Rick Knoll knew that biodynamic agriculture worked from his first experience with the farming method.
One autumn, he planted a cow's horn packed with manure in the soil, the fermentation step in the system's instructions for making a root stimulant. But he'd planted what is known as biodynamic preparation 500 in the wrong spot in relation to his fig trees. In the spring, when he dug up the horn to continue making the preparation, roots from the nearby grove had wrapped and penetrated the horn, sucking it dry.
To the uninitiated, biodynamics can sound like voodoo or the esoteric rituals of a cult. But to Knoll, who earned a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from the University of California at Irvine, the system for optimizing soil fertility made perfect sense. The preparations were a way of ratcheting up the soil's potential, revving the microbes until "they were ready to go out and conquer the world," Knoll says.
Fertilizers made strictly from farm-derived inputs are just one part of biodynamics, a system developed in 1924 by Rudolph Steiner, an Austrian scientist and philosopher. The method parallels organic farming in many ways—especially with regard to some biological practices, such as cover crops and compost—but it is set apart by many as well, most notably its association with the spiritual and acknowledgement of cosmic forces.
Perhaps it's these spiritual and cosmic aspects that have kept biodynamics on the fringes of the natural foods world. Or maybe it's because the method isn't widely practiced or promoted. But added-value ecolabels, such as biodynamic, may get a boost from organic's acceptance in the mainstream. Plus, there is credible research to prove that Steiner's methods, though based on spiritual principles, help to produce some of the best soil of any agricultural system known.
Born in what is now Croatia in 1861, Steiner was a classically trained scientist and a renowned philosopher. By the early 1920s, he was often approached for his opinion on enigmatic topics. His innovative theories had already laid the foundations for the Waldorf school system and a series of lectures on anatomy still read by medical students.
His eight agriculture lectures, later published in a book called Spiritual Foundations for the Renewal of Agriculture, were in response to a group of farmers who came to him for advice. Before the chemical practices developed during the 20th century were considered the norm, some farmers were worried about the impact these fertilizers and pesticides would have. They had already begun to notice a decline in their livestock, soil and seed fertility.
The theories behind the chemical farming movement disregard the roles of plants, soil and animals, says Knoll, who farms 10 acres in Brentwood, Calif., 60 miles east of San Francisco. "One of the problems with modern farming is that it puts man at the center of the whole equation."
Steiner took a holistic approach to the subject—from his perspective, the entire farm was one organism. The biodynamic method he conceived is described as having two interwoven parts, says Harald Hoven, farmer and teacher at Steiner College in Fairbanks, Calif. Crop yield and quality are influenced by two groups of environmental factors: earthly and cosmic, or biological and dynamic.
"So there are two areas," Hoven says. "The horizontal consists of working in the community and with the farmland, and the vertical deals with how to keep the plant in touch with cosmic forces."
The basic ecological or horizontal principle of biodynamics is to view the farm as a self-contained entity. Biodynamic farmers emphasize integrating crops and livestock, recycling nutrients, maintaining soil, and heeding the health and well-being of crops and animals; even the farmer is part of the whole. "No inputs from outside would be needed in an ideal system," Hoven says. "All the fertility should be generated on the farm."
"The farm is 23 years old, and it has evolved into an organism," Knoll says of his farm. He has a role in the system, but doesn't see himself as the controller. "We consider ourselves just one of the species of the ecosystem."
Because the farm is alive, "dead" materials, such as chemical fertilizers, should never be used. This aspect of biodynamics is similar to organic agriculture. However, the specific preparations used as alternatives to synthetics distinguish the method from organic farming.
Steiner described the nine biodynamic preparations, or magic potions as Knoll calls them, to enhance the soil fertility. They consist of a combination of mineral, plant or animal manure extracts, which are fermented for a period of time, then diluted and stirred in a procedure called dynamization. The final product is applied in small amounts to compost, soil or directly to plants. The preparations are numbered 500 to 508, and each has a different purpose, ranging from root stimulant to growth regulator. There's even a preparation—made from the silica-rich horsetail plant—used as a spray to suppress fungal disease in plants.
The preparations have a microbiological basis, but the rituals involved in creating and applying them are part of the cosmic or dynamic aspects of biodynamics. This is where the system differs most dramatically from organic.
"One of the main differences is that biodynamics is basically a spiritual activity," says Anne Mendenhall, director of the Demeter Association, the sole certifier of biodynamic farming, with U.S. offices is in Aurora, N.Y. "It serves as a learning path for the farmer to delve more deeply into nature and the mysteries of growth."
In all of Steiner's work, he tried to bridge the gap between science and spirituality. Recognizing the celestial influences on plant growth is part of biodynamic awareness; subtle energy forces affect biological systems. Another manifestation of this belief is the biodynamic calendar. Lunar and astrological cycles are charted and can play a role in timing biodynamic practices, such as when to make the preparations, cultivate or plant.
Teachers and scholars of Steiner's work emphasize this practice. The planting calendar was part of his effort to raise awareness of cosmic forces, Hoven says. "You have to work together with the sun and the season. You cannot try to fool them."
But Mendenhall, who visits many farms every year, says that planting by the biodynamic calendar isn't always practical, nor is it part of the standards that Demeter certifies. "Farmers rarely, if ever, have that option," she says. "You have to hurry and get your crop in during the window of opportunity, and if you wait for any astrological aspects, you're apt to be left holding the bag of seed in your hand."
The Demeter Association was founded in Europe in the 1920s to foster and encourage biodynamics by certifying growers. The certification process is similar to that of organics because Demeter requires record keeping and annual inspections. But Mendenhall says the Demeter seal is tougher to obtain because there are so many more aspects to consider with biodynamics. A farmer starting from scratch faces the same three-year prohibition on chemical use as an organic farmer does, but then there's a two-year period during which farmers must show full use of biodynamic preparations and methods. One year into the two-year conversion, but only after the three-year chemical prohibition, the farm's produce can be labeled as "In-Conversion to Demeter, " Mendenhall says.
Some biodynamic farmers don't believe the certification process or codification of Steiner's teachings is true to the philosopher's intentions. The lectures were observations about the lack of intuitive work on farms, Knoll says. Steiner saw the farm as an individual, and as such each farm should be a running experiment, an evolution.
"I don't think he'd like the cult standing he has obtained," Knoll says. "He wasn't into rules. His observations were about being intuitive."
Knoll's farm isn't certified by the Demeter Association, but he has been certified organic for more than a decade. It produces year-round—crops ranging from white stone fruit and heirloom vegetables to culinary and medicinal herbs—and Knoll sells only at markets where a premium is placed on quality. He sees no added value in the biodynamic label, and instead is working on developing a program and certification system to promote locally grown produce.
But Chuck Beedy of the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association in San Francisco has a different opinion. He suggests that the biodynamic label will gain more economic viability now that the federal government is involved with organic. For some consumers, organic means more than just an agriculture system that doesn't harm the environment. Added attributes, such as locally grown or family-farmed, are often associated with the organic label.
Although on many organic farms that is the case, the National Organic Program dictates nothing of the kind. But with biodynamics, many of those attributes are required for certification. "People who sought out organic as a movement or a philosophy, not simply [an agricultural] method, might look to biodynamic as remaining truer to that ideal," Beedy says.
Beedy and the association have begun efforts to get the word out about biodynamics. But his challenge is that the words don't have as great an impact as the produce itself. "You need to get it into people's hands, so they can [see and taste] the difference."
For farmers looking to move into biodynamics, recent studies show that some of Steiner's theories have scientific validity. Lynn Carpenter-Boggs and John Reaganold, researchers at Washington State University in Spokane, Wash., found that biodynamic preparations improved soil quality when compared with conventional fields that weren't treated. They also found that biodynamically treated compost pits had higher temperatures, matured faster and had higher nitrate levels than control piles.
But if spiritual fulfillment and soil enhancement aren't enough motivation, the system's efficiency reaps financial rewards as well. Knoll says he spends much of his time deciding what not to do on his farm and lets his land decide. And apparently his land makes good decisions: Last year his crop averaged just less than $40,000 gross per acre. "That's way off the charts," Knoll says. "Even in a lot of organic circles."
For more on biodynamic agriculture, see "Bringing Biodynamic Ideals To Personal Care."
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 3/p. 84, 86
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 3/p. 84