with leaf crops, if it is in a earth sign we work with roots, an air sign with seeds crops and a fire sign for fruit crops. Although this might seem implausible to the modern mind it has been in practice for 2000 years, maybe more, and in my experience farmers will only continue a practice if it has some effect. The moon also waxes and wanes, and sowing seed a few days before a full moon can improve germination as well.

It is the use of the preparations that it is the more mysterious and impenetrable and also unique  aspect of Biodynamic practices.The BD preparations can be found to be  rather strange, lets be honest ! The Horn manure is made from fresh cow manure stuffed in a cow horn buried in the ground for 6 months over winter. Then a small amount of it is stirred for an hour in a barrel of water then sprinkled on the ground in the winter months. The Horn silica is ground up quartz pressed into  a cows horn hung in the sunshine and then a small amount is  stirred for an hour in a barrel of water and sprayed on to the plants in the summer months. There are five more preparations used in compost heaps, and some others as well but we will leave those for another time.

Long term research at the Swiss Centre for Organic Farming Research (FiBL) has done long term replicable studies on conventional,  organic and biodynamic systems, and found that after 21 years the Biodynamic system differentiated significantly from the organic one. The soil micro-flora and fauna diversity increasing significantly. This was published in a  paper in Science Magazine.   This is a subtle change and the scientists at FIBL did not know how to explain this result. (Mader et al 2002 "Soil Fertiltiy and Biodiversity in Organic systems" Science magazine 10.1126)

As the science of soil ecology has developed my ( probably over simplified ) thoughts about these  preparations have also developed. I think it is important that I make it clear that these ideas are my own and may be wrong ! They are not coming from the Anthroposophical movement that has sprung up around the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner.

Biodynamic and Organic systems are  based on ecology and soil ecology in particular. The soil is the basis for these farming systems, the higher themicro flora and fauna population the more alive the soil is, and these tiny microbes carry out many tasks in the soil. They extract nutrients from the inorganic soil particles,( soil mineralisation), they break down organic matter, they die themselves leaving their nutrients behind for re- absorption by plants, they extract nitrogen from the air making it into nitrates available to  the plants. Elaine Ingram has carried out extensive studies on the complexity of what she is calling the "Soil Food Web" and this is explained  in great depth on her website at www.soilfoodweb.com if you would like to know more.

 As soon as any nitrate fertiliser, pesticide or herbicide is added to the soil the soil ecology is knocked back. Many of the micro flora and fauna are killed, so although the chemical fertiliser replaces the nitrates from the soil bacteria as soon as it is washed out by the rain ( polluting the water courses on its way) the soil becomes starved, so needing to add more fertiliser. This in turn makes the plant growth "soft" and more prone to aphid attack ... so creating a cycle of dependency on agrochemicals.

Once the soil is teaming with life, on a microbial level, the worm population will grow as they eat organic matter, once the worms have arrived birds arrive to eat them, and then predatory birds arrive, foxes arrive, in effect the site comes alive. As long  food and habitat is provided as well - hedges, ponds, compost heaps, piles of twigs, some long grass, some trees the biodiversity of a farm will grow. Organic and biodynamic farms support more wildlife - currently at our site in Essex we have Turtle doves, grass snakes, and Stag beetles.

 It makes sense to me that adding the horn manure preparation three times or more  per year for 20 years would indeed increase the soil microbial population, the Horn manure is rich with bacteria and fungi, and when stirred for an hour in warm water  adding air and warmth, the bacterial population will multiply. Then by sprinkling it on the soil you are  inoculating the soil with the bacteria and fungi. Likewise the horn silica preparation on the leaves will strengthen the cell walls, and add beneficial fungi and bacteria to the leaf surfaces that will compete with plant diseases.

Without being too soil nerdy and  to paraphrase from the FiBL report;

"the biodynamic soils showed the highest diversity of microbial functions ... this translates in agricultural practice to increased turnover of organic matter, faster mineralisation of plant nutrients and the build up of a stable soil humus"

(FiBL Dossier; Results from a 21 Year Old Field Trial;" Organic Farming Enhances Soil Fertility and Biodiversity"- free to download from the FiBL shop on www.FiBL.org);

I first visited a Biodynamic farm in the early 80's when I was at university studying conventional horticulture. I was very impressed with the farm and with the food - it was delicious ! I have visited a lot more since and they tend to be very well run farms, with incredible produce, full of life, and biodiversity. Biodynamic systems are  leading the field  in wine production, Fiona Beckett The Guardians wine critic says;

In general I've found the best natural wines, particularly biodynamic ones, have a greater purity and expression of fruit and are generally lower in alcohol than their conventional counterparts"

In 1989 I went on a study tour of Organic farms in the Netherlands, most of which were in fact Biodynamic. A much higher percentage of organic farms are Biodynamic on the continent than in the UK.    There we first came across the concept of a Box scheme, where radically at the time the customer paid their money but shared the  financial risk of the crop with the farmer and did not chose the vegetables but were given a selection available every week. On return it was Mark O'Connell, who worked at Moorfoot Organics with Lin Phelps at the time who introduced the very first box scheme in the UK, radical at the time but commonplace now. The Biodynamic Land Trust is the  first to pioneer Land  Trusts, to really explore the economics of farming in a way that is  long term, buying farms and holding them in trust for the new entrant farmers without capital or the luck of being born into a farming family.

The Biodynamic movement is at the vanguard of what could be called a third revolution in agriculture as we shift to a more regionalised, lower carbon, system of farming that supports biodiversity, and enables a livelihood to the farmer, whilst producing healthy delicious food. And this is because of the ethical underpinning of their philosophical approach to farming.

Marina O'Connell July 2014

Establishing a Biodynamic Farm at Week, Dartington - Community Land Shares - The Apricot Centre is involved in a pioneering project with in partnership with The Biodynamic Land Trust (BDLT) with view to establishing a 36 acre Biodynamic farm on land at Week in Dartington Devon. With our now more than 25 years experience in working with Biodynamic, Organic, agroforestry and Permacultural methods of food growing, Week Farm would be a unique integration of these compatible approaches. We are fully confident in our ability working with the land and community to design and develop a vibrant farm, and are comfortable with communicating these concepts and ideas to a broad range of people. The project would also involve a continuation of our creative work with children and schools in participation with nature, and will be closely linked with our wellbeing work with children and families. 

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