New Dimensions in Tasty Food
Biodynamic agriculture, the next step beyond organic, involves esoteric farming techniques—but the fruits and vegetables taste better than you ever dreamed
by Jay Walljasper
Published in Ode Magazine
I know a thing or two about farms. My uncles raised sheep, cattle and corn in the rolling hills of Iowa. My wife’s family raises hogs and soybeans on the flat prairie of Minnesota. As a journalist, I’ve visited organic farms in the U.S., Europe and South America. So when walking into a barn full of cows at the Warmonderhof Agricultural School in the Netherlands, I instinctively cover my nose.
But there’s no odour. The mixture of manure, straw, clover and hay smells almost sweet. I must look surprised because Jan Saal, director of the Warmonderhof Foundation that runs the school, tells me with a smile, “Yes, the dung smells different—not a lot of ammonia smell here.” He goes on to say that biodynamic agriculture—a way of farming that involves paying detailed attention to creating high-quality soil—results in lower levels of nitrogen in animal feed and manure, which accounts for the agreeable fragrance of the livestock stalls.
I’m at Warmonderhof Agricultural School, an hour north of Amsterdam by train, to learn about biodynamics, which intrigues me as a method of ecological agriculture—and some believe is the next step beyond organic. But the whole undertaking fuels my skepticism about esoteric practices that purport to bring a spiritual dimension to farming. Crops are planted according to the cycles of the moon. Manure is buried inside cows’ horns, and yarrow blossoms are stuffed into stags’ bladders to give special properties to compost. Crushed quartz is sprayed onto fields in quantities so minute it’s hard to believe it could make a difference. How do I make sense of all this?
Yet, on the other hand, how do I explain the surprising smell of the barn?
Interest in biodynamic agriculture is growing worldwide, sparked by a newfound environmental consciousness, as well as suspicion from some that the organic foods industry is more interested in huge profits than in quality food or careful stewardship of the land.
In Germany, 10 percent of all organically farmed land is biodynamic, according to agronomist Martin Kern of that country’s Research Institute for Biodynamics (IBDF in German). In Australia, membership in the group Biodynamic Agriculture Australia has jumped from 400 to 1,200 in the last seven years, according to CEO Hamish Mackay. He estimates some 50,000 hectares (123,550 acres) are farmed biodynamically across the country. In the U.S., the number of biodynamic operations has tripled since 2004, according to Demeter, the trade association that certifies farms and other food businesses. The group now has 106 members, ranging from a pasta sauce company in New Jersey to a cattle ranch in Arkansas to a creamery in Montana.
There may be more biodynamic farms than international statistics show, since some growers don’t bother with certification because it’s an extensive, expensive process and biodynamic crops don’t yet fetch higher prices than organic ones. Katrina Frey of Frey Vineyards in California, a member of Demeter’s board, notes, “It’s growing rapidly in the United States. There are so many people who want to go beyond organic, some of whom feel that organic has lost its sense as a grassroots movement.”
Wine is the sector in which biodynamic production is surging ahead right now, as winemakers in Europe and on the U.S. West Coast discover it makes a marked difference in the taste of their vintages. A full third of Demeter-certified operations in the U.S. are vineyards or wineries.
Tea is another arena in which biodynamic farming is making inroads. Ambootia, one of several Indian tea concerns that went biodynamic in the 1980s, now farms more than 6,000 hectares (15,000 acres) on 12 estates in Darjeeling and Assam, India. Shashank Goel, founder of the start-up Ineeka Teas, whose family owns Ambootia, notes that, “In Paris, people will pay up to $2,500 a kilo (more than $1,000 a pound) for our tea now. People don’t pay that kind of money unless you have a superior product. It was easy for us to get started. Biodynamic is like the way people have been farming in India for centuries. Thinking of farming spiritually is long-rooted tradition here.”
The world’s first biodynamic farm was established in Loverendale, the Netherlands, in 1926, but the idea draws upon centuries of tradition about how best to take care of the soil and grow wholesome food. The principles of biodynamics were originally articulated in a series of lectures to farmers near Breslau, Germany, (now Wroclaw, Poland) in 1924 by Rudolf Steiner, a controversial figure then and now.
An Austrian scientific researcher and mystic with a devoted following throughout Europe, Steiner introduced a number of practical social innovations that are still flourishing: Waldorf education, in which children learn at their own pace; Camphill communities, where developmentally disabled adults are cared for as part of a wider community; anthroposophic medicine, which helped set the tone for today’s holistic-health movement; and experiments in alternative economics, which led to the creation of the GLS bank in Germany, the Rudolf Steiner Foundation in the U.S. and the Triodos Bank in the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain and the UK.
Many people find the spiritual theories behind Steiner’s work challenging, and can’t accept the full scope of his anthroposophic philosophy, including his emphasis on the powerful properties of certain water-washed colours and his belief in the ancient civilization of Atlantis.
Even many loyal to biodynamic farming dismiss some of Steiner’s teachings. Hartmut Spiess, one of the world’s leading biodynamics researchers, notes, “Steiner himself said that what he was saying had to be tested under real conditions and if it doesn’t work, then it’s rubbish. He said we must keep developing spiritual science and that his work was just a beginning.”
Spiess’ own research at Germany’s IBDF found no scientific basis for claims by Steiner and early followers that the astrological alignment of the planets affects crop growth. But over lunch in the dining room of Dottenfelderhof—an old monastery outside Frankfurt that houses the institute, along with a working farm, cattle herd, natural-foods grocery, bakery, cheese plant and 100 residents—Spiess says firm evidence supports the influence of lunar cycles on plants. Pointing to a pot of stew on the table, he explains that carrots planted several days before the full moon get higher yields. With potatoes, he says, it’s just the opposite; they grow best when planted at the new moon.
Spiess insists it’s no surprise that the moon’s gravitational pull would affect plant life; tides in the ocean, after all, are governed by lunar cycles. He references a 1998 article in Nature showing that tree trunks expand and contract according to effects of the moon. Published studies from Austria and Cuba, he says, demonstrate that wood from pine and fir trees cut before the full moon is more susceptible to damage from bark beetles. His own research with carrots found they spoil less when planted before the full moon—which fits with reports from many biodynamic gardeners that their produce keeps longer than that grown by conventional or organic methods.
Spiess’ data sound convincing, but I know one thing for sure: The unexpectedly rich flavour of the stew instills in me a new appreciation for the sensuous, delicious potential of root vegetables. Carrots, potatoes and squash never tasted this good.
While some tenets of biodynamic farming can be explained by ancient peasant knowledge or modern ecological understanding—for instance, the idea of setting aside 10 percent of all acreage to be kept wild, or of rotating crops in cycles of five to seven years—others strain the patience of many who are steeped in Western thinking.
Especially challenging are preparations applied to the land and to crops, which is the essence of biodynamic agriculture. Steiner mandated that fields be sprayed once each year with minute amounts of cattle manure that’s been stored inside a cow horn buried underground all winter, and once with ground quartz stored in a cow horn buried over the summer.
Manure buried in a cow horn acquires special properties, according to biodynamics researchers, affecting biochemical processes in the soil that allow plants to take root more firmly and “interact” more fully with nutrients. The quartz preparation—which dilutes 5 grams (less than a quarter of an ounce) of the crushed rock in 60 litres (16 gallons) of water for each hectare—is believed to strengthen the structure of plants, enhancing flavour, fragrance and shelf life.
Steiner also recommended seven special procedures for making compost based upon medicinal herbs like yarrow, nettle or chamomile being mixed with water, peat, deer bladders or cattle intestines. “This is the art of the compost,” declares Warmonderhof’s Jan Saal.
Walking me through the 85 hectare (210 acre) farm, where more than 80 youths aged 16 to 19 (and a few adult students) learn biodynamic farming techniques at a school supported by the Dutch education ministry, Saal emphasizes that the purpose of these spiritually inspired practises is to create prime topsoil. Animal organs, horns, medicinal herbs, minerals, manure, long-term crop rotation and consultation of lunar cycles—as well as other biodynamic principles, such as nurturing wild animals, keeping bees and minimizing use of inputs not produced on the farm—help make the soil as healthy as possible, he says, even if science can’t yet tell us exactly how.
Some agricultural researchers confirm claims about the quality of biodynamic soil. A study comparing 16 neighbouring conventional and biodynamic farms in New Zealand published in Science in 1993 concluded that “biodynamic farms proved in most enterprises to have soils of high biological and physical quality: significantly greater in organic-matter content and microbial activity, more earthworms, better soil structure, lower bulk density, easier penetrability and thicker topsoil.” Richer topsoil, claim biodynamic advocates, translates to crops that are sturdier, more disease- and pest-resistant, more nutritious, less perishable, taller and better-tasting.
Saal notes that neighbouring farmers dismissed biodynamics as a crackpot idea when the Warmonderhof school, founded in 1947, relocated here to the Netherlands’ Flevoland province in 1993. But now they’re wondering about things like why the biodynamic fields don’t have the same problems with carrot flies that theirs do.
Thieu Verdonschot, who has grown pumpkins, squash, onions, cabbage and other biodynamic produce on Warmonderhof land for 11 years, remarks, “When conventional farmers see something is working, they take notice. Just yesterday, a farmer asked me about my mustard crop because it is much taller than his. And last week another said I must be farming conventionally now because there were no weeds in my carrots.”
While the phrase “biodynamic” actually predates “organic” (which wasn’t formulated as a concept until 1945 by Sir Albert Howard, a British botanist who studied traditional methods of farming in India and Europe), the vast majority of biodynamic growers and customers have come out of the ranks of organic enthusiasts. “I’d gardened organically for years,” says John Schaeffer, founder of the Real Goods solar and sustainable-products company. But when he decided to plant 130 hectares (320 acres) of land in Northern California in olive trees and grape vines, he opted for biodynamic cultivation. “It’s the next thing,” he says. “Organic doesn’t do as much to give back to the soil.”
The emergence of huge organic farms—where monoculture crops are planted in endless rows, where animals don’t step outdoors, where low-paid farm labourers do the work—leaves some questioning whether organic is much of an improvement over conventional farming. “A lot of organic farms still think conventionally,” observes Saal. “They use organic fertilizers and pesticides in the same way as conventional farmers. Their thinking has not changed. They don’t view the farm as a living organism.”
Elizabeth Candelario, a marketing representative with Demeter, underscores the point. “The only thing required of an organic farm is that they don’t use artificial fertilizers and pesticides, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs),” she says. “Organic doesn’t deal with crop rotation, biodiversity, topsoil, wildlife, composting or how the food is processed.”
Martin Kleinschmit, a cattle farmer in Bow Valley, Nebraska, who made the transition to organic farming 15 years ago when he saw it was more profitable as well as better for the land, is now reading up on biodynamics. “It seems almost like voodoo and there are a lot of things I don’t understand about it,” he says. “But I believe it’s more than organic. There’s a lot of research to support that.”
For now, Kleinschmit has no plans to go biodynamic, he says, because it would take a lot of time to learn a new way to farm and he doubts it could fetch a higher price.
Jonathan Smith, a 26-year-old British organic vegetable grower, recently hosted a biodynamic conference at his small farm on the Isles of Scilly, 30 miles off the southwest coast of England. “What holds me back is the discipline in following biodynamics,” he says. “It’s not easy to get started. You can’t just do it half-measure and see if you want to go all the way. And it looks as if it would involve more labour and time to do it, and I’m not sure you can get a price beyond that of organic.”
Yet Smith admits some of his doubts about biodynamics faded when he saw how it was done. At the conference, one of Steiner’s prescribed preparations was applied to his compost pile, and he’s curious to see what happens. “Who knows? If I see some great results, I might go in for it.”
The difficulty for farmers in making the transition is one thing that keeps biodynamic produce a rare sight in grocery stores, even ones specializing in natural foods. Most people in North America get biodynamic fruits and vegetables direct from the farm through a community-supported agriculture program that biodynamic growers helped pioneer.
It’s far easier for wine-growers to convert to biodynamics because vineyards rarely exceed a few acres and there’s a substantial financial premium for grapes believed to have a finer taste. Indeed, wine is rooted in the concept of terroir—essentially, the taste of a place—which fits neatly with the biodynamic emphasis on the soil itself. This explains why wine is the fastest-growing sector by far in biodynamic agriculture.
Indeed, the wine industry is the only sector within which biodynamics is seeing any growth in northern Europe, its longtime stronghold. The number of biodynamic farmers is growing slowly in Germany, according to Kern of the IBDF and actually declined in the Netherlands for several years until levelling off at about 120 in 2005, according to Saal. This in spite of all the enthusiastic students in rubber boots shovelling manure at the Warmonderhof Agricultural School, which is thriving even though a nearby conventional agricultural college recently shut its doors.
What explains this stagnation at a time when biodynamics is taking off in North America, Australia, New Zealand, India, Brazil and even Egypt?
Saal blames the high cost of getting started in farming, especially biodynamic cultivation. He says it’s impossible for most Warmonderhof students to buy farms, even from biodynamic growers who got involved in the 1960s and are now retiring. “A lot of our students go to France or Eastern Europe,” he says, “where the land is less expensive.”
A second factor, Saal says, may be the mystical nature of biodynamic practise, which deters aspiring farmers who are interested in growing food but not in exploring new spiritual realms.
That’s why Candelario, whose job it is to drum up further interest in biodynamics in the U.S., says, “I’m focusing on the quality of the food and the health of the soil, not whether someone has a more spiritual sense of farming. I see it as a lot like yoga. You are more likely to get started because you want to be more flexible and have better cardiovascular health rather than as a spiritual search. Then later, you may get interested in the spiritual side of it.”
I reconsider my own leeriness about the magical, mystical elements of biodynamics when picking a big red apple from a tree in Warmonderhof’s orchard and taking a bite.
Now I know a thing or two about organic apples straight from the tree, having gobbled many in my father-in-law’s backyard orchard. And this apple is different from any I’ve eaten before, I exclaim to Saal—it has a more intense, complex taste, which seems to offer many flavours at once. “That’s what we say about biodynamics,” he answers, chomping his own apple.
Greedily, I take another bite, and decide I have no problem with cows’ horns, quartz rock, stags’ bladders, chamomile blossoms, stinging nettles, intricate manure recipes, the full moon, or any other spiritual dimension of farming. Anything that produces an apple this good makes perfect sense to me.