Part 1 - Healthy Soil, Healthy Spirit
Biodynamic practices play an important role at Teton Full Circle Farm. To help you better understand the topic, we will be focusing on Biodynamic Agriculture in several of the upcoming newsletters. To begin, we would like to briefly discuss the history of Biodynamics. In 1924, Rudolf Steiner gave a series of eight lectures in Silesia, Germany. These lectures were presented in response to farmers' increasing concern about deteriorating soil conditions and declining health of their plants and animals due to increased use of chemical inputs. The wisdom Steiner shared in these lectures includes the foundation of today's organic agriculture and goes a step farther, introducing a philosophical and spiritual component into the art of farming. Today, biodynamic practices are used in over 50 countries in circumstances ranging from vegetable and dairy farms to viticulture and silkworm breeding.
There are four main principles of Biodynamic agriculture: enlivening and enhancing the soil, treating the farm as its own organism, working with the cosmos, and acknowledging the importance of the intuitive and spiritual connection the farmer shares with his/her individual farm. This week's farm update will focus on the soil.
The health of our soil begins with the organic practices of crop rotations, cover cropping, and composting. Crop rotations ensure we never "mine" the same nutrients from the same part of the garden by growing the same plant year after year. Cover crops are used to limit the amount of bare soil on the farm while accumulating nutrients and providing habitat for beneficial soil organisms. These are also used to increase plant diversity on the farm. On top of these two methods, adding on-farm created compost annually allows us to not only maintain soil fertility, but also build live, active soil.
To further increase the stability, texture, biodiversity, and fertility of the soil, Biodynamic Preparations are used as inoculants and stimulants. All 9 preps, 500-508 are best used altogether where they can complement the effects of one another. This is particularly true with the two we have spread so far, preparations 500 and 501.These preparations work not only on a physical or material level, but also an energetic level.
We spread the 500, also called "horn manure" this spring on two separate occasions. This preparation focuses primarily on soil life and drawing energy into the soil. To prepare the horn manure we collected green cow manure, packed it into cow horns, and buried it in the topsoil over the winter months.
In the spring, the horns are dug up and emptied. The once green manure is now a beautiful, dark humus packed with billions of beneficial bacteria and fungi. This mix is then screened and mixed with water (potentized) for an hour in a barrel before it is applied to the fields with a whisk broom. This process inoculates the field with beneficial microbes and enhances subtle cosmic energies.
Unlike the horn manure, 501 or "horn silica" is used mainly to stimulate ripening and discourage rotting by focusing energy upward into the plant body. The steps taken to prepare the 501 are very similar to the 500, but the effect is much different. Two weeks ago we spread 501 using a sprayer before sunrise and watched as it lifted into the air with the morning dew, creating a "cloud" of silica. This is a significant effect, as quartz is used in applications from microscopes to magnifying glasses, each of which is powerful at enhancing images as well as channeling energy (have you ever lit something on fire with a magnifying glass?). Spreading this prep in this manner thus helps channel both light energy and subtle cosmic influences that play a subtle role in the ripening of our crops.
Part 2 - Nurturing the Farm Organism
Conventional agriculture teaches us to judge a system by the sum of its parts, ignoring synergies and interdependencies inherent to natural systems. In contrast, Rudolf Steiner encourages farmers to look at the farm as an individuality, a whole organism with all of its organs (soil, plant, animal and human) present. Like those of the human body, these organs each contribute their uniqueness to the sustenance and health of each other as well as the greater individual. This point was firmly stressed by Steiner in his second lecture on agriculture in 1924:
"A farm is true to its essential nature, in the best sense of the word, if it is conceived as a kind of individual entity in itself - a self-contained individuality. Every farm should approximate to this condition... ...This ideal cannot be absolutely attained, but it should be observed as far as possible. Whatever you need for agricultural production, you should try to possess it within the farm itself. A thoroughly healthy farm should be able to produce within itself all that it needs."
Steiner also spoke about achieving a balance or homeostasis within the farm. He says, "If a plant especially rich in these cosmic influences is eaten by an animal, the manure that the animal's digestive system provides as a result of consuming such fodder, will be just the right thing for the soil where that plant grows." In other words, the energy in the materials comes full circle from soil to plant to animal to soil. Each time this cycle is repeated, the land becomes healthier and more balanced. The plants on a specific piece of ground do best when their fertility is generated by means of animals grazing on that same ground. Conversely, when inputs come from outside the farm, the farm's potential, quality and overall health become limited.
Viewing farms as self-contained is reflected in modern 'sustainable' agriculture in general as a way to heal the environment. Using inputs primarily from the farm drastically reduces the amount of fuel spent transporting compost and animal feeds. Relying on animals to cycle nutrients saves time and energy when compared to plowing, fertilizing, and cultivating ground. Using horses, PV panels, and wind turbines located on the farm reduces a farm's carbon footprint and subsequent impacts on the community and climate. By keeping materials and energy local, the farm becomes more vibrant and our ecologies more healthy.
You don't have to be a farmer to be physically and spiritually connected to a farm. The simple fact that we all eat is what ties us all directly to agriculture. What we choose to eat, in addition to the everyday decisions of the farmer, are what Steiner refers to when he talks about the "human organ." These choices are powerful, going beyond the farm into the local and even global community. By eating local foods, we contribute not only to organic, sustainable farming, but also to local economic sustainability, a resilient community, and even meaningful personal relationships. We believe that people who understand how their food is grown helps to keep the source viable, vital and personal. In these ways, we nourish a symbiosis between the farm and the greater community.
Teton Full Circle Farm is a unique individuality. It is fostered as a whole farm organism as best as possible as we seek to carry out a vision of a hardy, self-contained entity. So far we generate our own compost from on-farm livestock and crop residue which is returned directly to the same land. We feed our animals from the farm whenever possible by grazing our chickens and pigs and feeding them fruit and vegetable scraps. In the future, we hope to produce all of our own feed, fertility, and energy to be as self-reliant as possible. At the same time, the farm is inexorably linked to the greater community and its health depends on the choices we all make going forward.
“A vibrant farm is only possible when the needs of the farmer are met, new farmers are nurtured, and those being fed from the farm are integrated into the process. The human organ of the farm is not just the farmer, it's everyone who eats food from this farm.” - Marie Gewirtz
Part 3 - Tuning into the Cosmos
On Teton Full Circle Farm we work to tune into the cycles and rhythms - both subtle and dramatic - that shape life on earth. Let's begin with the dramatic rhythms. Over the course of 24 hours, we experience the rhythm of day and night - a result of the earth spinning on its axis. Over the course of the year, we feel the rhythm of the seasons as the tilt of the earth's axis exposes different parts of the globe to the intensity of the sun's energy as it completes one full revolution around the sun. The poles experience the most dramatic seasonal changes in hot and cold, light and dark while the equator experiences the equally drastic cycles of rainy and dry.
As we look deeper, more subtle influences become apparent. Most of us notice or accept that certain meteorological conditions intensify the pains of a given illness or ailment. We also generally acknowledge that a women's menstrual cycle reflects the course of the Moon's cycle around the Earth. Biodynamic Agriculture goes a step beyond these subtle influences, suggesting that there are many more phenomena in the biological make up of men and women, plants and animals, and even bacteria and fungi that replicate these deep rhythms.
Maria Thun, a student of Steiner spent her lifetime studying and conducting research on the influences of the cosmos on plant life. She planted trial after trial of numerous crops, keeping all conditions the same except for the day they were planted. Through an astronomical sample size and meticulous records, Maria found an undeniable association between plant quality and the moon's position in the sky. For the 50 years up until her death in 2012, Maria published a yearly calendar (her work continues through her son, Matthias Thun) reflecting her results outlining the best times for planting, transplanting and harvesting based on her rigorous research. On the farm, this calendar helps us organize our actions throughout the growing season while providing insight into the weather and other subtle seasonal changes.
In his foundational lectures on agriculture, Rudolf Steiner encouraged farmers in Europe to notice a wider scope of influences acting on the plants and animals they were working with. "We have to commit ourselves to a much broader way of looking at the life of plants and animals, and also at the life of the Earth itself. We must widen our outlook to include the cosmos." This holistic viewpoint is precisely what guides our senses and actions on the farm which enable us to produce healthy soil and vibrant plants. In other words, it is important to become familiar with the complexities of the farm rather than succumbing to the reductionist thinking of industrial agriculture that values simplicity and efficiency over understanding whole systems. Rather than ignoring these factors, we seek to train our instincts and feelings to help guide us deeper in our understanding of the cosmos and notice its reflections in life around us.
Rudolf Steiner best summarized the influence of the cosmos in this following metaphor. When looking into a compass, we do not just see a bunch of plastic and a needle floating in fluid, but a reflection of the magnetic poles of the earth. Likewise, when we look at a beet, it reflects much more than its genetic code or leaves and roots. Instead we see a reflection of the sun, water, earth, atmosphere, and cosmos that shape this seemingly simple, but infinitely complex organism.
Part 4 - The Spiritual Farmer
It is time we spoke about one of our main motivations as biodynamic farmers: our spiritual connection to nature. We do not build a spiritual connection with the land simply by understanding its components, but by opening our hearts and feeling a connection to its spirit, it's life force. A few days ago, around sunset, we took a walk through the garden to see what remains in the ground for the last shares. During this walk we watched how crop residues were breaking down and being absorbed among the beds to add to next year's fertility - we were watching the farm digest its food. We were witnessing the unique character of this individual farm organism. In awe of this living farm we felt a love for the life processes that embody the land.
Recognizing the spirit of the land and the role of human beings in natural systems is an ancient practice. For tens of thousands of years, humans lived primarily in horticultural societies (literally translated "plant-culture"). These societies, commonly thought of as simply "hunter/gatherer," cultivated and propagated plants in order to ensure productive foraging grounds. These people, like Native Americans, were guided by their instincts and intuitions or "knowing." They did not need to test their soils to tell them their land was healthy, they felt it. To them, Mother Earth and Father Sky were not romantic concepts, but symbols of the reality in which they lived. Through their lifestyles and reverence for all living things, these societies facilitated the regeneration of the natural systems upon which they relied and flourished.
Where horticultural societies regenerated the land, agricultural societies historically valued yields, extracting and consuming the resources nature provides. From China's Loess Plateau to Mesopotamia, agricultural societies followed the same general trajectory. They began with small populations cultivating grain. As their yields grew, so did their population, necessitating additional fields cultivated through techniques like slash and burn. After many generations and years of soil loss, these civilizations experienced famine, disease, and often war as they descended into a dark age. What these agricultural societies lacked was not spirituality in general, but a narrative that instilled humility and reverence for the natural systems they participated in. They lacked a spiritual connection to the land that served them.
The problems associated with agricultural societies are ever-present across the world today. In the name of mass production, efficiency, and above all, consumption we have cleared forests, grasslands, and other highly-functioning ecosystems in favor of monocultures kept on life support with annual injections of fossil fuel-based fertilizers and pesticides. At the same time, a vast majority of children and adults alike fail to develop a personal relationship with nature, lacking all but minimal contact to the wild. Like the agricultural societies of the past, disease, famine, and war are all too common. In America in particular, incidences of heart disease, obesity, and diabetes are at a record high. If the land from which we harvest is sick, our people are sick.
When European farmers went to Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s to ask for insight into their lands that were not productive, Steiner encouraged them to deepen their spiritual connection to the their surroundings: the earth and the sky. He asked them to tune into the subtleties of the living earth and cosmos that we are surrounded by. When we take the time to notice and have awareness of nature's rhythms, we develop a deeper heart connection. This in turn helps us to know how to care for the land in ways that are healing and nourishing. As a result, human beings are then healed and nourished, bringing the connection full circle.
We could all benefit from spending more time deepening our spiritual relationship with "mother earth" and "father sky". Time in nature helps us tune our intuitions and instincts and recognize actions that harm and help the land. It also helps us identify the actions we need to take as individuals and as a society to heal and regenerate. Eating local food, growing a garden, and using alternative transportation are only the first steps on the revolutionary path to becoming a prosperous, resilient people.