Principles of Biodynamic Agriculture
Biodynamic agriculture is nothing if not controversial. Easy to ridicule, simple to deride, yet manifestly simple in essence.
Damned by that fateful catch-all – “no scientific evidence of proof” –
the critics, and there are many, dismiss biodynamics as nothing but a fad. Primitive, unproven, unscientific, at best; a new age, hocus-pocus cult of pseudoscience, at worst.
Yet its adherents divide into four types:
The vocal fundamentalists, ecologists for whom biodynamics is the evangelical expression of faith ‘for the sake of the planet’.
The rationalists are more evidence-driven – they can see a way to combat the over-dependence on agrochemicals that is usurping the very notion of terroir.
The pragmatists adopt the wider holistic biodynamic aims, but are not slaves to the rule book – ‘there has to be a better way’.
And the materialists, where biodynamics is fashionable, earning higher prices.
To begin with the practitioner has to overcome their fears: the paramount commercial worry of reduced yields and income; those farmer phobias of infestation, disease, pestilence and fungi; the natural trepidation to taking a ‘backward step’, regressing to labour-intensive methods, manual over machine. And there’s always the dread of being labelled a nutcase.
The logic is pretty straightforward. Regenerative farming where there is no need for the multitude of chemicals that modern farming now relies on. By reverting to ploughing and weeding instead, the topsoil and subsoils (no longer neutralised with toxic accumulations) become more healthy, aerated, and living.
Strip away the gobbledygook and the core aim of biodynamic agriculture is to achieve a living soil (over a chemically comatose inert one) by the application of compost and manure turbocharged by seemingly bizarre treatments. It’s odd to us, but second nature to our forefathers. Minimal doses and specific timing of applications are key.
These compost preparations, numbered 502 to 507, are certainly unusual. A mix of rotting plant and decaying innards full of minerals, microbes, enzymes and bacteria. A little humus of certain plants, combined with animal-derived bacteria, fermented together buried in soil to obtain a ‘vegeto-animal humus of extraordinary strength’.
Gardeners know a good compost heap ‘cooks’, steaming as it breaks down to become a better organic material than green leaves alone. In biodynamics, the effectiveness is enhanced by the addition of a super-active fertiliser.
Over ten thousand years of agriculture man has observed that certain plants have specific uses: the flowers of yarrow, camomile, valerian, dandelion; nettle and oak bark. These six, after long periods of decay, are made in to preparations injected in small doses into the compost introducing bacteria, to encourage decomposition and growth of small, red worms.
There are three field sprays: 500 (horn manure), 501 (horn silica), and 508 (horsetail – plant, not equine). The bizarre horn preparations are obtained from stuffing the mineral silica or organic manure, into a calcium-rich cow’s horn. Buried underground for six months the associated bacteria, microbes and minerals ferment together.
508, the horsetail infusion, by strengthening the auto immune system of the plant, acts as preventative against mildew thereby minimising the amount of copper sulphate needed.
The treatments are given in extremely small doses. It’s a qualitative action not quantitive, a kind of kick-start which stimulates activity within the soil or the plant. Treatment 500, for example, is applied at 120g/ha; treatment 501 at 4g/ha, sprayed very lightly.
THE LUNAR CALENDAR
The ideal time for agricultural operations are determined by the lunar calendar. Not just the seasons, but like the mariner’s tide book where the gravitational pull of the relative positions of the sun and moon anticipates bi-monthly spring and neap tides and daily high and low water. Good, bad or indifferent days can be equally pre-determined – such as pruning on the waning moon to avoid rising sap-related infections.
These natural rhythms perhaps allow the farmer to live closer to his land, develop an empathy and understanding that might be lost to an ever-increasing regime of chemical intervention.
From the above it’s easy to see how some might find it lunacy. But, go back five hundred years and it probably made a lot of sense. We’ve just lost that knowledge and that’s what biodynamics, a fancy name for something so elemental, seeks to address.
As one grower summed up: “My personal scientific approach is first of all to use my own senses to test if something works. Biodynamics certainly works when it comes to flavour. The fact that I can’t understand how it works, or that others don’t either, makes no difference.”