Licensed in over 60 countries worldwide, biodynamic farming is a method of organic farming and gardening with a specific holistic and spiritual approach to growing food sustainably.
1. How it all started
The phenomenon we now identify as the organic movement arose in the early twentieth century as agriculture started to become more industrialised and synthetic fertiliser was introduced. Biodynamic farming was born from a series of agricultural lectures in 1924 given by Austrian philosopher and social reformer, Rudolf Steiner (1861 – 1925). He had been invited to a Silesian farm estate by a group of farmers concerned about the negative impact of nitrogen fertiliser on soil quality. Drawing on traditional farming practices and his own “spiritual science” which aimed to bring scientific rigour to spirituality, Steiner suggested a set of practices and principles for sustainable agriculture. He urged his followers to test his ideas and, thanks to this approach, biodynamic farming developed through collaborative research, observation and hands-on farming practice.
2. The philosophy behind it
Rudolf Steiner developed Anthroposophy (‘anthropo’ meaning human, and ‘sophia’ meaning wisdom), a philosophy based on the premise that all beings can develop their inner potential and access a spiritual world. This philosophy has inspired an education system (Waldorf and Steiner schools), a therapeutic approach for people with learning difficulties (for example, the Camphill Communities), anthroposophic medicine, eurythmy (an expressive art movement) and biodynamic farming.
3. Demeter – the first eco-label
Named after the Greek goddess of the harvest, the orange Demeter label is the international logo used for certified biodynamic products. Founded in 1928, Demeter is the world’s first ecological food and farming trademark. Used in over 60 countries, Demeter certification verifies that biodynamic products meet international standards in the production and processing of sustainable food. Regulated in the UK by the Biodynamic Agriculture Association (BDA), Demeter’s biodynamic standards build on EU organic standards.
4. Differences between organic and biodynamic
A UK farmer wishing to be certified for Demeter (biodynamic) accreditation must comply with EU organic regulations requiring a two-year conversion period. For biodynamic certification, Demeter standards require an additional year of conversion to include using eight mineral and plant-based preparations to activate soil life and plant growth on the land. Although there is a large body of observational evidence from farmers showing that biodynamic methods improve soil condition and plant health, more scientific research is needed. However, the long-term DOK field trials by FiBL (Forschungsinstitut für Biologischen Landbau) compared biodynamic (D for Demeter), organic (O) and conventional (K for ‘konventionell’) cropping systems suggests biodynamic practices are effective. FiBL stated: “In the biodynamic system, soil organic matter (humus) content remained stable for the first 21 years of the trial while it declined in all other systems”.
5. Biodynamic preparations for soil and plants
The highly-diluted biodynamic preparations are stirred for an hour to create a vortex and counter-vortex to oxygenate and disperse the active ingredients, then sprinkled or sprayed over soil or plants.
Two preparations, Cow Horn Manure (BD 500) and Horn Silica (BD 501) primarily prepare the fields while the remaining six ‘preps’ treat compost. Used to enhance soil biology, Horn Manure (BD 500) is made from the fresh manure of pasture-fed cows. Collected in the autumn, it is placed in a cow’s horn and buried for six months. When dug-up again, the cow pat has transformed from smelly lumps to a peaty brown-black crumble. Horn Silica preparation (BD 501) is used for plant health. Made from finely-ground quartz (a common stone or sand) and mixed to a paste, Horn Silica is buried in a cow’s horn in spring and dug-up in the autumn. Stored in a glass jar on a sunny window sill, it is diluted in miniscule quantities and sprayed as a fine mist on growing plants in the morning.
“Just as 1g of rich soil has a billion microorganisms, a biodynamic spray will have microscopic amounts of bacteria and fungi,” explains Kai Lange, diploma coordinator of the Biodynamic Agricultural College. “On one hand it is quantitative, and on other hand it is energetic – that is, the quality which goes beyond the physical body. But you do not need to believe in this for biodynamic methods to work,” he adds.
6. Have you ever wondered why cows have horns?
This question, posed by Steiner, led to practical evaluation of horns and animal health and the banning of dehorning under Demeter standards. According to a guide co-published by organic researchers FiBL, horns play a vital role in the animal’s health. There is a highly developed flow of blood to and from the horns, which appears to improve digestion and metabolism. Horns are also considered health indicators. “If a cow’s horn smells strongly, I know there is something wrong with her,” says biodynamic farmer, Christian Müller. A cow’s horns confer social status, and ensures a cow has more body space.
7. Cow dung and soil quality
Biodynamic farmers believe that cattle produce high-quality manure essential for soil health. “It is helpful to have cow dung in compost heaps, even in small amounts, to help fermentation and fertility,” says Gabriel Kaye, executive director of the Biodynamic Land Trust. The biodynamic preparation, Cow Pat Pit (or barrel preparation) can be added to the compost heap as a starter as well as being sprayed on the farmland and garden. It contains cow manure and the compost preparations and is recommended for those converting to biodynamic agriculture. Add a pinch to a bucket of water, stir for about 20 minutes, then spray, preferably in the autumn. Ask your local biodynamic farm for Cow Pat Pit or order the dried version called Mausdorf Starter from the BDA website.
8. Compost is king
Biodynamic farming aims to create healthy soil using compost and crop and grazing rotations. Uniquely, it treats the compost heap with medicinal plant-based preparations (BD 502-507) to encourage the microbial life needed for soil fertility (and which is suppressed by chemical fertiliser). “The purpose of the compost preparations is to bring about a harmonious decomposition process,” says Richard Thornton Smith, previous chair of Biodynamic Association Certification. “Biodynamic preparations enable the composted matter to stabilise and fix the nitrogen which is volatile. Their effect is to hold the decomposition process in a disciplined way to prevent nitrogen loss. If a compost heap gets too hot, it loses ammonia, a nitrogenous substance. That’s like money dropping out of your back pocket.”
9. Is biodynamic vegan?
While the diluted preparations are mineral, plant and manure-based, some use animal parts as ‘sheaths’ to hold and help activate the ingredients. For instance, BD 506 consists of dandelion flowers wrapped in a cow’s mesentery, the membrane covering the intestines. The parts come from healthy animals which have either been slaughtered for meat or old age. Steiner himself was a vegetarian, and biodynamic farming practice has the highest animal welfare at its heart.
10. Planting by the moon, stars and planets
Whilst traditional farming has long used lunar almanacs, the biodynamic calendar also includes constellations and planetary alignments. Inspired by Steiner, the biodynamic calendar, now in its 57th year, was developed by German farmer, Maria Thun (1922 – 2012) who experimented with planetary effects on planting, sowing and harvesting. Now produced by her son, Matthias Thun, the biodynamic calendar can be adapted for particular hemispheres. Although it is not mandatory for Demeter certification, the biodynamic calendar is used by farmers and gardeners.
One of the best ways to learn more about biodynamic growing is to join a local biodynamic group, visit local biodynamic farms or a Camphill Community. Rudolf Steiner’s agricultural lectures are a challenging read but provide the source material which informs biodynamic practice. For a more accessible introduction, choose The Biodynamic Year – Increasing yield, quality and flavour by Maria Thun.
Patrick Holden is Patron of the UK Biodynamic Association.
Biodynamic Land Trust secures UK land in trust for biodynamic farming.
Biodynamic Certification for organic and Demeter certification
Biodynamic Agricultural College for education and training in biodynamic methods.
Photograph: Derek Parker
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