What biodynamic farming and gardening
The Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Method have grown and developed, since 1922, on a foundation of advice and instruction given by the late Rudolf Steiner, a philosopher known for his world-view called Anthroposophy (wisdom of man).
The name “Biodynamic” refers to a ‘working with the energies which create and maintain life.’ This is what was meant in the name given to it by the first group of farmers inspired by Rudolf Steiner to put the new method to field use as well as practical tests. They decided to call it “Biodynamic.” The term derives from two Greek words “bios” (life) and ‘dynamis” (energy). The use of the word ‘method’ indicates that one is not dealing merely with the production of another fertilizer, organic though it is, but rather that certain principles are involved, which in their practical application secure a healthy soil and healthy plants – which in turn produce healthful food for man and healthy feed for animals.
What are the biodynamic principles?
1. To restore to the soil the organic matter which it needs so badly in order to hold its fertility in the form
of the very best humus.
2. To restore to the soil a balanced system of functions. This requires our looking at the soil not only as a mixture or aggregation of chemicals, mineral or organic, but as a living system. We speak therefore of a living soil, including here both its microlife and the conditions under which this microlife can be fully
established, maintained and increased.
3. While the Biodynamic Method does not deny the role, and importance, of the mineral constituents of the soil, especially the so-called fertilizer elements and compounds that include nitrogen, phosphate, potash, lime, magnesium, and the trace minerals, it sponsors the most skillful use of organic matter as the basic factor for soil life. (It is of interest that the importance of the finer elements, the trace minerals, for health and normal growth was actually pointed out by Rudolf Steiner as early as in 1924.)
However, the Biodynamic Method is more than just another organic method. It stands for a truly scientific way of producing humus. Not, merely the application of nothing but organic matter in a more or less decomposed form is intended, but the use of the completely-digested form of crude organic matter known as stabilized, stable or lasting humus. In this aim the method differs from what is commonly called ‘organic farming’. In the latter, any collection of any organic matter is apt to be called compost. In the B.D. Method the organic material to be used as a basis for compost is transformed either by means of the Biodynamic Compost Preparations, or by means of the B.D. Compost Starter (Pfeiffer’s formula).
It should not be forgotten that at the time of evolving the method, during the years 1922-24, and afterwards during the years of experimental and empirical trials (from 1924 to about 1930), agriculture was dominated by the agricultural chemical concept based on J.v.Liebig’s research with regard to the major mineral fertilizer elements. A one-sided situation had developed. Nitrogen, phosphate, potash, lime were considered the only important fertilizers and the trace minerals were ignored. Barnyard manure was looked down upon as an unimportant factor, frequently as a nuisance which had to be disposed of one way or another.
A fundamental change in the estimation of the value of manure and compost has taken place since 1930, increasingly since 1940, and of the trace elements since 1950. This has gone so far that manure and compost have now been restored to their proper, all-important position in modern agriculture,
even in the orthodox school.
4. Since in the ‘Biodynamic Method’ we speak not only of fertilizer but of the skillful application of all the factors contributing to soil life and health, it is necessary to understand that life is more than just chemicals (inorganic and organic). Life and health depend on the interaction of matter and energies. A plant grows under the influence of light and warmth, that is energies, and transforms these energies into chemically active energies by way of photosynthesis. A plant consists not only of mineral elements, (i.e. inorganic matter – these elements makeup only 2-5% [in a few wild plants and weeds up to 10%] of its substance), but also of organic matter such as protein, carbohydrates, cellulose, starch, all of which derive from the air (carbon dioxide, nitrogen, oxygen) and make up the major part of the plant mass aside from water, namely 15-20%. The greater part of the plant mass, some 70% or more, consists of water.
5. The interaction of the substantial components and energy factors forms a balanced system. Only when a soil is balanced can a healthy (i.e. well balanced) plant grow and transmit both substance and energy as food. We live not only from substance (matter), we also need energies (life-giving and life-maintaining). It is the aim of the ‘Biodynamic Method’ or ‘Concept’, to establish a system that brings into balance all factors which maintain life.
6. Were we to concentrate only on nitrogen, phosphate and potash, we would neglect the important role of biocatalysts (i.e. the trace minerals), of enzymes, growth hormones and other transmitters of energy reactions. As noted previously, already in 1924 Rudolf Steiner had called our attention to the important role of the finer elements, (now called trace elements), in connection with health and proper physiological functioning. Today this is common knowledge. Enzymes and growth substances are likewise important. In the Biodynamic way of treating manure and composts the knowledge of enzymatic, hormone and other factors is included.
7. In order to restore and maintain the balance in a soil a proper crop rotation is necessary. Soil-exhausting crops with heavy demands on fertilizing elements should alternate with neutral or even fertility-restoring crops – on the farm as well as in the garden, and even in the forest.
A soil, which has been put to the maximum effort, producing corn, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and cabbage, for instance, (all of them greedy crops) should have a rest period with restoring crops, such as all the legumes. Temporary cover with grass and clover pastures helps to improve the humus and nitrogen situation. Exhausting crops and arable cultivation consume humus. The soil must be given time to build it up again.
The Biodynamic Method therefore has emphasized the importance of crop rotation from its very beginnings. Cover crops and green manuring also play an important role in it.
8. The entire environment of a farm or garden is of importance too. It is obvious that polluted air loaded with the breakdown products of industrial and city combustion, gasoline and oil fumes, sulfuric acid, can be detrimental to plant growth. It is less obvious that many other environmental factors also affect the functioning of a biological system. Deforested hillsides are exposed to erosion. The water balance may be destroyed in such cases. The ground water level has dropped. The results of man-made deserts are only too well=-known. To restore the most beneficial environmental conditions (forests, wind protection, water regulation), has been an important aim of the Biodynamic Method from its earliest years. Had the method been accepted before 1930, it can be truly said that no soil conservation agencies would have been needed later on, in 1935 and the following years.
9. The soil is not only a chemical, mineral-organic system, but it also has a physical structure. The maintenance of a crumbly, friable, deep, well-aerated structure is an absolute must if one wants to have a fertile soil. All factors which lead to structural disintegration of the soil (i.e. plowing of a too wet soil, and especially the deep plowing of wet clay soils) and what causes the formation of separating layers (hard pan), are things that have to be known. The Biodynamic Method is very specific about the proper cultivation of the soil in order to avoid structural damage. Many a farmer, even among the organic farmers, has defeated his aim by ruining the soil structure through unskillful cultivation.
The practical application of the biodynamic method. (Is it something for Only a Privileged Few, or can
it be used by Everyone?)
It has been said by persons outside B.D. circles that the Biodynamic Method represents the cream of organic farming principles. This does not, however, mean that the method is restricted to a small group. It can be applied easily by anyone who cares to improve his handling of
manure, composts, soil cultivation and crop rotation.
The steps to be taken:
A. Build, and properly treat, manure and compost piles. Do not waste any organic offal. Do not burn leaves and trash, but compost them. Collect everything. Do not apply crude, under-composted organic matter to the fields or garden but make use of the beneficial effects of microlife by first composting manure and all other organic material. Apply – immediately prior to planting or seeding – only predigested material, which will not tie down nitrogen, phosphate and other fertilizer elements, but will increase their availability. The use of Biodynamic Compost Preparations or B.D. Starter will greatly help in reaching the goal: good
B. Introduce soil-protecting crop rotations and cover
C. Introduce green manuring, but take care that the green manure crop is properly plowed or disked under
without tying down the soil life and nitrogen.
D. In a garden, or wherever feasible, introduce mulching.
E. Improve your soil cultivation practices.
F. Establish proper environmental control, wind protection, good drainage, control of the watershed.
Is it a costly procedure to introduce the biodynamic method?
It is true that the building of compost piles requires some extra labour. However this can be timed so that it does not interfere with the rush work of the farm. It one considers that by proper handling of manure and compost there will be no loss of soluble nutrients, the labour is well spent. If one considers further that the application rate of treated, well-rotted humus-compost is less than that of fresh manure or crude compost, it is obvious that time otherwise spent in spreading and traveling over the fields is saved at the moment when time counts most.
In the long run the extra labour and expense for composting is well spent and will be returned in savings of nutrients and of time at other phases of the farm and garden work, including even the need of less cultivation since one gets a more friable humus soil.
The fertilizer value of manure and compost can be considerably increased by the Biodynamic Method. Humus-building techniques also will help the fertilizer effects to last longer.
Is it possible to make a farm entirely self-sufficient with regard to fertilizer elements?
(Or does one still need to buy supplements from the outside?)
These questions can be answered only in each specific instance. If there are deficiencies, they must be taken care of. However, the application of the Biodynamic Method enables the farmer to reduce deficiencies to the minimum. Humus deficiency is the most important one, because without humus one is not able to hold and build up a soil. This needs to be taken care of first of all. A soil below 1.5% organic matter lives only on a maintenance level. A soil above 2% organic matter begins to build up reserves. Only when the level of continuing existence is reached can one tell how much else is needed.
Many times we find hidden reserves, which need only to be made available. In mineralized soils there are no more reserves.
The answer to the above question depends also on the crop rotation. Corn-wheat over a long period of years can only exhaust a soil, no matter how much organic matter is applied. Soil conserving or protecting years, between exhausting years, are an absolute necessity.
On many biodynamic farms the problem of self-sufficiency has been solved in practice.
Does the application of the biodynamic method require special studies or efforts?
If somebody is a good practical farmer or gardener he might just as well become a biodynamic farmer or gardener, with the slight added effort indicated above. If he is not up to standard he will have to improve his farming methods. This he must do anyhow if he expects to continue with any degree of success, and he should not think that by using the Biodynamic Method, or for that matter any organic method, he can escape the necessity of improving his general practices.
Expert advice is available through the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association, Inc., to show any farmer or gardener how to start improving his practices from the biodynamic point of view. The first step is always to make a survey and to take inventory of your particular situation in order to plan intelligently.
Why, then, is biodynamic farming still so little known and practiced?
Biodynamic Methods were well-known to those who fought them – in the Liebig fertilizer camp. To them they must have appeared a real danger. This was 20 to 30 years ago. Now the understanding for biological balance and organic principles is common knowledge and generally accepted.
There is, however, a reason why the Biodynamic Method did not spread. It is based on human nature and is not an agricultural problem. It is about the most difficult thing imaginable for human beings to change old habits, old customs, and (in the problem we are concerned with here) to begin to think in terms of biological balance, soil life and health, rather than of NPK only.
The Biodynamic Method has no single recipe to offer, but requires some coordination of farm planning on a long-range program.
Then there is the fact that many farmers think only in terms of quantity yield not quality. Only such methods are put to use which promise bigger yields.
The yield depends on many factors beyond the control of applied Biodynamics: water supply, too much rain or drought, seed quality, and above all the farmer himself. What we can do is show that soil improvements have been obtained, that biodynamic farmers have very little trouble with livestock and plant diseases, are not bothered with lodging in wet years, produce crops with maximum protein and vitamin contents. This we know: we get the top quality which can be produced. Also, the quantity yield of a good biodynamic farmer had always stood above the average level.
The introduction of the Biodynamic Method therefore goes hand in hand with a striving for better quality. When there is interest in a better quality of food and feedstuffs, the Biodynamic Method is in its proper place. Health conscious people everywhere have always been asking for, and been appreciative of, biodynamic products.
Does biodynamic farming avoid or make unnecessary the use of poisoning sprays against insect pests?
We do not claim that the Biodynamic Method completely counteracts insect pests. This would create a false impression. The important question is not: “Are insect pests present?” but rather, “Do they spread out and do they produce measurable damage?” A few insects may be present, this is always possible. They may be wind-borne, or move in from infected areas. That is bound to happen occasionally. But we have found, in our 60 years of Biodynamic Farming experience, that they definitely did not spread or do great economic damage in most regions.
The question of insect pests is usually one of biological balance and control. Poisoning sprays have not solved, nor can they solve, the problem. If the biological balance is restored the situation will be entirely different. §§