Farm Story: The Biodynamic Ice-Break

Would you mind if we talked about Biodynamic farming?


There. That’s how you keep your readership small. Those of you still with me have fought through eye-glaze and eye-roll and have resisted page turn. You will notice that even I am struggling a bit to stay on topic, and if only you could see the amount of squirming and fidgeting I am doing as I try to find the right way to write about one of the more under-simplified and over-complicated farming methods of our time.

There is no way around this fact: Biodynamic farming methods involve focussing the power and influence of the entire universe on the health and productivity of the soil, plant, farmer and consumer. The sun, the planets, the galaxies beyond ours: they all matter. The position of the moon matters. It’s complicated. It’s off-putting.

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And yet, quite simply, it works whether you understand why or not. In fact, the less time sorting that out, the more time there will be for actual work and that is what really matters.

We do need to talk about it, though. Biodynamics is an approach to farming that combines science, philosophy and common sense and it should not be avoided. Something like this could easily become the future of farming.

You should know that it is a popular farming method in Germany, which has the highest concentration of scientific-minded farmers in the world, a fact I completely fabricated but which I believe could be used for emphasis without harm. I have (in actual fact) heard German farmers speak in excruciating scientific detail about soil science and crop management and then mention in a self-consciously off-hand manner that they also use Biodynamic preparations. Pressed further, they become extremely and remarkably vague about the details. I find this fascinating: farmers like that would not waste their time with something that wasn’t working.

Our farm has been Biodynamic in practice and often certificate since the mid-nineties when my parents attended a conference on the subject and were impressed with the practical experience of the speakers. We have slowly incorporated some methods into our farming practices- and avoided talking about it as we really don’t understand it well enough to explain.

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Photo courtesy MC Bourgie

To be honest, I really have not been paying much attention to the whole thing, content to let my parents and sister tell me what to do. It seemed more important to learn things like welding, mechanics and fertility-building cover-crop management. Although I have certainly not mastered any of that, I have gradually pushed Biodynamics up higher on the “things-to-learn-that-will-probably-be-helpful” list.

Some Biodynamic practices have been incorporated thoroughly into our farm routine. Mom’s Biodynamic compost heaps, for example, could probably turn old cars into nice, rich, loamy soil. Tree branches certainly presented no difficulty. I follow her directions to build the heap, and I add the preparations (yarrow, chamomile, nettle, oak bark, dandelion, valerian) and marvel at the result a few months hence. It seems like magic, but really it isn’t.

My sister annually buries cow horns stuffed with manure and that becomes the preparation we apply to the carrot field every year. It’s very simple: if we do it, we get great carrots. If we don’t, they are normal.

My mom boils it all down quite nicely: it is a fun way to farm.

Our Biodynamic practice does not extend far beyond this. It really should, or at least could. It is time to experiment with a few more methods, acquire some knowledge, become conversant. Most of all, I want to write about it in a way that can be easily understood. Is that possible? Can we keep it fun?

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Photo: MC Bourgie

I am starting at a very, very basic level of celestial understanding. This point cannot be over-emphasized. I cannot even tell you for certain what my birth sign of the zodiac is. I just never found it important. In terms of blind faith however, I am on more solid ground. I can “witch” water wells, for example, and fully support the protection of random wild areas on our farm because grandma said there were a lot of fairies living there. I guess the fact that I now believe with absolute certainty that it is quite likely that plant health is influenced not only by the phases and position of the moon but the universe beyond isn’t such a stretch after-all. You commoners will have to struggle to keep up.

My first self-assigned task has been to read the original lectures, delivered in 1924 at a German agricultural convention by Rudolph Steiner, a philosopher with a practical bent who is also known for starting the Waldorf school system. This I am doing until the snow melts and I don’t have time for reading anymore. Looks like I might be able to make it through the whole works.

Contained in a book called Agriculture, the lectures were commissioned by a group of farmers who had recently begun to use chemical fertilizers. Although the yields of certain cash crops were reaching unheard-of levels, they noted a significant decline in the health of their soils, and the overall productivity of their farms. Alarmingly, they could no longer produce very much at all without the use of the new chemicals.

So far, for about 95% of what I have read, I have not a clue what he is talking about. Every once in a while, however, he talks about potatoes, and I certainly know what they are. They are the hook that keeps me focussed. I keep reading, hoping he will mention them again.

Another point of light is his reasoning for considering the universe in the first place. You can’t describe a person based on the last joint of their little finger, nor describe a farm using one plant in the far corner, but they are strongly related to the whole. If we allow for the possibility that we are the little joint of the little finger of the universe, if becomes obvious that there is a lot going on that matters to us.

We are part of something much bigger.

Stay tuned for the next exciting installment. I am going to be building compost heaps and seeding celeriac at a time suggested by the Biodynamic Calendar: the sun will be in Pisces and the moon in Virgo. I don’t know what this means but hopefully the plants can sort it out.

Anna Helmer farms potatoes in the Pemberton Valley with her family and friends who know she can cook if she must.