My first introduction to a biodynamic farm was over 35 years ago, yet it made such an indelible impression upon me that I can still vividly recreate the memory. Nestling in the soft East Sussex hills, Busses Farm, run by Jimmy and Pauline Anderson, was a clear demonstration of a living example of biodynamics.
Walking through the kitchen garden was like being in a Monet painting. The French intensive biodynamic method was being practised, with raised beds and an exuberant riot of herbs, flowers and vegetables. Patches of marigolds, tagetes and nasturtiums tangled with bright blue borage, lavender, rosemary, courgettes, cucumbers and firm-hearted lettuce. Runner beans busily twined up poles and tomatoes grew warm, sweet and ripe.
If you managed to glimpse the soil through this cornucopia it was black and crumbly, the kind that produces happy plants. Bees provided the background hum as they gratefully progressed from flower to flower, spoilt for choice between gardens and orchards. This was the first time I remember hearing about companion planting.
Out in the fields was a herd of horned Sussex cows, most with their calves, for breeding as well as some milk cows; a few fluffy sheep that looked like an advertisement for washing powder, 300 pecking and excitable hens, and a wonderful workhorse that was used for transporting heavy loads.
All of these animated the landscape with their variety of shapes, colours, sounds and behaviours. In addition to this huge quantity of mouths and beaks to feed there was usually a group of very hard-working and very hungry apprentices who would come to train for 3-6 month blocks. Their healthy appetites meant that Pauline’s four-oven Aga was always on the go, full of marvellous dishes. And, as if this was not enough, the indefatigable Andersons pioneered a vegetable and wholefood shop in the village of Forest Row, which has continued to go from strength to strength.
So many people were enthusiastic about getting biodynamic produce that a number came forward with their various talents, and the next enterprise was a restaurant run by a team of good cooks – some days the queues would stretch round the block The salads fairly jumped off the plates with vitality and we all felt that this was an ‘idea whose time had certainly come’.
On the farm were study groups looking at the theoretical side of biodynamics, and regular celebrations of festivals with music, singing and dancing. It was very hard work to be sure, but it made the profound statement of Manfred Klett (former head of biodynamic work in Germany) that “the farm is the university of the future,” a living ideal to be realised eventually on a much wider scale.
When it honours the particular piece of land that forms it, in all its true depth of potentiality, the farm is a world of symbiotic relationships and processes. Then the farm becomes the most excellent, cheap and efficient place to study botany, zoology, chemistry, physics, water, soil, chemistry, nutrition, cooking, animal husbandry, crafts, climatology, astronomy and true economy (the Greek oikos, meaning house + nomia, meaning management; to manage nature’s household properly we will need to develop a new and qualitatively different understanding of economic principles).
To bring us back to today, my local biodynamic farmer Richard Smith takes up the theme:
“Walking around a biodynamic garden, or as in my case, over the fields of a biodynamic farm, one soon begins to realise that there is something different going on here. It is usually an impression of vibrancy in the plants, warmth in the soil and a health and contentment amongst the animals. When we look at some of the surrounding conventional farms, the fact that they have become highly specialised will be evident. There will be a small selection of crops spread out over huge fields or there will perhaps be animals, usually cattle or sheep. We rarely see poultry or pigs, because they tend to be kept in barns or feedlots where they stay summer and winter. It is hard to think of the deprivations that they endure. Whereas on a biodynamic farm we will usually see a wide diversity of crops and animals outside in smaller groups, smaller machines (e.g. lighter tractors) and generally a closer connection between human beings and nature.”
One of the biodynamic farmer’s main goals is to create a balance between plants, animals and humans, and the needs of that particular soil. The aim is as far as possible to grow food for the animals entirely on the farm. No artificial fertilisers are brought in since the fertility of the soil will be derived exclusively from composted plant waste mixed with the different animal manures. If there are so many animals that it is necessary to buy feed in, or the plants do not thrive because there is insufficient compost, then somehow a more realistic and secure ratio of plants and animals has to be achieved. With experience, most biodynamic farmers usually find this to be possible. It is a principle at the heart of biodynamic farming; it is also one of the ways biodynamics may differ from organic farming (where the main aim for some farmers is to be able to grow food without chemicals).
Sometimes, of course, there are difficulties to be faced, such as extremes of weather, which seem to be occurring with greater frequency. A farmer who has a wide spread of plants and animals usually observes that not all are affected with equal severity. Failures are neither total nor ruinous, and there is a measure of security in such an approach. (No biodynamic cattle succumbed to the foot and mouth epidemic. The only cull of biodynamic cattle was in Scotland where the farm was contiguous with an infected farm.) Such security came from diversity, which used to be true of traditional farms before the last World War, but is not the lot of the current conventional farmer who has sacrificed a wide spread of farm products to concentrate on mono-crops or only dairy cows and has to cope with the unpredictable and fluctuating prices of different commodities. This is short-term, high-risk farming because specialisation also exhausts the soil, limits the habitat of insects and birds and can open the door to disease.