“Life can only be passed on by the living.” —Rudolph Steiner, 1924
Biodynamic farming is arguably the oldest organized agricultural movement in the world and yet the concept has avoided a concise definition for over 75 years. Biodynamic agriculture is based on the knowledge that the soil, plants, animals and farmers work together in one agricultural cycle. The theory evolved from a series of eight lectures given by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner in 1924 to a group of German farmers seeking ‘renewal’ in their fields. Unfortunately, the visionary died less than one year later leaving much of his insights open to interpretation by his followers.
One of Steiner’s basic ideas was that the farm should be viewed as an organism in its own right. As such, all enterprises and activities on the farm are interconnected. This highlights a further ideal of limiting off-farm inputs and favouring increased self-reliance. In practice, similar to organic farming, biodynamic farming uses no synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Biodynamic farming favours soil health through the use of compost, animal and green manures; diversified crop rotations; and incorporation of livestock. However, the two agricultural systems differ in that biodynamic farmers rely on eight specific preparations to their soil, crops and compost to enhance soil and plant quality, and to stimulate the composting process.
The eight preparations, designated by their ingredients or by numbers 500 to 507, are made from cow manure; silica; the flowers of yarrow, chamomile, dandelion and valerian; oak bark; and the stinging nettle plant. A ninth prep, often referred to as 508, is made from horsetail and is used for fungal disease prevention. Rudolf Steiner also noted that a healthy agricultural system took into account cosmic factors, such as the influence of the moon and planets on crop growth and quality.
Horn manure preparation (BD 500) is by far the most ‘famous’ of all the preps in large part because of how it is prepared. Fresh cow manure (preferably from cows grazing pasture) is placed in a cow horn and buried (on or near the autumnal equinox) in fertile soil. This produces a sweet smelling, humus-like colloidal substance when harvested in the spring. As with most biodynamic preps, BD 500 is applied at homeopathic rates (i.e. extremely small quantities); 75 grams is stirred in water (34 L) for one hour and spread in droplet form over one hectare of soil after 3 p.m. (preferably during the descending phase of the moon).
Biodynamic farmers rely on BD 500 to enliven the soil, stimulating soil microorganisms and, in turn, increasing the availability of nutrients including trace elements. BD 500 is often equated with humus formation and credited with improving soil structure including water-holding capacity. It is also used as a root dip for transplants because of its effect on root formation, especially fine root hairs. BD 500 is applied directly on the soil, usually ahead of planting, and is best followed by shallow cultivation (e.g. by a harrow or a garden rake). BD 500 can be applied fairly early in the spring and can be applied several times during the year.
Biodynamic preparations contain immense forces which are eventually taken on by the water.
Horn silica preparation (BD 501) complements BD 500, but works in the atmosphere by enhancing photosynthetic uptake and increasing assimilation of nutrients. BD 501 is prepared from ground quartz or a silicate such as feldspar, and is buried in cow horns under the soil for the summer. Less than 2 grams/ha is added to water (34 L), stirred for an hour, and then sprayed as a fine mist on foliage at sunrise. BD 501 keeps sugar sap levels high with the excess sugars exuded through the roots to feed beneficial bacteria and fungi.
|Is this just hocus pocus…? There are many who doubt that such minute quantities could have any effect on soil or plant health. BD 501 can silence most doubters. Spraying BD 501 late in the day, in full sun or when temperatures are high will severely stunt or burn plants, while simply spraying water not potentized with BD 501 will show no effect.|
Biodynamic farmers rely on BD 501 to help stave off fungal disease, increase dry matter content of the fruit, and increase the fruit’s flavour, colour and postharvest quality. Biodynamic orchardists and grape growers use BD 501 to increase Brix (sugar) levels one full point within a few hours. The proper procedure is to apply BD 501 when the organ that one wants to harvest starts to be formed. Many garden plants, such as ornamental flowers, tomatoes and strawberries, should be treated when the flower buds are ready to open. Potatoes are best sprayed when flower formation begins, and members of the cruciferae family (e.g. cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, etc.) respond to repeated applications. Similarly, greenhouse plants, herbs, melons, cucumbers, lettuce and most soft fruit respond to several applications after fruit set.
Biodynamic compost preparations (BD 502–507) are made up of various flowers and animal parts treated in special ways (see table on next page). Their purpose is to infuse the compost pile with ‘life,’ not with actual living microorganisms but with a vitality that stimulates the existing species in the compost.
Preps 502–506 are humus-like materials and are placed in compost in five distinct holes approximately three feet apart at a depth of half the compost pile.
BD 507 is added to rainwater and stirred in an alternating rhythm every few seconds for ten minutes and then half of it is poured into a sixth hole, while the other half is sprayed over the entire pile in a fine mist.
BD 508 is not truly considered one of the eight BD preps but is used extensively by biodynamic farmer
Energy from water
One of the key principles of biodynamic farming is to harness energy from nature and this is probably best exemplified in the stirring process in making BD 500 and 501. The preparation is added to water, which is then energized by hand (or a stirring machine or flowform structure that creates vortices of energy). The BD preps contain immense forces which are eventually taken on by the water. The stirring process creates lifegiving vortices which increase oxygen and give water a pulse or potentized force. Stirring by hand can be a phenomenal experience in which you create a vortex, only to then create chaos by changing directions, and then, out of chaos, you create another vortex. Many find the stirring process rewarding and meditative; it is their opportunity to infuse the water with their own positive energy.
Biodynamic compost preparations 502-508
|Yarrow flowers are placed in a stag’s bladder and are used to attract potassium and trace elements such as selenium and sulphur.|
|Chamomile flowers are placed in the small intestines of a cow and are used to help stabilize nitrogen, calcium and sulphur, as well as manganese and boron.|
|Nettle is buried without an animal sheath and enhances decomposition, aids in chlorophyll formation, and stimulates iron, potassium, calcium, magnesium and sulphur activity in the soil.|
|Oak bark is placed in a cow skull and in water over winter; it is used to help restore water balance after too much rain or a full moon. It also helps protect against fungal diseases and stimulates calcium and phosphorus activity in the soil.|
|Dandelion flowers are placed in a cow’s mesentery (abdominal membrane); this is used to increase flowering and filling of fruit.|
|Valerian flowers are tinctured and used to mobilize phosphorus-activating bacteria, as well as selenium and magnesium.|
|Horsetail shoots are boiled in rainwater and used against fungal diseases as a foliar spray or root dip.|
The thought of burying cow horns and collecting a deer bladder may sound too daunting to most farmers and many are reluctant to adopt biodynamic methods. However, they need not be discouraged. Some biodynamic farmers produce fresh BD preparations annually and these are available for sale. There are also many workshops, courses, and biodynamic farms that can offer more practical information to move you from thought to action.
If you are reluctant to jump into biodynamics because you feel the ‘science’ isn’t there to explain some of Steiner’s visions…well, you may be waiting a long time. For the most part, Western biology is still based upon a 19th-century reductionist foundation, which in essence means if we can’t explain it, it doesn’t exist. In contrast, 21stcentury physicists recognize that there is much in the natural world that can be measured but not defined, and yet still acknowledge its existence. Recent European research efforts have found that BD methods alter measurable aspects of soil quality on the farm, despite not knowing the mode of action. This is the ‘force’ behind biodynamics and, unfortunately for the corporate world, it cannot be patented or used to create profit.
Perhaps Steiner’s greatest legacy will be in removing the disconnect between farm and farmer.
The result has been a somewhat limited outward adoption of biodynamic practices in North America; however there are far more practitioners than one would think. In Europe, Australia and India, the biodynamic movement is growing exponentially, in large part because of the increased quality of crops produced, but as much for the improved quality of life for the farmer. Is the farmers’ quality of life increased by application of biodynamic preparations? That appears to be the message. For many biodynamic practitioners, the methods employed foster a reconnection with the land and the life within it. Perhaps Steiner’s greatest legacy will be in removing the disconnect between farm and farmer.Photo credits: Whole Circle Farm
Soil fertility and biodiversity in organic farming. Mäder et al., Science 31: 2002. Soil quality and profitability of biodynamic and conventional farming systems: a review. Reganold. American Journal of Alternative Agriculture, 10: 1995.
Suggested reading or watching:
Agriculture Course: The Birth of the Biodynamic Method. by Rudolf Steiner, Rudolf Steiner Press.
Grasp the Nettle: Making Biodynamic Farming & Gardening Work. Peter Proctor.
How to Save the World: One Man, One Planet, One Cow. Video.
The Real Dirt on Farmer John. Video.