Biodynamic Farming

November 3, 2006

Among the ten delicious kinds of apples being sampled at last weekend’s Harvest Festival at the farmers’ market, two of the varieties that provoked the most questions were the tart, blushed Sierra Beauty and the small, sweet Wickson. People’s curiosity wasn’t just about the varieties’ unique flavors and textures, but their label, which read “Certified Organic and Biodynamic.” “What,” tasters asked, “is biodynamic?”

Biodynamic farming is based upon a series of lectures that Austrian scholar and philosopher Rudolph Steiner gave in 1924. His “Agricultural Course” was a response to farmers’ concerns about the declining health of their soil after the introduction of chemical fertilizers. Steiner believed that there were biological as well as spiritual inadequacies in this new, industrial approach to farming and proposed an alternative that later became known as the “biologically dynamic” or “biodynamic” method.

While “biodynamic” is sometimes misused interchangeably with the word “organic,” it is actually a specific and distinct approach to farming. In his lectures, Steiner detailed preparations that should be used to increase soil fertility, improve plant health, and combat pest problems; talked about approaching the farm as an organism; and emphasized how the rhythmic influences of the sun, moon, planets and stars affect plant growth and the entire farm system. One of nine core preparations involves fermenting manure in a cow horn that is buried in the soil for six months, mixing the fermented manure with water and using as a soil spray to stimulate root growth and humus formation. Though some of Steiner’s beliefs and preparations have earned biodynamics a reputation as being little “out there,” the approach has proven practical for some farms.

To Karen and Tim Bates of the Apple Farm (where the Sierra Beauties and Wicksons were grown), biodynamic farming means working towards a balanced whole. Karen and Tim became increasingly interested in biodynamic methods after a friend introduced them to the approach. Following the application of some biodynamic preparations to their compost, Karen says “There’s no question that the quality of the compost was far and above anything that we had experienced.” The farm became certified just last year by Demeter USA, a branch of the international organization that has been giving biodynamic certification since the late 1920s. Karen says that they enjoy the framework for farming that the Demeter’s very comprehensive rules and guidelines provide.

Requirements for biodynamic certification go beyond those of organic farming. Besides requiring the use of Steiner’s preparations, they emphasize making the farm a closed system, minimally reliant upon outside inputs for pest control and soil fertility. Some of the other requirements include:

adhering to a maximum imported/farm-produced input ratio

seeking open-pollinated varieties and biodynamically produced seed and stock
keeping livestock
setting at least 10% of the land aside as uncultivated habitat for pollinators, beneficial insects, and predatory birds
The rules also outline practices that must be utilized before more conventional methods are employed. Before importing pest controls from outside the farm, for example, growers must “utilize to their maximum potential” species diversity, predator habitat, balanced crop nutrition, and crop rotation, among other methods.

Though the Apple Farm is the only certified biodynamic farm that sells at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, many farms, like Flying Disc Ranch, Tierra Vegetables, and White Crane Springs Ranch embrace some principles of the approach. Whether inspired by Steiner’s recommendations, other ecological farming philosophies, or a farmer’s own intuitive sense of what their farm needs, taking a “biologically dynamic,” holistic approach to managing the farm landscape is a key component to achieving sustainability.