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Beyond Sustainability: The Regenerative Promise of Biodynamics

Written by Lisa Reagan   
Friday, 01 June 2012 00:00
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Beyond Sustainability: The Regenerative Promise of Biodynamics
Biodynamics Predates the Organic Movement
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Standing under the news-making conjunction of Venus and Jupiter in the night sky this past February, I realize, once again, the frogs are early. So were the tiny, native blossoms covering the hillside under my feet. These traditional heralds of spring are childhood friends who usually lift my spirits out of winter’s chill, but another balmy winter in Southeastern Virginia blurs the frost and planting dates, as well as my emotions on welcoming my old friends.

The next day I hike through the woods with my son to his new fort, built in a hundred-year-old oak blown down by one of last fall’s hurricanes—more evidence of climate change, as warming ocean temperatures are brewing increasingly powerful storms. On my walk through the woods, I am observant and open. This forest, I know, is the real model of life I wish to emulate in my garden during this early-arriving spring: a perfectly balanced, self-regulating ecosystem that effortlessly grows food and provides shelter for its inhabitants.

As my son and I step through the forest’s edge and back onto the cleared pastureland of our small farm, we also step into an uncomfortable truth: farming isn’t natural.

It is meaningful that the word humility’s root is humus, the Latin for soil. Anyone who has worked with the soil of this Earth for very long will find herself humbled by its profound ability to rebirth life from the seemingly dead matter of a compost pile into living plants, season after season. It is those few steps from inside the forest to an intensely, mechanically cleared, tilled, planted and harvested piece of Earth that reveals the truth about farming…and more important, our own consciousness.

“The mind is more comfortable in a landscaped park because it has been planned through thought; it has not grown organically. There is an order here that the mind can understand,” writes Eckhart Tolle in A New Earth. “In the forest, there is an incomprehensible order that to the mind looks like chaos.... As soon as you sense that hidden harmony, that sacredness, you realize you are not separate from it, and when you realize that, you become a conscious participant in it. In this way, nature can help you become realigned with the wholeness of life.”

In New Roots for Agriculture, Wes Jackson points out that “A profound truth has escaped us. Soil is a placenta or matrix, a living organism which is larger than the life it supports, a tough elastic membrane which has given rise to many life forms…. But it is itself now dying. It is a death that is utterly senseless, and portends our own.”

The impact of the industrial approach and its nutrientempty produce makes daily headlines and inspires a growing wave of home gardeners, locavores and food activists. While this shift towards a more sustainable food system is great, is it enough? Or do efforts need to be made to restore and heal the Earth? How will we heal the Earth without healing our own consciousness and the disconnect that destroyed the living soil and created superweeds and chemically toxic rivers in the first place?

Is there an approach to working in partnership with living forces of the Earth that humbly concedes the act of growing food on a large scale isn’t “natural” at all, but can be done in a way that elevates our own consciousness while increasing the health and vitality of the Earth? I believe the answer is yes.


Romancing the Farm

When we moved to this little farm, I admit that my husband and I had some romantic notions about homesteading, inspired by the cute little red barn and tree swing by the frog pond. But ten years later, we wholeheartedly agree with relationship guru Harville Hendrix, who says “romance” is the anesthesia that gets you into position to do your personal work…and onto your soul’s path.

After burning through our romantic ideations on many levels in 24 years of marriage, we are here to tell anyone who listens that farming and marriage are both doorways to a rewarding place of deep relationship and soul adventures…if you hang in there through the waking-up process!

As we discovered, we weren’t the only ones romancing the farm. In the years that we ran a community supported agriculture program, CSA, you would have thought we were dealing in something other than squash the way perfect strangers pulled up to our home, banged on the front door, looked around hungrily at the rolling hills and gardens, and demanded to buy organic produce on the spot. There was no sign pointing to our house from the road or long dirt driveway, so I was never sure how they found us in the first place. (As a CSA, our clients signed up at the beginning of the season and we picked and dropped off produce twice a week in town.)

This shared experience with other Virginia growers was not uncommon. In fact, it was acknowledged among a few of us that the unnerving and escalating consumer demand couldn’t really be about that perfect slicing heirloom tomato. Could it?

Something is being overlooked in the burgeoning number of farmer’s markets, natural grocers and big box stores, whose increasing demand for organic produce has so outstripped the number of local organic farmers that we now import “organic” produce from China. Nowhere in this current scenario does the word “sustainable” apply. Nowhere.

Even the local, sustainable farms that do exist in the United States are up against a billion-dollar, fast-food industrial agriculture system funded by government subsidies and propped up by immigrant worker wages and slave labor (read the book The Nobodies by John Bowe for more on slavery in the United States).

However, in late 2011, an interesting silver lining appeared on the dark cloud surrounding the future of farming in the United States, when the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act was introduced in congress. The act, cosponsored by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, NSAC, is a “sign of awareness of the need for farmers,” but acknowledges that the high barriers to entry “make farming and ranching one of the hardest careers to pursue.”

“Limited access to land and markets, hyperinflation in land prices, high input costs, farm and tax policy disadvantages, and lack of training discourage many would-be producers from entering agriculture,” states the NSAC’s website. “As a result, the average American farmer is now 57 years old, and the fastest growing group of farm operators are those 65 years and older.”

What an exceptional opportunity this could be in the coming years, if substantial and ongoing federal funding is committed to creating a new generation of farmers. Just as my family was lured into a relationship with the Earth through romantic notions, I am sure many others will be, as well.

While it took years of exploring a variety of sustainable farming practices before we finally hit upon one that included our own consciousness as a part of the health and healing of ourselves and the Earth, we are impressed with the high quality of food and relationship with the Earth that Biodynamics produces. With a truly sustainable and holistic approach, Biodynamics seeks to reconcile the split in the human as well as the few discernible inches between the self-sustaining forest and farmland.

“As the farmer grows, so grows the community and the culture. Those people who grow the food and tend the animals, and cultivate the fibers, are among the most important people in our society,” writes Parker Forsell, the Biodynamic program coordinator at Angelic Organics (managed by “Farmer John” Peterson of the documentary, The Dirt on Farmer John). “It is not the sports stars or the Hollywood movie stars that are the hub of culture. The farmers with their hands in the soil, or on the bodies of baby animals, or on the wheels of the grain combine enable us all to think good thoughts, to feel warmth in our hearts, and to run, and jump and grow in our bodies.”


The Origin of Biodynamics

Biodynamics began when German farmers—at the height of the agricultural crisis brought about by new chemical fertilizers in the early 20th century—became concerned about the decreasing fertility in their soil and increasingly diseased cattle. The farmers turned to Austrian philosopher and scientist Rudolf Steiner for help. Steiner, initially an editor of the scientific works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, integrated his disciplined scientific mind with his spiritually gifted clairvoyance to found Anthroposophy—the philosophy of spiritual science that led to Waldorf education, the movement art form of eurythmy, and valuable contributions to medicine, architecture, drama and poetry.

Only after being intensely persuaded for many years, the story goes, Steiner finally answered the German farmers’ requests for help. In his series of eight lectures, entitled The Agriculture Course, presented less than a year before his death in 1925, Steiner provided a new science of cosmic influences that would reorient the farmers and enable them to grasp his recommendations for creating the nine preparations and a cosmically influenced planting and harvesting calendar. In his sixth lecture, Steiner pointed out that when we look at something through a microscope, our focus blocks out the rest of the universe. The more we concentrate on the microscope, the more we block the macrocosm.

“They didn’t get it,” says Hugh Courtney, founder of the Josephine Porter Institute for Applied Biodynamics, JPI, in a phone interview. “They didn’t understand a word of what he said. They took the information into hiding. It took years for people to understand how to make the preparations and work with the Biodynamic calendar.”

A retired naval commander, Courtney founded JPI in 1985 on a 100-acre cattle farm in Woolwine, Virginia, to carry on the lifelong work of Josephine Porter, who created Biodynamic preparations for three decades in the U.S. The institute hosts international groups throughout the year and teaches hands-on the creation of the Biodynamic preparations, which Courtney says has made him a “heretic” in some circles.

“The Biodynamic movement is growing, but we are still young, probably in our kindergarten phase,” shared Courtney.