As dawn breaks over the field outside the small German village, covering the rows of bright orange calendula in soft light, workers fan out and begin gently cutting the blossoms from the stems. These flowers are picked only at dawn, when the plant's life force, or essence, is thought to be strongest.
The biodynamic approach to growing plants for medicines and personal care products is more than an agricultural method, such as organic. It is a philosophy of right livelihood with the spiritual idea of the interconnectedness of humans, plants and the earth at its heart.
The man who invented biodynamic agriculture, Rudolph Steiner, is probably best known in this country as the founder of Waldorf schools. He was also the founder of the Anthroposophical Society, whose ideas on humankind's spiritual nature deeply influenced the growth and principles of biodynamic farming.
Companies rooted in Steiner's ideas began appearing in Germany in the 1920s, using their products as a means of highlighting the benefits of biodynamic agriculture. Among them were Weleda Inc., whose U.S. base is in Congers, N.Y., and Dr. Hauschka Skin Care Inc., with U.S. offices based in Hatfield, Mass.
"Our company has been manufacturing skin care products since the 1960s," says Susan West Kurz, president of Dr. Hauschka. "Before that, it manufactured anthroposophical homeopathic and naturopathic medicines." One reason that Dr. Hauschka's skin care products are of such high quality, she says, is that they're manufactured to the same standards as natural remedies, rather than as ordinary cosmetics.
The difference in the products begins long before manufacturing. It begins with soil preparation before the seeds—whether for chamomile, calendula or another of the botanicals used in the skin care products—are even in the ground.
"Biodynamics has an esoteric principle behind it," Kurz says. For example, homeopathic herbal preparations are used to balance the soil, both in the fields and the compost pile. The farm is considered a self-contained ecosystem, so even the animals that produce the manure are fed biodynamically grown grains.
"Of course it's labor intensive," says Kurz. "Because the company is based on anthroposophical guidelines, its creation comes out of a desire to serve the earth and humanity. It's not a question of cost but of needing to do things in a certain way. I think of it as bringing science and art, or science and spirit, back together."
"It's a huge commitment," says Christine Mack, director of communications and development for Weleda. For example, she says, rather than spraying a crop with a pesticide, "companion plants are grown next to them to keep away pests." Even the harvest is conducted according to certain spiritual principles. "We harvest according to the moon cycle or cosmic cycle," Mack says. "For example, we preserve more of the vital forces of the plant by harvesting it in the morning instead of the afternoon."
The biodynamic belief in following nature's rhythms can also require great patience in crafting the final product. "For instance," Mack says, "the iris flower that we use in our personal care products is only harvested after four years. We harvest the [iris] rhizome and dry it for five to 10 years before we make the distillate used in our products."
The majority of plants used by both companies are grown in gardens at their respective German headquarters—the Weleda garden in the town of Schwäbisch Gmünd, and the Dr. Hauschka herb garden in the town of Eckwälden. Both companies have contracted with growers elsewhere for certain products—Weleda's iris rhizomes come from Tuscany, while Hauschka's rose distillate is sourced from Turkey.
Training farmers to grow biodynamically can take years, even when the farms are already organic. "Organic [methods] might replace a synthetic pesticide with a natural compound," Kurz says. "Biodynamic asks why is there a pest in the first place; what is out of balance in the soil? We might use a biodynamic spray to bring the soil into balance rather than just treat the symptoms with a botanical substance."
One of the anthroposophical principles underlying biodynamics is the notion of similarity between the plant and the condition it is used for. An example is the use of iris in facial care products. "We use certain plants for certain reasons," says Mack. "If you look at the iris flower, it looks like skin. There are pores in the rhizome, there is liquid inside, there are delicate veins in the leaf. We look at the plant and see how it correlates to the human being."
Because of this unique approach, both Weleda and Dr. Hauschka emphasize training and education. "We don't just talk about the individual product but also about the threefold nature of the skin and its relationship to the plant world," Kurz says. "Anthroposophy looks at the human being as threefold—as a nerve-sense organism, a metabolic organism and a rhythmical organism. For example, the skin is a rhythmical organism that goes through a renewal process every 25 to 42 days, and our products help with this healthy balance."
Biodynamic agriculture's rigorous approach to caring for the soil and surrounding ecosystem may well appeal to consumers who want their dollars to support healthy practices. In a time when words such as natural and holistic have largely lost their meanings, Kurz says, "we need to give people background to understand what our criteria for natural is."
But consumers won't pay for premium products unless they're effective. "The [products'] effectiveness is related to the vitality of the substances in them," Kurz says. "It does make a difference how the plants are grown, the method of extraction, the composition of the [botanical] substances."
In American shoppers' minds, "natural" is often understood as "better for you," but not necessarily as "higher quality." "One of my goals this year is to help educate people so they can see the difference in quality," says Weleda's Mack.
Communicating not only the quality of the finished product but also the unique worldview by which the product was made may be a tall order, but makers of biodynamic personal care products seem confident that once consumers get it, they'll be customers for life.
For more on biodynamic farming, see "Biodynamic Agriculture Blends The Scientific And Spiritual."
Mitchell Clute is a poet, musician and freelance writer based in Louisville, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 3/p. 102, 106