Biodynamic farming is considered the father of organic agriculture. Originally developed in 1924 by Rudolf Steiner, it was the very first form of organic agriculture as we know it today. Biodynamics is a form of regenerative agriculture that seeks to restore the land and ultimately make it a self-sustaining system devoid of any external inputs.
Biodynamics differs from many other forms of agriculture in that it considers farms holistically, as living entities in themselves. The health of the farm is dependent on the healthy functioning of all the individual parts together.
Biodynamic farming has a strong focus on soil health and aims to leave the soil in better health year after year. It’s considered one of the first sustainable agriculture movements that emphasize the interrelationships between all aspects of the living farm, with a spiritual and mystical outlook embedded in its core.
Biodynamics holds the view that natural forces are working with us. It harbors the metaphysical view that the farm is a living entity in itself and not just a piece of land for our exploitation. To get a good understanding of biodynamics, first, it’s important to understand regenerative agriculture and a little bit about damaging modern farming practices.
A handful of soil.
What is Regenerative Agriculture?
Regenerative agriculture is a method of farming that “improves the resources it uses, rather than destroying or depleting them.” (Rodale Institute). Regenerative agriculture can be any of several systems that focus on healing the land from the damage done by modern agricultural practices. Modern agricultural practices are based on monocultures that actively discourage the presence of any other life other than the prevalent cash crop. To upset the ecological balance, which is based on biodiversity, they routinely are forced to lace the land with a slurry of toxic chemicals and poisons. Regenerative agriculture seeks to build ecosystems back up again, literally from the ground up, to reverse this damage whilst still meeting the needs of the population.
- Minimizing or eliminating tillage.
- Protecting the soil at all times by using a wide variety of cover crops.
- Increasing biodiversity.
- Keeping living roots in the soil.
- Integrating cattle.
(The Carbon Underground and Regenerative Agriculture Initiative, 2017)
Focus on Soil Health
Soil health is quite literally the foundation of agriculture. However, modern practices tend to focus more on the chemical compositions of soils than regarding them as a host of biological entities. Regenerative agriculture aims to increase the biodiversity of soil microbes, as opposed to remedying chemical imbalances in the soil. It is these soil microbes that ultimately result in improved soil aggregation, nutrient and water retention, and penetration. It also leads to a decrease in soil erosion, reduces harmful agricultural run-off, and increases CO2 capture from the air and sequestration into the soil.
Rows of crops with lots of manure.
We are ultimately left with more productive and resilient crops when soil health is built. By following these principles, you will not only improve depleted soils and sequester carbon from the atmosphere but also make your crops resilient to fluctuations in climatic conditions. You’ll also improve your nutrient chains and ultimately produce higher-quality crop yields.
Healthy soil is packed full of bacteria, fungi, algae, protozoa, nematodes, and a plethora of other organisms, which all play a vital role in plant health. Soil bacteria also produce natural antibiotics that make plants more resilient to disease. Fungi help in the absorption of water and nutrients. The more bacteria and fungi (referred to collectively as organic matter) the healthier soil is. The future of farming is dependent on healthy soil and the UN reports that using our current practices we only have 60 years of farmable topsoil remaining, meaning action has to be taken. Maintaining and building soil health, then, is imperative for the health and future of the planet.
Tilling greatly disturbs the soil and all the beneficial microorganisms that inhabit it. Undisturbed soils allow the abundance of microbes to increase, improving the soil microbiome and structure. Aside from the biological benefits of these improvements, you’ll also benefit from increased yields and overall crop quality, all with little effort and inputs.
A conventional farm harvesting their crops.
Improving soil structure reduces erosion from both wind and water, reduces agricultural run-off into watersheds, and helps with the sequestration of carbon into the soil. By adopting no till-practices you’ll see increased water penetration, increased nutrient absorption by plants, and an increase in the build-up of organic matter over time.
Your crops will ultimately become more resilient, vigorous and will ultimately produce a greater yield and more nutrient density. Eradicating tilling also provides the economic benefit of reduced costs for fertilizer applications and more efficient use of water resources and labor. These benefits can eventually lead to greater efficiency in the system; necessitating fewer inputs and producing a greater number and higher quality of outputs.
Through the act of continually growing plant life in a given area, you are increasing the nutrient build-up in the soil. What you’ll end up with eventually is more naturally occurring fertilizers that’ll provide bio-available food for the crops you intend to grow. Certain species, known as nitrogen fixers are known to fix nitrogen in the soil. There are even species, known as bio-accumulators, that access and feedback nutrients that other plants have difficulty in accessing, adding greater nutrient density to your food.
Biodynamic Farming and Soil Health
Biodynamic farming aims to build up the health of the soil, year after year so that the farm becomes a thriving, self-sustaining, and biodiverse ecosystem. Healthy soil forms the backbone of biodynamic farming.
Studies have shown that organic farming methods contain 26 percent more long-term carbon storage potential than conventional farms because of the presence of plenty of humus, a nutrient-dense, water retaining component of healthy soil.
Generating on-site Compost
Biodynamic plants are grown in the ground in living soil, giving levels of health and nutrition not possible from plants grown hydroponically or with the use of chemical applications. Biodynamic farms aim to produce on-site soil-boosting fertilizer through livestock, composting, crop rotation, and cover-cropping.
Composting transforms animal waste into strength and vitality for the living organism of the farm, helping to ensure that every bioavailable soil and nutrient remedy is utilized for the good of the whole entity.
Demeter is the oldest ecological certification organization in the world and is responsible for biodynamic certification in the USA. It’s also the name of the Greek goddess who was responsible for crops, amongst other things. To be certified by Demeter, you have to leave 10% of your farm wild and uncultivated to increase overall biodiversity. This will lead to an increase in beneficial insects and pollinators, birds, other animals, and endemic plant species. It’ll create a thriving ecosystem, as opposed to the largely inert monocultures that modern agriculture has come to represent.
Differences Between Organic and Biodynamic Methods
Organic practices, whilst originally derived from biodynamics have some differences. As mentioned earlier, biodynamic farms aim to generate all compost and fertilizers on site. Organic farming can source materials from anywhere, providing they meet with accepted organic practices. Biodynamics strives to source all materials from the farm itself, reducing inputs, C02 outputs, and ultimately creating a greater relationship between the farmer and his/her farm.
There is a focus in biodynamics on what is to hand which is not necessarily present in organic practices, meaning that you can be sure the overall effects of your food choices are much more likely to have a positive environmental impact overall.
Soil Health as World-Health
How Biodynamics is Regenerative
The best means we have to extract carbon from the air and return it to the soil is through photosynthesis. Sunlight and carbon dioxide are absorbed by plants and trees with oxygen being released back into the atmosphere. Carbon is transformed into sugar by plants, changing it from gas to liquid. The surplus liquid carbon not required by the plant is released back into the soil, creating a perfect habitat for worms, other insects, and vast mycelium networks that communicate with each other underneath the ground.
Biodynamic farms aim to heal the land from degradation unwittingly committed by previous generations by increasing the overall biodiversity of the landscape in which it operates. Simply put there is a shift in focus away from the chemical model that predominated in the post-war years that gave us the chemical NPK fertilizers that many are familiar with, towards a more integrative biological model.
Nutrient-Dense Soil Means Nutrient Dense Food
Nutrient density in food crops is the result of a highly functional biological system. Crops grown in such systems will contain a greater number of broad-spectrum nutrients, minerals, vitamins, antioxidants, and phytonutrients than their counterparts grown in less nutrient-dense systems.
Nutrient-dense foods are the Holy Grail of all health-conscious organic farmers worldwide. Conventional farming’s focus on higher yields has meant that the food we consume today contains far fewer nutrients than it did 50 years ago. With greater access to calories than at any point in history, people are still getting sicker and lifestyle and food choices are to blame for many of the maladies that plague our society today.
Modern agriculture has bred plants for their size and how quickly they can be harvested, as opposed to the quality and nutrient density of the actual produce itself. This in turn further depletes the soil, necessitating more chemical applications creating a lethal cycle that can only be beaten through breaking the chain and adopting more of a regenerative approach that methods like biodynamics promise.
The Key to Nutrient Dense Food is Providing Plants Access to Nutrients.
The key to nutrient-dense food, from the biodynamic viewpoint, is that you want a net increase in biological vitality in the whole system you are working with. We have to remember that biological systems are functioning wholes and not mere individual parts. So allowing for each part to flourish to its full potential will necessarily mean gains at another point somewhere in the system.
This means creating soil rich in microbial, bacterial, fungal, and insect life, creating a thriving ecosphere, where each part complements the others through the changing seasons and over time.
Organic, local food sold at market.
Biodynamic compost is enhanced through the use of six preparations made from yarrow, chamomile, stinging nettle, oak bark, dandelion, and valerian (known as #502, 503, 504, 505, 506, and 507) Each one of these medicinal herbs is transformed through a unique and specific process that brings it into harmony with the animal kingdom, the earth, and the cycles of the year. Joining these elements together intensifies their medicinal properties, builds beneficial bacteria and fungi, and intensifies the development of potent compost.
Biodynamic preparations help attune the soil to the rest of the living organisms of the farm. Composting becomes a more sensitive process and is known to stabilize nitrogen and other nutrients, and overall multiply microbial diversity. Biodynamic compost also brings more carbon into the living realm, helping to restore and stabilize the climate.
Several biodynamic preparations are also used as sprays to increase vitality in the landscape. These include Horn Manure, Horn Silica, and Horsetail tea.
A cow horn is filled with manure and buried throughout the winter
Horn Manure (#500)
Horn manure is made by burying cow manure inside a cow horn during the winter months. It is known to increase vitality in plants and improve the relationship between plants and soils.
Horn Silica (#501)
Horn Silica is prepared from ground quartz crystals buried in a cow horn over the summer months. It is said to improve immunity in plants, increasing ripening and potentiate the photosynthetic process.
Horsetail Tea (#508)
Horsetail Tea is said to help balance the water element in soil composition, and help with fungal disease.
Together, biodynamic soil and spray preparations aim to bring plants into a greater relationship with the soil, the air, the water, and the cosmos in general. They help plants develop holistically, allowing them access to the full spectrum of nutrients they need for optimal development and to become resilient to pests, disease, and climatic extremes.
How To Get Started in Biodynamic Farming.
The institute of Biodynamic Farming in the UK recommends three years of land preparation as the start of the process. These include all the homeopathic preparations, sprays, and soil preparations. You’ll also need to prepare your compost on-site, as well as green manure and microbial life.
Harness The Forces Of Nature.
Biodynamic farmers believe that there are cosmological forces at play that help us produce our food, alongside the forces of the earth, such as biology, physics, and chemistry. Harnessing the power of the different phases of the moon, seasonal and celestial cycles are what sets this system apart from the others.
A lonesome house in the countryside.
Learn To Look And Listen.
The first and most important step in getting into biodynamic farming is to learn by doing. Try to relish the shift in paradigm instead of being intimidated by it. The most important skills to develop if you’re looking to begin biodynamic farming are your instincts. Learn to look and listen to what the land and plants need by monitoring them throughout the year and picking up on the signs that they are sending you as to their needs.
Learning to look and listen is a lifetime process that is constantly evolving, so the sooner you begin the better and more in tune you’ll become. The natural world ‘talks,’ in different ways to us humans, so learning to understand the signs of the natural world will allow you to create a better relationship with the whole ecosystem, which is ultimately what biodynamics is all about.
If you’ve set yourself up right, you shouldn’t have to intervene in the natural processes too much. Farm biodiversity is meant to be organized in such a way as to support itself from the land. Physical interventions should usually be unnecessary and chemical interventions should be avoided at all costs.
Spend Time On The Land every day.
Biodynamic farming urges us to spend time on the living soil every day, paying close attention to the changes that take place on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. By doing this, we can cultivate a relationship with not only our land but with the wider earth, which is what biodynamic farming is all about.
Biodiversity visible in the jungle.
Strive For Greater Biodiversity.
Remember, as mentioned above, that a biodynamic farm has to leave at least 10% of its land wild and uncultivated. This is not only to help conserve wildlife and endangered species but also to increase the presence of pollinators and beneficial insects, which will ultimately help improve your yields.
Conventional farming plants the same plant in endless rows, year after year in the same area, without any concern for the effect on the soil health. Biodynamics employs diversity to take care of the soil. If a particular plant is particularly hungry for a particular nutrient, then another plant could be planted nearby to supply the depleted nutrients back to the soil.
Plants are used together to help the soil recover from continuous farming whilst helping us to produce different kinds of crops.
Produce Your Own Fertility On-Site.
A biodynamic farm aims to be a fully self-contained and self-sufficient entity. This means producing everything on site, including compost. A farm is measured by the number of valuable plants it produces, which is dependent on the fertility of the soil.
Biodynamic farms aim to gain maximum fertility by using practices such as rotation grazing, producing green manure, and using nitrogen-fixing crops.
Compost is the most important facet of biodynamic farming. Compost encourages microbial growth which is needed for the fertility of the land. This is what chemical applications stifle and kill, and end up destroying the soil.
Crops are treated with homeopathic sprays, of which there are 8 in the biodynamic system. They are also used to create compost and save crops from fungus. Each spray is heavily diluted and is utilized to dynamize the whole process.
Integration Of Livestock.
Biodynamic farming views life holistically, and as such aims for greater integration in every aspect of farm management. Farm animals are not separate from crops, but rather they are viewed as part of the team. It also helps to maintain the self-sufficiency of the farm.
If you need to irrigate your crops, make sure this is done efficiently. Natural wetlands need to be protected by a buffer of a minimum of 25 feet. Solar pumps, air pumps, or nose pumps are some good alternatives to less sustainable ways of accessing your water.
Livestock integrated into the farming system.
Control Insects, Pests, And Weed
By keeping a biodiverse farm and practicing crop rotation, you’ll find you greatly reduce your plants’ susceptibility to pests and diseases. By planting at the correct times you’ll also find a reduction in problems. You can consult the biodynamic calendar for this information.
Monitoring your land over time will give you insight into the life-cycle of the pests that will allow you to deal with them effectively.
Biodynamic farming is different from the conventional method of farming as it retains a strong sense of dynamism behind it.
The Bottom Line
Biodynamic farming is the original organic farming method. It aims at regenerating the land and leaving it better than it was when you arrived. Biodynamic farming is different from other methods in that the farm is viewed holistically and as a living entity in its own right, as opposed to a resource to be exploited for our own gain.
Central to the method is this metaphysical view of the farm. This spiritual/mystical aspect highlights the importance of interrelationships of all aspects of the farm, with the flourishing of each part inseparably contributing to the flourishing of the whole.
The health of the farm depends on the healthy and mutual functioning of all parts together. Everything you need to implement on a biodynamic farm will eventually be present on your own land. It is this lack of reliance on external inputs that makes it such a powerful and sustainable choice for producing food.
By learning to watch and listen to your land, by harnessing the powers of the cosmos, implementing the biodynamic preparations, integrating livestock, and focusing on soil health, in time you can grow your very own biodynamic farm, no matter how big or small your land is.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.