How Biodynamic Farming Spawned Organic Farming, the Vanishing City of Golden Garbage, and the North American Biodynamic Conference in Santa Fe
For coming on a decade now, I’ve often wondered when Biodynamic farming will really catch on in a big way; at least as big as its offshoot concept, Organics.
Granted, there are times when it seems huge strides are being made in Biodynamic’s extended acceptance; however, when one mentions it in everyday conversation, they’re often met with a blank stare.
Both concepts, Organic, and Biodynamic, originated from the same source, and recent research confirms Biodynamics was on the fast track to spread to the extended European continent, and beyond, when the Second World War broke, leaving this ultra-organic farming method on the outside looking in.
A recent Oxford University Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology report recognizes this important juncture in farming, elucidating the facts in The Betteshanger Summer School: Missing Link Between Biodynamic Agriculture and Organic Farming. The paper recounts the 9-day Biodynamic Summer School course offered at Lord Northbourne’s Betteshanger Estate in Kent, July 1-9, 1939, presented by the UK Biodynamic Association and Northbourne.
The course was led by Ehrenfreid Pfieffer, Steiner’s young right-hand man, and was considered the premiere Biodynamic event of the year. Pfeiffer’s Bio-Dynamic Farming and Gardening had just been published the year before; marking the culmination of fourteen years empirical testing of the theories of Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophical Agriculture group, which Pfeiffer had taken over after Steiner’s passing in 1925.
Lord Northbourne had collaborated with Pfeiffer previously and was impressed with the young German, prompting a trip to Switzerland, where Pfeiffer had fled as war seemed imminent, to persuade him to lead the Betteshanger school the preceding summer. Eight days after the school ended, Britain was at war with Germany.
The following year, Lord Northbourne’s Look To The Land was published. Considered the Organic manifesto, Lord Northbourne’s work is based on the Steinerian concept of “the farm as a living organism,” and heavily influenced by the Betteshanger School, as well as his time spent with Pfeiffer.
Yet, Northbourne’s “Organic,” is not the same as Pfeiffer’s “Bio-Dynamic.” Look To the Land is more a manifesto of Northbourne’s developed agricultural philosophy, beautifully presented in elegant prose and prescient insight, where Pfeiffer’s Bio-Dynamic is a well-documented and researched agricultural manual.
The seed of Biodynamics was planted in June of 1924 at what is now Kobierzyce, Poland, at the grand estate of Count Carl Von Keyserlingk, and attended by a mix of a hundred, or so like-minded farmers from around Europe.
In eight lectures delivered over ten days, Austrian Philosopher, Goethe expert and Waldorf Education founder, Rudolf Steiner delivered the seed concept for Biodynamics in his now famous Spiritual Foundations for the Renewal of Agriculture series.
The series was a sort of “swan song” for Steiner, as it was delivered near the end of his life; an end he was acutely aware of. In fact, he’d been feeling so weakened he fought the idea for some time, despite constant pleading from Keyserlingk, and members of his Anthroposophical agriculture group.
To understand the impetus behind the Spiritual Foundations lecture, and Biodynamics in general, it’s necessary to start with Anthroposophy.
“What the heck is Anthroposophy,”you ask.
The Waldorf Answers website describes it as, “A path of knowledge or spiritual research developed on the basis of European idealistic philosophy, rooted in the philosophies of Aristotle, Plato, and Thomas Aquinas.”
In his own words, Steiner says, “It establishes a humanist worldview as the basis for a progressive ethical individualism that works toward improving the human condition, rather than maintaining things as they are.”
A blend of Christianity and natural science, Anthroposophy seeks to bridge the gap between inspiration, imagination, and intuition, and rational methodology rooted in scientific analyses.
Steiner’s tool for examination, Goethe’s Direct Experience View integrates left and right hemispheres of the brain, combining analyses with synthesis. This was a radical departure from the Newtonian Analytical View, then much in vogue, and currently the basis for modern science, which draws conclusions about the object of study based on an examination of the parts, resulting in abstract concepts that keep the observer and observed disconnected.
Around this time, science and the trappings of the industrial revolution introduced the first synthetic fertilizers to Europe. Coupled with the use of gases and chemicals in the First World War, this presented the first gleanings of what would become an environmental malaise.
Steiner’s Spiritual Foundations was a line drawn in the sand. Farmer’s had been coming to Steiner for several years complaining of reduced crop longevity and an increase in farm animals with foot and mouth disease. The lecture series was an attempt to codify experiments his Anthroposophical Agriculture group had undertaken to address these issues.
The Vanishing City of Golden Garbage
Oakland Tribune reporter, Al Martinez’s 1952 article The City With The Golden Garbage is a slice of life piece on Pfeiffer and his partnership with an Oakland garbage company and their plan to turn the city’s trash into biodynamic fertilizer.
What’s always fascinated me is how this glowing testimony to the efficacy of Biodynamics has been lost in the annals of time. One can only wonder what happened to this most progressive of programs that miraculously came to be in the culturally repressive, post WWII atmosphere of the fifties.
The story goes something like this…sometime in October of 1950, Ehrenfreid Pfeiffer walked in to the office of Tony Dalcino, President of the Oakland Scavenger Company, which was responsible for Oakland’s 400 tons of garbage a day, to tell Dalcino he’d discovered “a new race of bacteria which could convert garbage into fertilizer, a sweet-smelling black earth which could perform virtual miracles for the land. A tablespoon of the bacteria, grown in test tubes, could turn a ton of garbage into rich humus in three weeks.”
Pfeiffer excitedly went on to tell Dalcino, “It costs Americans, as taxpayers, a few billion dollars a year when we throw away as garbage the precious minerals and organic material which we take out of the soil in the form of food: On the other hand, it costs farmers nearly $7,000,000,000 a year to put some of these minerals back in the ground in the form of chemical fertilizers. That doesn’t make sense.”
Dalcino was impressed enough to give it a go, and a special plant was built at the edge of the San Francisco Bay to treat the garbage, run by an enterprise called Comco.
At its height, as many as 100 tons of wilted refuse a day were fed into one end of a system of conveyer belts, coming out the other end as compost, ready, after a brief layover, to be shipped to farms and nurseries all over the nation.
The plant gave tours to University students and officials of other U.S. cities with sanitation problems. Apparently Lady Eve Balfour, (who penned the best-selling book The Living Soil, which quotes liberally from Lord Northbourne’s Look To The Land,) singled out her Comco trip as the highlight of her U.S. tour.
Where or when the end of such an ambitious program came is hard to determine. The only thing we can be certain of is that the concept of biodynamic agriculture has had a hard time finding traction in the U.S.
Spirit in Common: Pueblo and Biodynamic Agriculture’s Unique Bond
And so, when I heard the Biodynamic Association’s 2016 North American Biodynamic Conference was going to be held in Santa Fe, I immediately thought this would be a good opportunity for Biodynamic farming to further take root in the U.S.
Ironically, it’s the spiritual component inherent in Biodynamics that people oftentimes find alienating, yet it’s also what most closely relates it to America’s most ancient farming found among the Pueblos of the Southwest.
Pueblo, and subsequently, Navajo agriculture follows a complex seasonal pattern marked by a set calendar of dances and feasts. Hence, the appearance of specific constellations and position of the moon marks not only beginning and ending points for planting and sowing, but the performance of particular ceremonies, and when specific stories should be told.
Aside from cues from the heavens, Biodynamics and Pueblo agriculture share an inter-connected view of the universe. Where science favors specialization and a quantitative approach, Pueblo and Navajo worldviews are based on a symbiotic relationship of all things and a more qualitative approach.
To the Pueblo and Navajo way of thinking, there’s no doubt the subtle energies of the universe are at play in daily life. The past and future are continually available in the present through a series of visualizations, songs, dances and chants all performed like clockwork annually.
Biodynamics is visualized in a like manner; following a set calendar based on observable astronomical data. However, Navajo and Pueblo mythology’s colorful heroes are replaced by Christian images, but not the sort you might find preached in any given Sunday service.
Growing up in Austria, Steiner’s spiritual and religious culture was Christian, so that was the filter through which he dreamt and grappled with existential meaning. The groundwork for bridging agriculture with spirituality had been laid in previous centuries by the Cistercian Monks, and Europe’s Christian agricultural history is rife with earlier Roman and Greek observations. What Steiner did was contemporize that ancient system of knowledge through the use of Goethean Science and modern empirical testing.
Biodynamics values centralized knowledge above all else. Pueblo and Navajo agriculture also see it as ground zero in their worldview. Intimate knowledge of the land one is stewarding is something passed on from generation to generation in the Pueblo world; an ear-whispered philosophy given in the student’s kiva time, where their separated from the world and taught the mysteries of the people and the land.
While Biodynamics certainly isn’t an “ear-whispered” teaching, it’s far from being widely accepted as the way to the heal the earth it was intended to be. It contains, and goes beyond all the current farming buzzwords, e.g., Organic, Dry-Farming and Permaculture, as well as draws on the ancient wisdom of man. It’s a way to perpetuate healthy soil for future generations, connecting the practitioner to concepts in line with the highest spiritual principles.
I’m anxious to see how New Mexicans, and in particular the Pueblos, will view Biodynamics. While it’s not completely unknown in New Mexico, there are currently only a handful of Biodynamic practitioners here. Still, there’s growing interest daily, and the Rocky Mountain region in general is experiencing a burst of activity, mostly based in Paonia, Colorado.
There’s still a year and nine months till the North American Conference, plenty of time to discover and hopefully practice Biodynamic Farming.
Here’s several New Mexican practitioner’s of note who’ve been dedicated to Biodynamics for some time:
Maggie Lee/ Garden Gaia
Is the proprietor of Terra Flora, a garden design-build landscape firm in Santa Fe, N.M. that’s distributed local Biodynamic compost for 18 years. As part of the greater community of Biodynamic practitioners, her aim is to strengthen and support a balanced life force in the soil. In her own words, Maggie says, “To provide the ground work in building a soil-plant partnership, we bring our attention to improving the receptive capacities of the soil – its vitality, mobility and resilience, its inner structure. This process is enhanced by the quality of balanced life forces found in Biodynamic compost.”
If you’re on the fence about Biodynamics, don’t want to do any research, but want to know what it’s about, get some of Maggie’s compost and just watch. Get it here: gardengaia.com
Melinda Bateman/ Morningstar Farm
I’ve personally been following Melinda Bateman’s Biodynamic career for a couple years now…in fact, my first Edible Blog was on her Morningstar Farm in tiny Arroyo Seco, just above the town of Taos.
Melinda is the only farmer I’m aware of in New Mexico that uses all the Biodynamic preparations, including making many herself. She’s offered Biodynamics courses over the past years that have been well attended, and she continues to study with long-time Biodynamic educator, Enzo Nastati.
Her produce can be found at the best restaurants in Taos. Website HERE.
Erda Gardens and Learning Center
Erda Gardens in Albuquerque uses limited Biodynamic techniques, yet wholly subscribes to the philosophy of Biodynamics. They occasionally offer Biodynamic teaching.
Check them out HERE.
For more information and to register for the 2016 North American Biodynamic Conference, as well as find a treasure trove of Biodynamic literature, visit the Biodynamic Association’s Website.