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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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