Finely ground quartz mixed with water and packed into a cow’s horn, oak bark stuffed into the skull of a farm animal and buried underground… Believe it or not, these are methods used in a specific type of farming. With more and more farmers choosing to use their land this way, what is biodynamic farming? And could it actually help to work against the dangers of modern industrial farming?August 31, 2021 2:11 pm August 23, 2021 11:19 am
What is biodynamic farming?
Biodynamic farming is a method of farming which tries to create the best conditions for healthy crops and animals using natural methods. In some ways, it is quite similar to organic farming. However, it differs from it in that biodynamic farming uses spiritual or astrological methods alongside organic ones.
According to the UK’s Biodynamic Association, “biodynamics has metaphysical and spiritual roots that organics does not. Biodynamics thus embraces the mystery of all life processes, including the subtle and energetic realities that are not necessarily easy to measure or justify using current scientific methods.”(1)
For example, a biodynamic farm may use astrological calendars to work out when to plant and harvest their crops. They may also use special preparations intended to increase the fertility of the farm, such as those described above.
Where does biodynamic farming come from?
The father of biodynamics is a man named Rudolf Steiner.
An extraordinarily interesting person in his own right, Steiner was a philosopher. He engaged with many complex questions about human spirituality.
He became famous later in his career for the concept of ‘anthroposophy’. Steiner used this term to describe how humans could communicate with the spiritual world via their intellect.(2)
Steiner became interested in agriculture after being one of the first to recognise that industrial farming – and particularly the overuse of chemical fertilisers – would end up damaging the environment.
He gave a series of lectures to a group of farmers in Koberwitz, Germany (now Poland) in 1924 in which he laid out his ideas. A book of these lectures allowed Steiner to share his ideas throughout the world.(3)
What are the key principles of biodynamic farming?
Biodynamic farmers see their farm as one ecosystem, where all the different elements affect one another. In fact, Steiner encouraged farmers to think of their farms as a single organism.
On a typical modern farm, you may have one area dedicated to one type of crop, Meanwhile, the animals remain elsewhere and their treatment is completely separate.
Steiner, on the other hand, wanted farmers to think of the whole farm as a living being, where the different areas of production were almost like different limbs. If the leg becomes damaged or ill, it affects the entire body.
Thus the farm must remain in a delicate balance with each element interacting with all the others. Plants, animals, soil, and even the humans who work the farm, are all a part of this special ecosystem.
Biodynamic farming welcomes and encourages biodiversity, and aims to be completely self-sufficient. That means it shouldn’t need external help in the form of artificial fertilisers and pesticides to run. Rather, biodynamic farmers aim to produce everything they need to run the farm within its own boundaries.
As such, biodynamic farming can be a very sustainable and environmentally-friendly method of agriculture. This is because it cares deeply for the local environment and produces very little waste.
How is biodynamic farming similar to organic farming?
Biodynamic farming shares lots of characteristics with organic farming, including the rejection of the use of artificial fertilisers and pesticides.
For example, both methods make use of crop rotation. This makes sure that the soil in a particular area of the farm isn’t exhausted of nutrients after long periods growing the same crop.
They both avoid growing crops in monocultures and use sustainable farming methods.
What’s more, they may use natural pest control methods, such as introducing a predatory species or protecting the crops through other means.(4)
However, biodynamic farming adds extra elements which are not present in organic farming.
The spiritual elements of biodynamic farming
Alongside organic farming methods, biodynamic farming introduces spiritual, astrological and magical elements to help the farm remain healthy. Think of it as Ayurveda for farmland!
Many of these elements hark back to Rudolf Steiner’s original recommendations. In his course book, he recommended particular ‘preparations’. He believed that these could improve the fertility of the farm.
Preparations 500 and 501, for example, involves packing a cow horn with either manure or silica before burying it for several months to one year. Afterwards, the contents are mixed with water and made up into a liquid which is then sprayed on the fields of the farm.
Steiner encouraged such preparations because he believed that the shape of a cow’s horn made it an effective antenna for cosmic forces, which would be absorbed into its contents.
Preparation 502 requires the farmer to pack yarrow flower heads into a stag’s bladder. Meanwhile, preparation 505 is made by packing oak bark into the skull of a domestic animal.(4)
Steiner came up with most of these preparations not through a process of scientific testing, but by ‘meditation and clairvoyance’.(4)
"Alongside organic farming methods, biodynamic farming introduces spiritual, astrological and magical elements to help the farm remain healthy."
How to make a biodynamic preparation
Just for fun, let’s see how to make a biodynamic preparation for your farm or garden. We’ll start with the rather more palatable cow horn preparation: silica.
To create your preparation you must first take several large chunks of crystalline quartz (SiO2). Crush it with a hammer, and then grind into an extremely fine powder with a mortar. According to the UK Biodynamic Association, you can test the powder’s fineness by putting a small amount in your mouth. If it crunches, you need to grind it down further. You should be able to sieve it through a fine cloth.
You’ll also need to remove any impurities, such as iron which you can remove with a magnet.
Once you’re happy with your silica powder, add a little water until you have a spoonable consistency.
Next, grab your cow horn and fill it right up to the brim with your silica mix. You’ll need to leave it for a couple of days as the water will rise to the top, where you can pour it off. Refill the gap with more quartz mix, then leave it to dry for a couple of days until the contents are solid.
As we’re in the northern hemisphere, we’ll need to bury our horns between March and April, to be collected in September/October. Once you have dug up the horn, give it a firm tap to remove the silica within.
When you’re ready, mix your silica up with some water for precisely one hour before spraying over your crops. If you keep your silica dry, it can be used for many years to come.(5)
Do biodynamic farming preparations actually work?
Several attempts have been made to measure the difference in results between biodynamic and organic farming methods. However, it has proved quite tricky.
For example, a lot of the information we have on biodynamic farming comes from the DOK trials. These trials were part of a decade-long study which took place in Switzerland from 1978.
The trial noted that the soil composition in the area using biodynamic farming methods remained stable,. However, it declined in both the organic and conventional systems.(6)
That said, some scientists have since questioned the methodology of the study. They claim that the evidence for biodynamic farming versus organic farming is inconclusive.(4)
A different study conducted in Sweden found that potatoes grown in accordance with biodynamic farming principles tasted better and were higher in protein, along with other indicators of better quality.(7)
However, the farming system they were comparing it to was the conventional, rather than the organic, methodology. So, we don’t know if the potatoes would have tasted just as good if they were grown organically.
Other research has failed to find a difference in soil quality, microbe population and crop yield. There were also unclear results in terms of compost quality.(4)
Is biodynamic farming vegan?
No, biodynamic farming is not strictly vegan.
This is because in order to be certified as a biodynamic farm you have to use the preparations cited above. Many of these involve animal organs and bones.
According to the UK Biodynamic Association, it’s necessary to include the animal parts because they have certain properties due to the role they once played in the animal’s body.
Furthermore, the animal part chosen often has links with the properties of the preparation. For example, chamomile is a popular digestive aid, and thus a chamomile preparation is made with part of a cow’s digestive tract.(8)
Officially, you can’t be certified as an biodynamic farm if you don’t use these preparations. However, it’s important to mention that the animal parts generally only act as a vessel; what actually goes onto the crops is plant matter or manure.
Furthermore, Rudolf Steiner was himself a vegetarian and believed that animals had souls.(8) Animals do not have to be slaughtered for biodynamic farming (although that may be the case). Instead, the farmer may use parts of an animal which has died of old age.
What are the benefits of biodynamic farming?
While you may be unconvinced by astrological crop harvesting or cow horn preparations, there are some valid reasons why biodynamic farming can be a positive method of agriculture.
Firstly, it does use organic farming methods. There is plenty of evidence that these are much kinder to the environment than industrial or ‘conventional’ farming methods.
Secondly, it encourages biodiversity. Biodynamic farms can provide a home for myriad different species, from domestic animals to the earthworms in the soil.
But what can biodynamic farming offer that organic farming does not? Perhaps it is simply that it encourages the farmer to think differently about the farm.
In moving the focus away from economic factors such as yield, profit and cost, and looking at the space as a living being, it can encourage him or her to think of the ‘bigger picture’. This includes whether their farm is sustainable, and how it can be a positive influence on the surrounding environment.
How can I spot a biodynamic product?
You can tell if a product comes from a biodynamic farm by looking for the Demeter symbol.
Demeter is an international organisation which certifies farms which follow biodynamic practices. Many products feature the logo, which looks like this:
You may also see biodynamic products on menus, particularly when it comes to wine. Some wines from biodynamic farms have proven to be extremely high quality!
Should I buy organic or biodynamic?
Scientifically speaking, thus far there is little evidence to suggest that biodynamic farming has additional benefits compared to organic farming.
The choice will perhaps depend on whether the more spiritual approach of biodynamic farming appeals to you and fits in with your belief system.
You should also be careful with biodynamic farming if you are vegan, as it does involve animal parts to make the ‘preparations’.
It’s also important to note that the founder of biodynamic farming, Rudolf Steiner, developed his theories via mysticism rather than scientific techniques.
Biodynamic products may be tricker to get hold of, or potentially more expensive, than organic ones.
That said, the quality of biodynamic products is likely to be just as good as organic ones, so if you’re OK with the above notes, why not try them and let your own tastebuds be the judge?
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