Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Biodynamic Food

“What organic produce is to conventionally-grown food, biodynamically-farmed produce is to organics.”

Healthful Harvest
Biodynamic Community Farming
Janet Allen
Reprinted from Whole Life Times, Malibu, CA 90265

Just because someone can conceive and deliver a baby doesn’t automatically make that person a good parent, capable of nurturing a newborn into a healthy, balanced adult. In the same way, just because someone can bury a seed in the ground and water it occasionally doesn’t make that person a good farmer, capable of guiding a plant to fulfill its greatest potential for flavor and nutrition.

So then, what does make a good farmer?

My interest in biodynamic agriculture was spurred by a definitive opinion from a friend: “What organic produce is to conventionally-grown food, biodynamically-farmed produce is to organics.” As a local coordinator for the Organic Consumers Association, I’d thought I was more than well versed in the benefits of organic agriculture on both the health and environmental fronts, but this was a new perspective. Intrigued, I signed up for a bus tour to Tierra Miguel, an 87-acre organic, biodynamic farm in North San Diego County.

Operating under the genre of “Community Supported Agriculture” (CSA), Tierra Miguel supplies produce to almost 300 families who become shareholders in the farm’s program, paying a yearly membership fee and receiving weekly deliveries of nutritious fruits, vegetables and herbs. Usually delivered within 24 hours of harvesting to convenient neighborhood pick-up points, this is a truly great way of “eating out of the box.”

Wiep de Vries is the registered nurse, health educator, and founder/director of the Los Angeles Alliance for Childhood who organizes regular bus trips to Tierra Miguel from several Southern California locations.

She also just happens to be married to the farm’s associate, Milijan Krecu. A longtime supporter of biodynamic agriculture and an Anthroposophical student, as well as the farm’s produce distributor for the L.A. area, Wiep explained that the innovative CSA business model is a stabilizing factor for everyone concerned, providing growers with a steady income and giving their patrons the confidence of knowing exactly how their food was grown. All this at better-than-supermarket prices, minus the chore of shopping.

This concept of a sustainable farm being supported financially in advance ensures its survival by providing a consistent consumer base.

Biodynamic agriculture was the divinely inspired, somewhat accidental brainchild of Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), a philosopher, educator, and visionary thinker who was raised among peasants in the Austrian countryside. After receiving an education in the sciences in Vienna, he later conducted a special study of Goethe’s (author of The Metamorphosis of Plants) scientific writings, which he then edited and compiled into a new collected edition.

Beyond possessing a strong connection to nature, Steiner is described by many as a “seer,” one who developed an extended insight or comprehension of how plant life was connected with the environment in the broadest sense. “The interests of agriculture are bound up in all directions, with the widest spheres of life,” he wrote.

In June 1924, Steiner delivered a series of eight lectures known as the Agriculture Course to about 100 experienced farmers and growing enthusiasts who had joined the Anthroposophical Society. These historical talks formed the basis for biodynamic farming today. Afterwards, with the intention of implementing these lofty ideas into practical applications, the Versuchsring, or “Experimental Circle,” was established by a group of agriculturalists (with support from the Faculty of Science at the research institute Goetheanum in Switzerland) who decided to apply the techniques and evaluate their efficacy.

In his Course, Steiner presented a collection of his scientific and spiritual views on the development of agriculture and its relationship to nature. “It is impossible to understand plant life without taking into account that everything on Earth is actually only a reflection of what is taking place in the cosmos,” said Steiner.

He pointed towards a finely woven fabric of differentiated life energies which he called etheric forces. Just as the elements of earth, water, air, and warmth interpenetrate in the plants and soil, the corresponding life forces are also present with more or less vitality. “In effect, earthly matter contains etherically living substances.”

The biodynamic planting calendar goes by moon cycles and cosmic rhythms. Historical records and traditions show that humanity has been taking the moon into consideration for sowing and harvesting since ancient times. Steiner drew attention to the relation between the watery element in soil and plants, and the phases of the moon.

Indeed, a body of research has discovered these rhythms occurring chiefly in water-dwelling organisms and in weather events. Maria Thun, a well-known biodynamic researcher, has singled out a number of outstanding relationships, verifying that various moon cycles do indeed influence the growth or development of different parts of a plant. For example, she discovered that planting one to three days before a full moon was found to produce the best plant germination.

The effect of modern scientific investigation has been to break up living processes into multiple separate mechanisms, then manipulate each unit to the desired effect. Steiner confirmed that, prior to modern man’s fixation on the scientific approach, “everything people did was guided by instinct, and these instincts were often quite specific and reliable.” However, he also felt that people no longer understood the subtle influences at work in the universe, and that we needed “to make use of a deeper spiritual insight.”

Anthroposophy, the spiritual science which encompasses Steiner’s teachings, is proposed to “throw light on the world of phenomena,” enriching the individual’s thinking and observation and in the end leading to the attainment of higher perception. It suggests that exploration done merely with our physical senses as a means to arrive at a rational explanation will result in a science of dead nature.

According to Sherry Wildfeuer, editor of Stella Natura, an annual biodynamic agricultural calendar published by the Bio-Dynamic Farming and Gardening Association, Steiner’s lectures (still published today) “are based on a world view which sees humanity and the earth in a process of evolution. We are faced with choices which promote either death or life in the precious layer of soil, and the fate of the plants works back upon our health and even the liveliness of our thinking.” Wildfeuer reminds us that, while larger yields may boost profits in the short run, the long-term expenses of deteriorating human health and soil depletion are becoming increasingly evident.

Steiner’s solution was to approach the farm as an organism. He wrote: “A farm is true to its essential nature, in the best sense of the word, if it is conceived as a kind of individual entity in itself—a self-contained individuality. Whatever you need for agricultural production, you should try to possess it within the farm itself. Properly speaking, any manure or the like which you bring into the farm from outside should be regarded rather as a remedy for a sick farm.” Steiner’s balanced system of biological management reconciles the life conditions of a healthy, enduring, producing system with economic necessities, as well as with the skills and interests of the tending farmer.

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Back on the Magical Mystery Tour bus, hostess de Vries acts as emcee, passing around a microphone, summoning introductions, announcements, laughter and spontaneous sing-alongs from the health-minded crowd which runs the gamut from health professionals to television producers to activists to journalists such as I.

Bran muffins, dried fruit, and home-baked goodies are relayed from seat to seat along with business cards and “conscious conversation.”

A bubbly Dutch wonder with boundless energy, de Vries navigates me in the direction of Birte Rosenquist, a charming naturopathic doctor from Spain who, together with her husband, 15 years ago transformed a former wild bird game farm into La Granja Biologica, a two-acre organic, biodynamic farm in Malaga on the Costa del Sol. “Twice a week, locals visit the farm to purchase vegetables grown according to season—lettuce mostly in spring, tomatoes in the summer, with an accent on roots,” reports Birte proudly.

Her personal conviction about the legitimacy of biodynamic agriculture was conveyed through a story about red beets. Abiding by Steiner’s planting methods, Birte was sowing her beet seeds within the planting period for that crop, which ended that evening. Not able to complete the task in time, she decided to finish the following morning, after the suggested period was over. The comparison was remarkable and undeniable, she claims. “The red beets that I started less than half a day later from the same exact batch grew several inches shorter and were considerably smaller than those planted the previous day. You could see the difference clearly when the plants were placed side by side.”

In other parts of the world, including Europe and Australia, biodynamic agriculture is much more prevalent than here in the U.S. According to Birte, small farms such as theirs are common, and larger operations exist all over Europe. In England, the big supermarket chains all carry organic or biodynamic produce, and it’s not uncommon for growers to be financially backed by the government. In Norway, Sweden, and the Netherlands, Odin Supermarkets (named after the Norse God) regularly sell the popular “Demeter” produce. Retailers and distributors in Germany and Poland have deals with large biodynamic producers, while in Denmark and other smaller regions; a preponderance of privately owned vegetable shops makes these foods available. There are even entire stores dedicated exclusively to products sold under the synonymous terms “bio-farmed” or “biodyn,” including not only food, but also wearing apparel that is manufactured from biodynamically-grown wool or cotton.

Over the last few years, Birte has seen this form of agriculture picking up steam. “It is a growing trend in Spain and in Europe in general, in response to the overall denaturalization of the food supply, and in particular after the recent disaster within the conventional food sector due to Mad Cow Disease, Hoof & Mouth Disease, and other factors. The spirit of the time is to protect health and the environment, not just to focus on production and profits as is overwhelmingly done by American agri-business corporations.” This trend can also be seen in the European Union’s recent boycott of the majority of U.S. imports of meat, dairy, and grain, a dramatic rejection of our practices of genetic engineering, food irradiation, and our prolific use of antibiotics, hormones, steroids, and Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) in our livestock.

By the time Steiner died in 1925, biodynamic principles were already in practice in several European countries. A 1928 report indicates 66 farms and 148 Experimental Circle members were involved in the research. That same year, the cooperative Demeter (named after the Greek Goddess of Agriculture) was set up in Germany, along with the introduction of the Demeter certification board and accompanying brand name, which was displayed on biodynamic produce in association with this agricultural union as a way of assuring customers they were buying the real thing. This symbol was the pioneering label for the vast array of organic and green products sold today. In due course, a Demeter magazine was published to disseminate information, while farm visits were organized to establish meaningful dialogue between producers and consumers.

So there I was, three quarters of a century later, participating in a biodynamic “field trip.” After a walking tour through a vast, lush field of biodynamic crops by farm manager Robert Farmer (sic), we gathered for a mouth-watering picnic lunch artfully arranged on a weathered wooden table beneath a generous tree. A voluminous bowl of freshly picked baby greens served as our centerpiece, flanked by bean soup, hearty vegetable stew and whole grain breads. Filling our plates, we settled on benches to network, share stories, and sink into this peaceful oasis nestled against the San Luis Rey River in beautiful Pauma Valley.

Then, satiated and serene, we gathered on chairs and sofas underneath a nearby open-air barn structure to quench our intellectual craving, our cognitive curiosity about the little piece of heaven we were visiting.

Farmer Rob, who has a penchant for fascinating farming facts, dietary details, agricultural anecdotes, and herbal elocution, held his audience captive for the next hour as he spoke about Tierra Miguel. Uniquely set up as a non-profit educational institute with the admirable mission of teaching sustainable, organic and biodynamic agriculture, the farm offers a variety of community service programs.

Local schoolchildren are invited to play “Farmers for a Day,” affording them the chance to dig fingers into living soil and actually pick the vegetables that many have seen only on sterile supermarket shelves. “Volunteer Day” is the first Saturday of each month, a chance for visitors to get practical, hands-on experience with Steiner’s methods, as well as to reconnect with the earth. In addition, an intern program was initiated to share the science and application of biodynamic horticulture with agricultural engineers and farmers from other parts of the world. Presently, the Foundation is campaigning to raise $3 million to purchase the acreage it is currently leasing, in order to ensure the land’s stewardship and provide a legacy of organic food production for future generations.

Another challenge they are facing: San Diego County has the highest water prices in the world. “If we could irrigate our croplands with petroleum, our problems would be solved,” chided Rob as he made reference to the highly government-subsidized oil industry.

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To understand the prophetic necessity of Steiner’s methods is to examine the evolution of conventional agriculture in the mid-to-late 20th century. In fact, it was the decreasing quality of seed and fodder back in the 1920s that acted as the impetus for concerned farmers to seek Steiner’s advice in the first place.

It wasn’t until a little over half a century ago that the crisis in agriculture took a sharp nose-dive. Wildfeuer summarized the situation in her 2001 Stella Natura article, “Agriculture for Nutrition and Health,” in which she explained: “After World War I, the munitions factories began to produce nitrogen fertilizer in great quantities.

This revolutionized farming. Farmers and gardeners learn to observe the process of growth and recognize that ‘moment’ of ripeness for harvest when flavor, aroma, color and texture have reached their peak. The introduction of artificial fertilizers interferes with this delicate process of ripening by over stimulating growth.”

What’s more, the age-old practices of composting and manuring—so critical in maintaining soil fertility—were halted in favor of separating the animals from the crop land, which in turn created the tremendous ground water pollution problem that has continued to plague us. Cattle and livestock waste—in effect, huge amounts of raw sewage—were allowed to seep untreated into rivers and streams. Eventually, the ocean became the number one source of organic water contamination in the U.S. today.

In chemical farming, whereby soils have become biologically inactive and sterile, plants have no alternative but to receive their nutrients in an unnatural manner: by sucking up into their root systems synthetic chemicals that have been dissolved in water and applied to the land. As a result, normal root function, which involves drawing in nutrients from the soil for harmonious, balanced development, is bypassed and soon atrophies.

To Steiner, this was a tragic consequence: “The actual life is continued, especially from the roots of the plant, into the surrounding soil. For many plants, there is absolutely no hard and fast line between the life within the plant and the life of the surrounding soil in which it is living.” Hence, today’s force-fed crops have become overly large and watery at the cost of taste and nutritional quality, losing the vitality required by the human body to digest and utilize them efficiently. In this weakened state, plants require ever more toxic ‘protection’ from their environment, and the vicious cycle perpetuates itself.

Laments Wildfeuer, “We have effectively created a hydroponics system of agriculture in the fields, using the soil as a sponge and mechanical anchor for the roots. Earthworms, soil life, and humus have been sacrificed. The result has been death where life should be. ‘Human wisdom’ has extended into the realm of the Creator, where divine wisdom once reigned.”

Eschewing convention in favor of tradition, Steiner took an opposite approach, focusing a farmer’s efforts on enlivening the solid earth and enhancing its built-in immune system. As a natural consequence of this respectful process, Herbert H. Koepf, author of the booklet entitled What is Biodynamic Agriculture? noted: “Existing farms and gardens prove that where there is crop diversity and good soil management, the biocides used to combat weeds, diseases and pests lose the significance that they have in agriculture at large… the control of diseases and pests is done with non-poisonous remedies and preventative measures.”

In fact, even present-day demands for high yields and intensification can be achieved without relying on specialization and the use of objectionable support measures, such as chemical additives. Organic fertilization can be easily achieved through proper manure handling, composting and mulching, providing soil with a tremendous reserve of vital nutrients in the resulting stabilized humus. According to Koepf, “There spreads through the soil as well as through the compost heap a sensitive ‘inner life’ that tastes and digests; or we could say the farm manure embodies the effects of the animal’s digestion in itself. If such a fertile soil is achieved, then the influences of unfavorable weather conditions are less marked. Soil-born bacteria and fungal diseases diminish. Cultivation is easier. The soil gets a certain ‘life of its own.’”

In addition, biodynamic farmers apply nine specially cultivated preparations which, applied in very small (almost homeopathic) quantities, have dynamic effects. Six of the formulations, which are added to compost and spread on the crops, are derived from the blossoms of yarrow, chamomile, dandelion, valerian, stinging nettle, and oak bark. Three additional spray preparations are diluted into a water mixture in quantities of a few parts per million (equivalent to a walnut in 50 gallons of water).

These plant and animal substances, and in one case a mineral, are put through a process of fermentation and exposed at certain times of the year to environmental influences. Quite specific aids and regulators, they serve to stimulate soil life, enhance growth and ripening, and give statistically significant increases in yield. On the one hand, they support the effects of humus, while on the other; they increase the plant’s receptivity to substances and forces coming from the atmospheric and cosmic environment.

Through actual experience, the farmer is in a position to gradually grasp the dramatic, as well as subtle, effects of such applications.

Wildfeuer points out that “biodynamic agriculture is a kind of modern alchemy or natural technology within the realm of life forces. It requires its practitioners to become ever more conscious of the spiritual forces which indwell the delicate interrelations among the kingdoms of nature. Farmers and gardeners practicing this method become increasingly attuned to the qualities of Time as they manifest in the myriad cycles in nature and in the heavens.”

—Janet Allen has been a health, food safety, and environmental journalist, speaker, and activist for the last 18 years. She is a coordinator with the Organic Consumers Association and has her own non-profit organization, Wild Blue Planet.

• For the Tierra Miguel Foundation, the Farm and its programs, call Charlene Orszag at 760-742-1199, or e-mail csa@tierramiguel.org
• The Bio-Dynamic Farming and Gardening Association, Inc. is at 888.516.7797, www.biodynamics.com
• For Wiep de Vries, R.N.’s bus tours or the Los Angeles Alliance for Childhood, call 626-798-1592.

Reprinted fromNovember 2002 WholeLifeTimes®

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