By Jean-Paul Courtens
President, Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association
Biodynamics (Summer 2009)
Many people have asked me why biodynamic agriculture has not experienced the same growth as organic agriculture. Why did biodynamic agriculture not ride on the coattail of that success? Part of the answer is that biodynamic farming is better characterized as part of the sustainable agriculture movement. Compared to organic agriculture, sustainable agriculture incorporates a much broader vision of farming in context of community and people. Sustainable agriculture is regarded (by most scholars) more of as philosophy than as any particular method; it incorporates clearly outlined values, but has until now left the methods up to the individual practitioner. Although biodynamic agriculture has adopted a set of standards, they have always been viewed as a baseline, a starting point at which the journey just begins.
While organic agriculture is a success, it has already become yesterday’s theme. Today’s theme is local, community, and to a certain extent community supported agriculture (CSA). It is often tied to offering a positive solution to many man-made problems. Greg Bowman (the Rodale Institute), Michael Pollan, Dan Barber Blue Hill Farm), and many others read the tea leaves correctly about where the mood of this nation was going. Bowman is a strong advocate for food safety, soil health, and carbon sequestration by switching to local. Pollan and Barber (inspired by nutritionist Joan Gussow) strongly emphasize local sourcing of food. Why the sudden interest in local and community? I believe it is tied to the need to integrate a values-based decision-making process back into our culture, one in which relationships count more than money. This trend started with the founders of sustainable agriculture and is a continuance of this.
For a while biodynamics saw itself as the other (better) organic agriculture, and I hope we have recognized this to be a strategic mistake. This “new” movement, by placing much greater emphasis on community and land, is quickly outgrowing organic agriculture and food — not by excluding it but by overarching it and broadening it. We at the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association (BDA) need to recognize the champions of this budding movement as they help us accomplish our overarching mission. At the risk of sounding superior (of which I have no intent), I believe that biodynamic agriculture is the ultimate model of agriculture in context of community, biodiversity and soil fertility, beauty, and wisdom. We recognize those values in many individuals and organizations active in the sustainable agriculture movement. The following list is a rudimentary first attempt to list some of the principles that shape the foundation of biodynamic agriculture and identifies some of the organizations and individuals with whom we share similar values:
1) Biodynamic agriculture is a regenerative form of agriculture whereby farmers build long-term soil fertility. (The Rodale Institute, the Land Institute, Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE), Cornell Soil Health, and others interested in carbon sequestration and long-term soil health are successful in accomplishing that part of our mission.)
2) Biodynamic farms create community. (The Robyn Van En Center for CSA, Aldo Leopold Center, Practical Farmers of Iowa, Center for Rural Affairs, Slow Food, Slow Money Alliance, etc.)
3) Biodynamic farmers attempt to develop integral systems that are unique, hosting a great number of varieties and species of plants and animals, including wildlife. (All nature and environmental conservation organizations, Slow Food, Seed Savers Exchange, American Livestock Breed Conservancy, etc., are working towards this.)
4) Biodynamic farms are low input and careful in their use of fertilizer. (Most farmers these days are concerned with rising fertilizer cost and are supported by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and SARE in achieving lower inputs, but nature and environmental conservation organizations have been deeply concerned for decades, putting pressure on the Environmental Protection Agency to limit pollution from agriculture.)
5) Biodynamic agriculture recognizes the need for farmer sovereignty. (Equity Trust and the Greenhorns are working to help young farmers achieve independence.)
6) Biodynamic farmers are sensitive about the rights of the workers. (The Agricultural Justice Project and the Center for Rural Affairs work very hard in establishing and maintaining farm worker’s rights.)
7) Biodynamic farmers understand that land should not be a commodity. (We share this value with Equity Trust, which created a model lease, and Yggdrasil Land Foundation, which holds land to make it available to biodynamic farmers.)
8) Food produced on biodynamic farms is flavorful and nutritional. (Dan Barber, Alice Waters, Michael Pollan, Joan Gussow, and many others have been very strong food advocates for decades, only to be heard by a broader audience in recent years.)
9) Food produced on biodynamic farms is safe. (The organic movement in general, and the Organic Consumers Association in particular, work hard to convey that eating organic is good for your health and the environment.)
10) Food produced on biodynamic farms is nutrient dense. (The Weston Price Foundation embraces the quality of biodynamically produced food.)
11) Biodynamic farming brings the culture back to agriculture. (People like Wendell Berry, Dan Barber, Alice Waters, Michael Pollan, and Barbara Kingsolver and organizations like Slow Food are strong advocates on behalf of this part of our mission.)
If I were asked to define our values in one sentence, I would conclude that: biodynamic farming implies that the farmer cares for the land, people, plants, and animals like a mother for her child. Here is where every farmer who acts as a true steward of the land on behalf of our mission is our true hero. For most non-farmers (our customers), parenthood is the most identifiable experience, allowing our understanding of the world to be based on more than empirical knowledge. Rudolf Steiner in the Agricultural Course, states frequently: “We need to develop relationships with everything in farming.” Relationships are considered ephemeral, but so are water and air; we simply cannot live without either one.
While the Agricultural Course provides an overarching vision of developing relationships to everything in farming, acting on it is not something unique to biodynamic agriculture. Wendell Berry and Dan Barber are but two examples of individuals who understand the art of explaining complicated concepts through (seemingly) effortless expressions. They teach me that complicated concepts like the farm as a living organism are best embodied by example, as ideas in a living form have the ability to transform people’s perception. By embracing the leaders that share and live some of our core values, by making them stand out, we accomplish something very important: we not only show our ability to collaborate, we provide a living example of what our core values are about, and ultimately by doing so we broaden the appreciation of biodynamic agriculture.