Biodynamic Agriculture - Spiritual & Mystic Perspectives Unearthed
It's late fall in the small rural community of Woolwine, Virginia, and the surrounding landscape is still vibrant with the reds, yellows, and oranges of the soon to be slumbering trees. Here, among the rolling hills and patchwork of forest and farmland, there's something sacred happening that will soon be spread across the country. This is the home of the Josephine Porter Institute for Applied Biodynamics, and in a relatively small barn-like building in the middle of the property, six people sit on chairs in a small circle, each of them holding their own curved cow horn in one hand, and a spoon in the other. This is where biodynamic agriculture is theorized.
They are all focused intently on the task at hand, which at first glance seems to be scooping up dirt from buckets next to them and carefully packing it into the horns with their spoons, stopping only to tap the horns against the oak stumps that sit in front of each of them to settle the substance deeper inside. They are so focused and intentional in their actions, that the act seems almost like a ritualistic group meditation. A not entirely pleasant smell rises from the group, and it becomes obvious that it's not soil they're stuffing into the horns; it's cow manure.
Later, the horns will be gently buried in the ground, where they'll sit until spring, at which point they'll be lovingly dug up; just as lovingly as when they were originally nestled, with great reverence, into the earth. These horns, called 'Biodynamic Preparation 500' are created by the institute for sale to biodynamic agriculture farms across the United States, where the composted manure will be unpacked, added to water, and sprayed across the land with the intention of infusing the landscapes with life supporting energies and minute doses of compounds such as cytokinins that help plants grow.
Biodynamic agriculture, considered the first large-scale sustainable farming system in the Western world, was created by Austrian philosopher, architect and esotericist Rudolf Steiner in 1924, a full two decades before organic farming was developed. Since his death in 1925, Steiner's spiritual movement anthroposophy has spread around the globe. Developed along with an alternative education system (called Waldorf education), and a branch of natural medicine (anthroposophical medicine); anthroposophy has also influenced other areas such as ethical banking, organizational development, and the arts, to name a few. In developing the philosophy, Steiner was heavily influenced by German mysticism, theosophy, and Gnostic Christianity, among other traditions. In his many talks and writings, Steiner emphasized that there is an objective and comprehensible spiritual basis for a reality that can be directly experienced through the development of our imagination and intuition, and verified by rational thought.
This spiritual basis for reality is central to biodynamic agriculture. Hence, the preparations, which are seen as restorers and amplifiers of subtle energies that may be missing from the land. Besides the manure-filled cow horns, other preparations include crushed and powdered quartz that is similarly stuffed into cow horns and buried, yarrow blossoms that are placed into red deer bladders, sunned, and buried, and a simple horsetail (the plant) tea mixture that is sprayed on the soil.
Despite its esoteric background and the unusual practices employed by biodynamic agriculture practitioners, the industry is growing fast (by 16% in 2016 alone), with countless biodynamically produced food and beverage products on the market, including everything from wheat to wine.
Biodynamics, as it's also called, follows many of the same practices as organic farming (e.g. use of organic fertilizers and integrated pest management), but with the added intention of restoring what biodynamic practitioners call the "life force" to the land, a term used to describe the inherent consciousness in a given ecosystem.
According to biodynamic farmers such as long-time Ontario, Canada, farmer Titia Posthuma, the idea that the land itself is conscious, and that the different elements of the ecosystem, such as the plants, the soil microorganisms, and the waterways all come together to create a sort of sentience of which the farmer becomes a part of, is at the heart of biodynamic agriculture.
"It's often said in (agricultural) literature that eventually the farm becomes you, and you become the farm. That's what happens, you basically become one unit because you care so much for what is happening on the farm," says Posthuma. "So many biodynamic practitioners will say that your consciousness is shaped by farming."
Posthuma has been farming since 1989 on her farm, Ravensfield Farm, in Maberly, Ontario, and she switched to biodynamic methods in 2000 when she saw elsewhere how effective it was at restoring the land.
"Another way to look at consciousness is that consciousness can grow in an organic way, which comes from really wanting to understand, and observing to understand," she says. "The best analogy I can make is like a human being you decide to get into a relationship with and the more you try to understand that person the deeper your love for them grows, and that’s what happened with me (and the farm)."
Besides a more holistic perspective on ecosystem interactions, biodynamic practitioners also seek to merge these "earthly forces" with "cosmic forces" through not only the preparations but also through practices such as following the cycles of the moon when planting. The idea is that the moon has an influence on both subtle and obvious factors that influence everything ranging from germination of seeds to the establishment of transplants. For example, it is thought that the 48 hours leading up to a full moon, moisture increases in the soil, making it a perfect time to plant seeds.
Largely because of the esoteric concepts and unusual preparations that biodynamic practitioners use on their farms, along with the inability to test many of Steiner's "insights", biodynamics is not without critics, who argue that many of the practices and philosophies are unscientific and lack evidence, citing studies that show no difference between organic and biodynamic farming. Others argue that there is evidence, however, and cite other studies.
Biodynamic agriculture practitioners are also quick to point out that there is much to be said for some of the less tangible aspects of biodynamics. Robert Karp, Codirector of the Biodynamic Association, an organization that connects, advises, and supports biodynamic farmers across the United States, contends that even with the preparations, it’s not the preparations themselves or what’s in them that matter most, but the conscious act of performing the ritual of making them and applying them to the land.
"It's true that the making of the preparations and the applying of the preparations engages the farmer in the land in a more intimate way. That engagement has an effect. There's an old adage in agriculture that goes something like 'the best fertilizer on a farm is the farmer’s footprint,'" he says. "It’s the farmer getting out and connecting to the earth, and when you apply the preparations you have to do that. Furthermore, the preparations are homeopathic. They’re working energetically on the landscape."
Kendell Cockran, who has been with the Josephine Porter Institute of Applied Biodynamics for the past six years in various capacities, including as an assistant preparation maker, agrees. He says that making the preparations, as well as applying them to part of his own family’s cattle farm has changed him, giving him a much deeper respect for the land.
"We encourage people to make their own preparations even though we sell them, because part of biodynamics is doing it" he says.
Posthuma, who doesn’t make the preparations herself, but purchases them from others to apply to her land, notes that the specific practices such as making and applying preparations are secondary to the central tenants of connecting with the land and looking at nature in a different way, and contrasts biodynamic agriculture to conventional farming to make the point.
"Farmers are pushed really hard by absolutely every single influence they have over them, be it government, corporations or the marketplace. Certainly the regulations of government are big. They are pushed to farming in a particular way. The way that I want them to start farming is to put that all aside and start with the land and ask, 'What does the land need?'" she says. "Where you come is to a profound understanding of how nature truly works and a profound understanding of what is right to do and what is not right to do and why that is so."
Meanwhile, Cory Whitney, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the World Agroforestry Center in Nairobi and Senior Scientist at the Center for Development Research at the University of Bonn in Germany, says spiritual, conscious ritual in and of itself has value in deepening peoples’ connection to the land as well as passing down important information to the next generation about how to sustain themselves in harmony with their environment. As part of his job, Whitney has spent time working with indigenous communities in Southeast Asia and Uganda and has observed this directly.
"The indigenous elders that I have worked with have a lot of esoteric knowledge, stemming from a sense of awe. They talk about it in the form of ghosts and spirits and gods. Really, what I think they are trying to express is the intimate knowledge of our relationships to nature that has been handed down across, the generations" he says. "Spirituality and ritual are important parts of the practices of the indigenous people I work with. The wild collection and cultivation of plants is part of a complex system of knowledge and practices that have been handed down for many generations and help these people live in a harmonious way with natural systems."
Perhaps this is part of what attracts people to biodynamics too: its ability to speak to the intangible magic of being a part of something so vast and powerful as the living Earth, while also being part of a community of esoteric ritual, seeking to merge cosmic and earthly forces that tug at the corners of our limited human understanding.