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Biodynamics: Farming that nourishes our soul

The principles of Biodynamic farming serve to connect more deeply to the world around us. Registered dietitian Molly Kimball explores how we can incorporate these principles into our own lives and own gardens, no matter how small the footprint.

The mission of NewTree Ranch to bring people into nature to experience the principles of Biodynamic farming. Photo credit David Rountree.

The concept of Biodynamics is fascinating to me, and also incredibly daunting. The idea of creating a farm – or even a garden – that is entirely self-sustained seems almost unattainable. The more I learn about it, however, the more I realize that it’s something within our reach. It also doesn’t have to happen – and in fact, can’t happen – all at once.

A Biodynamic farm is something that we can approach in stages. Biodynamic practices encompass a way of life, a holistic approach that looks at the farm or garden as part of a something bigger than we are, factoring in influences like planetary and lunar cycles. Many of these Biodynamic guiding principles are beneficial for our body, mind and souls – things that are good for us anyway – connecting us more deeply to the world around us.

What is Biodynamics?

Biodynamics, which literally means ‘life forces,’ was introduced in 1924 when philosopher and scientist Dr. Rudolf Steiner gave a series of eight lectures to a group of farmers who were looking for a new way to integrate science with nature.

A simple way to explain Biodynamic is that the outputs of the farm – what’s produced, harvested or otherwise comes from the farm – are put back in to nourish the farm. This means that everything from bugs to compost to other natural fertilizers and methods of pest control come from within the farm itself, rather than being brought in from the outside. 

In the United States, the term ‘organic’ is regulated by the government, but the concept of ‘Biodynamic’ is not. It does have a rigorous certification process, though, and the principles of Biodynamic are even more stringent than organic.

Organic means that food is grown or raised without synthetic pesticides or additives, among other conditions. Biodynamics is like organic farming in that neither use synthetic chemicals. However, Biodynamic farming takes it much further, looking at the farm entirely as a self-contained, and self-sustaining, ecosystem. 

Specific herbal and mineral preparations are used, composting is essential, and livestock is allowed to graze within the farm. Biodynamic has strict guidelines for things like soil fertility management, crop protection and animal welfare.

Demeter USA is the official Biodynamic certification; the only certifier for Biodynamic farms and products in the United States. The Demeter trademark is on the labels of certified Biodynamic products. The certification is a rigorous process, so many smaller farms choose to follow Biodynamic principles but may not be certified Biodynamic.

Getting started with Biodynamics

I recently had the opportunity to tour a farm that is in the early stages of becoming certified Biodynamic, the NewTree Ranch in Healdsburg, California. Ed Newell, CEO and visionary of NewTree Ranch, and David Rountree, co-founder and ranch manager, spent an afternoon showing us around their farm.

Their mission, in short, is to bring people into nature. “Over these past few years we’ve had the opportunity to understand who we are, to dive into ourselves, to understand the land,” says Ed. “And now we can give others the same opportunity. They’ll learn about the farming practices of Biodynamics along with workshops ranging from breathing techniques to cooking classes.”

“The whole concept of what we are doing is trying to find something more connected with ourselves,” says Ed. “Four years ago, I couldn’t have imagined sticking my hand into manure-filled compost and being excited about how it felt. It has definitely been a big change for all of us.”

“When we first started the process of bringing in Biodynamics, we really knew nothing,” says David. “We’re still really in the beginning, it takes a lifetime of learning to fully understand.”

“There’s a personal side and farm side,” explains Ed. “For me personally, there have been so many changes. I was always on the run from place to place. I was always catching up to myself. Over these past few years, I’ve stopped moving so much, and have become more peaceful.

“With Biodynamics, it just comes together, like a mirror of you, on your land. You see yourself, and you have to work on yourself to be able to work with the land.”

Ed and David are working with Biodynamic Farm Consultant Harald Hoven to educate and train them, essentially guiding them in their journey to develop and live by these Biodynamic principles.

Harald Hoven is the founder of Raphael Garden at Rudolf Steiner College in Fair Oaks, CA, an urban garden with crops and animals that offers, among other things, apprentice training, community courses, and a 70-family CSA (CSA, or community-supported agriculture directly connects farmers and consumers, giving people the opportunity to buy “shares” of a farm’s harvest in advance and then receive a portion of the crops as they’re harvested).

I sat down with Harald to better understand the concept of Biodynamics and how we can incorporate Biodynamic principles into our own lives and own gardens, no matter how small the footprint. (Hear my full interview with Harald on my podcast, FUELED Wellness + Nutrition with Molly Kimball).

“The goal is for a farm to be self-supportive, that we don’t just buy whatever ingredients, even organic ingredients, but that we grow or raise them on the farm. Insects, seeds, compost, green manure (‘cover crops’ or other plants that are left in the field to decompose, serving as natural fertilizer) – the idea is that these ingredients now have a relationship to where we are farming,” says Harald.

“In nature, things tend to take care of themselves. But in the beginning, it’s almost like the land needs medicine – over time, though, you’ll need to add very little.”

“When you’re just starting out, you may have an absolute mess, with terrible quality soil. The soil is the most important place to start. And compost is essential for this, it is one of the most critical elements of Biodynamic farming.”

Compost + decay: The magic of like

The guys at NewTree Ranch are beyond excited about their compost. They’re proud of what they’ve created, rightly so, and exuberantly grab fistfuls of it for me to squeeze and smell.

And after talking with Harald, I’ll never look at compost – or decay, the same again. Harald explains why it’s part of the magic of life, something to be appreciated as a beautiful process of life.

“I always encourage people to make compost even if it’s very little – or using vermiculture with worms. The magic of life — you just can’t see it in a better way than really seeing a compost pile,” he says.

“You see the magic of decay, that of what’s useless, turned into something that the farmers regard as gold. To see this, and to witness time transforming something useless into something that is building the future is just such a teacher.”

“Try to participate in nature so that we aren’t just victims in what happens out there, as we throw everything into the garbage where it doesn’t do any good. But rather, we make compost – and with that little bit that we have, whether it’s on the balcony or in small pots, it makes a difference. And we appreciate life a little differently. And that appreciation is what nature needs from us.”

Also important are six herbal preparations that can be added to compost, and Biodynamic sprays including horn manure, horn silica and horsetail. You can make your own, or buy them premade (Biodynamics.com has details and links to retailers).

These preparations improve the nutritional value of the compost, bringing more trace minerals to the soil, which in turn should increase the nutritional value of the plants in the soil.

Planting friends with friends

Companion planting is another approach that Harald encourages farmers to incorporate. As he explains, “companion planting is sort of like people – there are some people we just get along with, others not so much. Some people help us become better, others just aren’t a match.  With companion planting, we put these ‘friends’ together. And the more diversified the farm or garden, the more buffering or resilience you have – one thing takes care of another, one crop supports the other.”

Pairing specific plants together helps to maximize the health of a garden or farm, since certain plants serve to protect other plants from pests or boost soil nutrients.

Harald says to plant celery with leek, garlic, or onions, for example. Root celery often gets a particular fungus, but planting it next to leeks helps to reduce the odds of developing this fungus.  And with the companion plant providing the protection, there is no need for artificial pesticides.  

Other examples of plants that have each other’s back: Basil with tomatoes, marigolds next to cucumbers, mint amongst lettuce. For a full rundown, check out The Farmer’s Almanac reference guide to companion plants for the top veggies planted.

What’s the ideal Biodynamic farm?

In the US, we often want a specific, defined answer: “Tell me what’s best, tell me the ideal formula, the plan for a Biodynamic farm or garden, and I’ll do it.” But with Biodynamic, it’s not that simple. Far from it, actually. It’s more about what the land wants, says Harald, and what you’re creating as part of the full ecosystem of the land.

Is Biodynamics better?

There is very little published research about the health benefits of Biodynamic farming, particularly about whether crops that are Biodynamically raised are more nutrient-dense. But there’s no doubt that it’s an approach that’s better for the environment, the community, and the soil, which ultimately means it’s better for us.

Molly Kimball, RD, CSSD is a registered dietitian + nutrition journalist in New Orleans. Tune in to her podcast, FUELED | Wellness + Nutrition and follow her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter at @MollyKimballRD. See more of Molly’s columns + TV segments at www.mollykimball.com.

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