Feature

Full circle farming

G Magazine

With our growing awareness of where our food comes from, some farmers are taking organic produce to the next level. But what exactly is the story behind biodynamic farming?

full circle farming

A moon and zodiac-inspired planting chart is said to enhance production on a biodynamic farm.

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In the classic Orwellian novel Animal Farm, the seventh and most important ‘Commandment of Animalism’ proclaims that ‘all animals are equal’. In practice, however, the pigs rule the farm, leaving the cows, horses, donkeys and chickens to squander at the bottom of the food chain. Expanding the original maxim to include crops and soil, minus the socialist undertones, biodynamic farming seeks to create a balanced, self-contained farming ecosystem.

“Biodynamic farmers treat their farms as an organism in itself, utilising soil, crops and animals working together as a team,” says naturopath Johanna Clark. According to the Biodynamic Agricultural Association in the UK, a biodynamic farm functions as a strong and self-sustaining single organism that respects the basic principles at work in nature to farm crops and animals for sustainable consumption.

Self-contained farming

Biodynamic farming methods are based on a series of lectures given by Austrian philosopher and scientist Rudolph Steiner in the 1920s. A biodynamic farm is viewed as a holistic, self-contained entity within which soils, crops, animals and farmers work interdependently to generate health and fertility as much as possible from within the farm itself. Livestock manure feeds the soil and crops, which feed the livestock and eventually the people who consume the biodynamic produce.

Steiner advocated the use of special manure and herb-based preparations that are used to enhance the quality of the soil. Of the nine preparations that aid fertilisation, two are used for preparing fields and seven for making compost.

“Biodynamic farming is based on a series of powerful soil activators,” says Alan Johnstone, from Biodynamic Agriculture Australia. “One of the field preparations involves cow horns filled with cow manure, which we bury in the ground over winter."

“The manure is transformed in these cow horns into a powerful substance, which we take out and stir into water. Doing this regularly seems to increase the earthworm population and the amount of water the soil can take in, and it builds the soil so the soil levels increase.

“The second field preparation is called horn silica,” adds Johnstone. “It’s crushed quartz that is put in a cow horn over summer. It magnifies the light and warmth coming into the crop, which increases photosynthesis, and develops the sugars and flavours of the food.”

A moon and zodiac-inspired planting chart is said to enhance production, as Steiner believed there are astrological influences on farming. It might sound like hocus-pocus, but Johnstone says if you were to dig a hole in a biodynamic farm and a conventional farm, the difference in soil quality is easily distinguished.

Biodynamic vs organic

As with organic farming, Clark says biodynamic farms don’t use artificial chemicals, fertilisers or pesticides, but the latter takes it to the next level. “Organic farming doesn’t utilise the interrelated system of plants, animals and the solar system like biodynamic.”

Johnstone says farmers who work with biodynamic methods try to create a similar effect to fertiliser within the self-contained farming system, where natural fertilisers – essentially a type of compost – are produced on the farm itself.

The astrological and cosmic aspects of biodynamic farming make traditional scientific assessment tricky and, as such, the organic way is preferred in mainstream circles. There are also questions over whether biodynamic methods yield healthier and more sustainable produce than organic.

Many scientists are put off by the cosmic component of biodynamic farming, believing that, while it is
eco-friendly, it doesn’t top the organic approach. Research has shown that biodynamic and organic soils share similarly high-quality soil. Globally, organically managed land exceeds 37 million hectares – of which 32 per
cent is in Australia – while biodynamic land covers about 140,000 hectares.

Nutrient rich

Johnstone says biodynamic produce is higher in nutrients than organic, and particularly conventional, produce.

It’s also a good alternative for people with food allergies. “People and animals don’t have to eat as much of it to get the nutrition they need,” he says. “Some people who have been allergic to milk are able to drink biodynamic milk.”

There’s not much difference in taste between biodynamic and organic produce, says Clark, but biodynamic is a lot more expensive and difficult to find. “It’s not as easy as doing one shop a week and going down to your local supermarket. You’re not going to find a lot of biodynamic produce there. However, a lot of organic grocery tores will have a number of product lines that are biodynamic.”

Biodynamic wine is probably the industry’s most well-known product, spurred on by a movement in popular viticulture regions in France and the US. Look for certification by international body Demeter on all biodynamic goods.

Ethical sourcing of Cow horns

Rudolf Steiner, the founder of biodynamic agriculture, believed cows need their horns as much as their organs. Following this principle, international body Demeter states that biodynamic farmers must allow cows to keep their horns. The cow horns used to make soil activators are a by-product of the beef industry.