By Olivia Sanders and Rocky Ramos
Reprinted from their blog, Snail Van Adventures
A few months ago, my farming mentor asked me what my next step in farm training was. I told her I’d love to learn more about biodynamic farming, but I had more immediate plans to go on a road trip and learn Spanish. Unbelievably, she told me that the North American Biodynamic farming Conference (that only happens every two years and switches locations around the country) was right on the path of our snail journey, and she even connected me with a scholarship to help Rocky and I attend! So here we are on the other side, and I still can’t believe how lucky this is. I am always amazed when things work out this well and feel so grateful to Nicole for telling us about this, Organic Growers School for providing funding for us to attend, and the Biodynamic Association for additional funding support and hosting such a wonderful conference!
We wrote the following essay as an official re-cap of our experience at the conference to share with our scholarship donors, and we wanted to share it with you, our inner circle of family and friends, to give you a deeper look into our hippie farming stuff we’re so excited about. Thanks for reading!
We are so grateful to have shared a magical five days at the Biodynamic Conference in Portland, Oregon with over 800 other biodynamic farmers, activists and advocates just three weeks ago. The weekend was buzzing with courageous, heart-opening conversations and deep questioning of society, consciousness, and agriculture. The conference theme was “Transforming the Heart of Agriculture; Soil, Justice, Regeneration,” and those themes wove themselves beautifully into conversations throughout the gathering. As aspiring biodynamic farmers ourselves, we were excited to dive into the weekend with open minds and hearts, ready for transformations of our own.
We learned an incredible amount from this gathering and would like to share as many highlights as we can while being concise; If you have questions or would like to know more about what we share, we welcome readers to reach out to us by email and continue the conversation!
We’ve organized our conference take-aways into main sections based loosely on the workshops we attended, diving more deeply into the complex ones. More information about the speakers mentioned is available here.
“Human attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” Simone Weil, as shared by keynote Alisa Gravitz
Thank you all for reading.
BIODYNAMICS BASICS (Distilled from all presenters)
“The four parts of a biodynamic attitude are: Honesty, Openness, Solidarity, Initiative.” Ueli Hurter, BDA keynote speaker
Biodynamic agriculture was founded by Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s as an alternative to the popularizing chemical agriculture practices that were (and still are) degrading human and ecosystem health. Steiner wanted to teach an alternative to those practices and promote health among humans and the land. Steiner was never a farmer, but was rather a mystic philosopher known for creating the field of spiritual science bringing spiritual realities into practical life. Biodynamic agriculture has these spiritual foundations, though it is not attached to any specific religion or culture.
The biodynamic approach encourages practitioners to see themselves as connected to the whole universe and all of its life, and to work with the natural world on an equal basis. For example, farmers are not ecosystem “managers,” but rather equal co-creators. In the same way, biodynamic agriculture advocates following lunar and astral cycles to tap into the greater cosmic forces at play on your farm.
To understand the wholeness of reality requires activating higher forms of thought and sensing; for this reason, the biodynamic approach values farmers working on inner development as much as they do outer development. Many folks throughout the conference characterized this spiritual aspect of biodynamic farming as “farming with heart,” “farming with empathy,” and “conscious farming.”
We learned that people and cultures have been farming in traditional ways similar to biodynamics for all agricultural human history, and many still do. We heard this repeated from several indigenous speakers from different Native American traditions. Biodynamics is one modern path back to those old traditions and can perhaps be a healing pathway for people who feel disconnected from their indigeneity.
“Put love into every task that we do. Without love, wisdom can be misused.” Lisa Ramiro, anthroposophist
HIGHLIGHTS FROM KEYNOTE SPEAKERS; themes and trends of biodynamic transformation (Ueli Hurter, Narendra Varma, Nadine Basile, Anna Jones-Crabtree, Wali Via, Orland Bishop, Jim Embry, Claudia Ford, M. Karlos Baca, Bruno Follador, Alisa Gravitz)
“The hardest part will be to convince yourself of the possibilities.” Wali Via, BDA keynote speaker
The theme of transformation set the overall tone of many of the conference’s discussions. Transformation, we posited, takes courage, humility, and openness. How can we be more courageous in our land management? How can the biodynamic and organic movements take lead on cultural transformations and do so with empathy, justice, and courage?
(The Biodynamic Association moderated these discussions in a way they described as “living the question.” They asked the conference collective to discuss these questions in ways that deepened our own inner inquiry rather than come to conclusive answers, leaving folks open minded and listening.)
The keynote speakers also encouraged us to examine “de-growth,” scaling down our needs and our impact, while also imagining expansion and scaling up our movement of regenerative agriculture. What is unnecessary in our lives that we could scale down and minimize? How can we make room for the spaciousness required to radically change our minds and lives? At the same time, there is a global need for us to massively scale upregenerative farming methods to sequester carbon and build resilience in our agriculture. How can we scale up our efforts without losing the potency of biodynamic ethics?
Many of the keynote speeches revolved around social justice, especially focusing on land justice for indigenous peoples. Some specific tactics mentioned were decolonizing our knowledge by educating ourselves on indigenous history in our region, radical sharing (sharing more than you think you can give, hence the radical part), and making our food accessible to all people in our community. How can we, as spiritual beings and farmers, decolonize ourselves, our businesses, our communities?
IMPROVING ANNUAL AGRICULTURE (Combined notes from presenters Wali Via, Jean-Paul Cortens, M. Karlos Baca, Mark Shepard, Frank Holzman)
Annual agriculture was often knocked on for its environmental impacts: it creates an environment of excessive disturbance, preventing some soil biology like mycorrhizae from establishing and functioning; tillage releases carbon to the atmosphere; it exports many nutrients off of your farm which can be problematic in nutrient cycling and fertility maintenance. Here are some tips presenters had for improving some of these impacts.
- Emulate nature by using natural systems as the model/ archetype (ie forest, prairie). What plant communities thrive there? How much disturbance naturally occurs?
- One farmer had evidence that 3 years in hay for every one year of vegetables allows the soil to recover from exportation of nutrients.
- Utilize edge areas to connect soil microbiomes. Edge species like hazel or alder can help fungal networks of surrounding land reach your plants. One method mentioned often was alley cropping.
- Everyone at market is growing same thing. Find out what your native foodscape held before you got there. What are in your woods and fields? Perhaps educate yourself on indigenous models of land management and food cultivation.
PERENNIAL AGRICULTURE (Mark Shepard)
Mark Shepard runs a 100+ acre perennial polyculture farm that utilizes principles from agroforestry, permaculture, and keyline water design. He shared his thoughts on how to “succeed” your annual farm into a perennial system that mimics nature and provides maximum ecosystem services.
- Find out what your native ecosystem was. What plant communities lived there?
- Install earthworks (swales, berms, ponds) to manage water flow, emphasizing slowing water down and storing it on your landscape.
- Plant perennial polycultures to mimic some of the natural relations using agroforestry techniques
- Place fences and roads, utilities, pipelines, buildings etc following the water management plan.
- Manage for eternity by closely mimicking the historic disturbance regime of your plant community (for example mowing to mimic fire disturbance).
AGRICULTURE IN A CHANGING CLIMATE (Stewart Lundy)
Biodynamic agriculture embraces the idea of an individual farm being a self-contained “organism.” Usually this idea is cited to describe self-sufficient resource or fertility management, but this speaker emphasized its potential to have a self-contained climate. While organisms are not separate from the overall climate or weather, they maintain their own internal climate and have skin that keeps them self-contained. Stewart proposed maintaining your farm against the greater environment by having a “skin” of perennials, stacking layers of trees and shrubs along all your edges and buildings to protect them from the greater climate.
Other proposals he shared were as follows:
- Deep ripping/subsoiling on contour to open up spaces in your land to receive water in massive rainfall events. This is done with a Yeoman’s plow as often as annually.
- Integrate biodiversity on your farm in the form of regionally adapted plants and animals, focusing on heritage breeds that are hardy in extreme environments.
- Save seeds from plants that survive on your catastrophic failure years– these seeds can withstand it all.
- Soil with biochar can sequester 4x as much carbon as soil without it. Consider adding biochar to your soil amendments, but make sure it’s “activated.”
- Soil with mycorrhizal networks can sequester 15x as much carbon as soil without those networks. Consider inoculating your soil with mycorrhizae.
- Consider adding a bit of biochar, biodynamic preparations, or mycorrhizal inoculant to your animal feed to have pre-inoculated manure.
BIODYNAMICS AND SOCIAL JUSTICE (Mashup between Don Bustos, Jose Luis Ortiz, Thomas Spaulding and Ueli Hurter)
“Be driven by passion. Take risks and don’t be afraid.” Don Bustos, Latino farmer
Biodynamic agriculture holds social justice and social health as foundational values. Farms cannot be healthy if society is not healthy, and vice versa. Key principles of the biodynamic perspective on social transformation are:
- Economy with SOLIDARITY
- Politics with EQUALITY
- Culture with FREEDOM
One discussion primarily focused on Latinx farmers, and healing the pathway from being farm workers to farm owners. Multiple Latinx farmers shared their experiences in this context of biodynamic farming and social justice.
Panelists were asked what some obstacles they saw in the way of Latinx farm ownership:
- Obviously, racism. It’s hard to get trust in a town/culture you’re not accustomed to
- Access to land and capital
- Our culture’s emphasis on material success often distracts young people and immigrants to the remember the benefits of working with land.
- Lack of education & resources
- Immigration status
- This prompted the group to create a list of opportunities for white allies and Latinos to work together to work through these obstacles:
- Welcome immigrants! Build relationships with your Latinx neighbors!
- Consider learning Spanish!
- Share your resources & knowledge
- Bring people in! “Inclusion” means more than just inviting someone along. Provide any assistance they need to get there.
- Make your food accessible to all people! Do whatever it takes!
“Justice is being faithful to relationships.” Rudolf Steiner
Thank you for reading our re-cap of the 2018 Biodynamic Conference! Overall, the conference was hopeful, encouraging, and heart opening. It definitely inspired us to dream bigger and more radical in our farm dreams. We’d like to give a BIG thank you to the Organic Growers School and the Biodynamic Association for making it possible for us to attend this conference!