What is Biodynamics?

Biodynamics is an approach to agriculture based on a concept of life forces. These forces work in nature to bring about balance and healing. Biodynamic agriculture uses a philosophical model articulated in eight lectures given in 1924 by Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), an Austrian scientist and philosopher. Steiner delivered these "Agriculture Course" lectures in response to observations from farmers -- that soils were becoming depleted and that the health and quality of crops and livestock were diminishing following the introduction of chemical fertilizers. Thus, biodynamic agriculture was the first "organic" or ecological farming system to develop as an alternative to chemical agriculture.

Biodynamics combines "biological" agriculture with an understanding of "dynamic" ecological systems. If there is a "conventional" school of organic agriculture today, it practices "biological" farming. For example, it uses cover crops and manure to build the microbiology of the soil. The "dynamic" part of the practice takes a broader perspective to enhance metaphysical aspects (the life forces) and natural rhythms (such as planting seeds during certain lunar phases).

As an analogy, consider an alternative form of medicine. Chinese acupuncture represents an intricately detailed philosophy and practice for which we have no equivalent in conventional medicine. Acupuncture recognizes a subtle energy -- chi or life force -- that pervades our bodies and influences our health. Acupuncture is able to mobilize those healing forces in ways that defy explanation by to Western medicine.

The test is not whether the concept of acupuncture is "true" according to Western medical standards, but whether it works. For certain conditions, acupuncture works better than anything in Western medicine. Similarly, biodynamics is concerned with chi or life force -- this time in the practice of using those forces beneficially in agriculture. In this sense, biodynamics has been described as a spiritual or mystical approach to agriculture. Steiner was very concerned that his system should be distinguished from mere superstition or dogmatic belief. To this end, Steiner advocated a scientific process of testing hypotheses as well as meditative insight. This makes biodynamics an on-going process in which the community of practitioners actively exchange ideas and refine their understanding.

Using a systems ecological approach, biodynamics sees each farm as an organism, a self-contained entity with its own individuality. Thinking about the farm as ecosystem leads to holistic management practices. These include integrating crops with livestock, recycling nutrients, maintaining soil, enhancing the health and wellbeing of crops and animals and even the farmer too. In this sense biodynamics shares concepts with permaculture -- humans have a role as the designer of the ecosystem.

However, in considering natural forces biodynamics introduces a different focus than other organic gardening schools of thought. Biodynamics parallels organic farming in many ways - especially with regard to cultural and biological farming practices - but it is set apart by its emphasis on chi or life energy. Biodynamic practices seek to balance the physical and non-physical realms, acknowledging cosmic and terrestrial forces that influence life energy. It is this complicated metaphysical terminology that makes biodynamics hard to grasp, yet these concepts are part of the biodynamic understanding of how living systems work.

The following table adopted from Steve Driver summarizes some organic farming practices.

Organic and Bio-Dynamic Farming Practices

Conventional Organic Practices Special Biodynamic Practices
Green manures, cover cropping
Special compost preparations
Tillage and cultivation
Special sprays
Planting by calendar
Companion planting
Peppering for pest control
Integration of crops and livestock
Subtle forces - homeopathy, dowsing, radionics

Biodynamics includes the same practices as "conventional" organic farming but adds its own group of special practices. Sherry Wildfeuer describes some of the basic principles of biodynamics:

Broaden Our Perspective

Just as we need to look at the magnetic field of the whole earth to comprehend the compass, to understand plant life we must expand our view to include all that affects plant growth. No narrow microscopic view will suffice. Plants are utterly open to and formed by influences from the depths of the earth to the heights of the heavens. Therefore our considerations in agriculture must range more broadly than is generally assumed to be relevant.

Reading the Book of Nature

Everything in nature reveals something of its essential character in its form and gesture. Careful observations of nature -- in shade and full sun, in wet and dry areas, on different soils, will yield a more fluid grasp of the elements. So eventually one learns to read the language of nature. And then one can be creative, bringing new emphasis and balance through specific actions.

Cosmic Rhythms

The light of the sun, moon, planets and stars reaches the plants in regular rhythms. Each contributes to the life, growth and form of the plant. By understanding the gesture and effect of each rhythm, we can time our ground preparation, sowing, cultivating and harvesting to the advantage of the crops we are raising.

Plant Life Is Intimately Bound Up With the Life of the Soil

Biodynamics recognizes that soil itself can be alive, and this vitality supports and affects the quality and health of the plants that grow in it. Therefore, one of Biodynamics fundamental efforts is to build up stable humus in our soil through composting.

A New View of Nutrition

We gain our physical strength from the process of breaking down the food we eat. The more vital our food, the more it stimulates our own activity. Thus, Biodynamic farmers and gardeners aim for quality, and not only quantity. Biodynamics grows food with a strong connection to a healthy, living soil.

Medicine for the Earth: Biodynamic Preparations

Rudolf Steiner pointed out that a new science of cosmic influences would have to replace old, instinctive wisdom and superstition. Out of his own insight, he introduced what are known as Biodynamic Preparations. Naturally occurring plant and animal materials are combined in specific recipes in certain seasons of the year and then placed in compost piles. These preparations bear concentrated forces within them and are used to organize the chaotic elements within the compost piles. When the process is complete, the resulting Preparations are medicines for the Earth which draw new life forces from the cosmos. Two of the Preparations are used directly in the field, one on the earth before planting, to stimulate soil life, and one on the leaves of growing plants to enhance their capacity to receive the light.

The Farm as the Basic Unit of Agriculture

In his Agriculture course, Rudolf Steiner posed the ideal of the self-contained farm -- that there should be just the right number of animals to provide manure for fertility, and these animals should, in turn, be fed from the farm. We can seek the essential gesture of such a farm also under other circumstances. It has to do with the preservation and recycling of the life forces with which we are working. Vegetable waste, manure, leaves, food scraps, all contain precious vitality, which can be held and put to use for building up the soil if they are handled wisely. Thus, composting is a key activity in biodynamic work. The farm is also a teacher, and provides the educational opportunity to imitate natures wise self-sufficiency within a limited area.

Economics Based On Knowledge of the Job

Steiner emphasized the absurdity of agricultural economics determined by people who have never actually raised crops or managed a farm. A new approach to this situation has been developed which brings about the association of producers and consumers for their mutual benefit. The Community Supported Agriculture movement was born in the biodynamic movement and is spreading rapidly. Gardens or farms gather around them a circle of supporters who agree in advance to meet the financial needs of the enterprise and its workers, and these supporters each receive a share of the produce as the season progresses. Thus consumers become connected with the real needs of the Earth, the farm and the Community; they rejoice in rich harvests, and remain faithful under adverse circumstances.

© 2011 Oregon Biodynamics Group.