How do you find the pace and rhythm when you start a completely new life? We have been on the farm for three weeks now, and we are “living this question,” as Henning likes to say.
We are Sean and Emma, a young couple who have left previous lives in science, carpentry, teaching, and outdoor adventuring to live and work on S&S Homestead Farm and learn everything we can from Henning and Elizabeth about what it takes to run the farm. We came here in search of a lifestyle that would allow us to pursue all our passions at once: creating and eating nourishing food, healing the planet, teaching and learning from others in community, and connecting with nature. It turns out that the intersection of all these interests is farming. And specifically, farming in a way that heals rather than destroys ecosystems.
S&S Homestead Farm follows biodynamic practices to create a fully integrated farm organism that teems with life and promotes the function of natural processes. To introduce ourselves to the concepts of biodynamics, we read Biodynamic Gardening for Health and Taste by Hilary Wright. This book provides an overview of biodynamics in the context of a backyard garden, although the information can easily be scaled up to the scope of gardening here.
Wright describes the history of biodynamics, starting with the beginning of the movement as a response to declining soil and animal fertility in the early 20th century. Farmers recognized this trend as a major problem, and, in 1924, a group of German farmers turned to Rudolph Steiner to help determine a new approach. Although not technically a farmer himself, Steiner had exposure throughout his life to traditional agricultural methods in Europe. Combining that experience with his holistic worldview, he developed suggestions for agricultural practices that harnessed the energies of the cosmos (i.e. the sun, moon, planets, and stars beyond) as well as the healing capacities of many common plants, such as nettle and camomile. The goal of his approach was to strike a balance between traditional and scientific knowledge, avoiding past superstitions as well as dogmatic belief in science in favor of rational observation and a belief that spirit permeates all things.
Although this approach revived an ancient worldview, it strongly contrasted with the materialistic, analytical worldview that had swept the western world. This reductionist perspective was first promoted by thinkers like Descartes and Newton and later accelerated by the rise of the Industrial Revolution. Mainstream agricultural practices were already thoroughly integrated with industrial thinking towards maximizing yield and profit at all costs, preventing biodynamics from reaching widespread acceptance. Throughout the past century, a small number of farmers have responded to the shortcomings of conventional agriculture by turning towards the distinct worldview fundamental to biodynamics, keeping this traditional knowledge alive for future generations.
The principles of biodynamics include a foundation in the rhythms of nature and the cosmos, methods for promoting fertility, and particular strategies for dealing with pests and disease. Wright explores these aspects and gives examples of how each can be applied in a backyard garden.
Unlike the demands of conventional agriculture for unrelenting progress and speed, the biodynamic focus on natural rhythms and patterns grounds the work of gardening in the pace of the world within which it operates. The most apparent natural cycles are diurnal, monthly, and annual, but many more exist due to fluctuations in the planets and stars and their relative positions. Wright describes the expansion and contraction associated with these cycles as exhalation and inhalation. For example, when the sun rises each morning, the earth exhales and expands as sap rises into leaves and photosynthesis begins; when the sun sets, the earth inhales and contracts as sap falls into the roots and life withdraws. This same pattern occurs on an annual basis, following the change of the seasons.
The cycles associated with the moon, planets, and stars bring even more nuance to the practice of biodynamics. As these celestial bodies transit through the sky, their energies have different impacts on the growth of plants. Each zodiac sign that the sun processes through is associated with a different element (earth, water, air, and fire/warmth) and thus a different phase of plant development (roots, leaves, flowers, fruits). For instance, Scorpio is a water sign and promotes the growth of plant leaves. Through this framework, Maria Thun, a German biodynamist, developed recommendations for when to seed, tend to, and harvest various plants so that they receive the most favorable impact from cosmic energy. Combining the information from the zodiac with that from the positions and relative movement of the moon and planets allows the creation of biodynamic planting calendars. These calendars are prepared for different time zones and hemispheres of the planet to calculate which days are best for various activities in the garden.
Within the framework and pace determined by the natural cycles of earth and the cosmos, biodynamics offers specific methods for increasing garden fertility using herbal tonics and compost. The herbal tonics, often called biodynamic preparations or “preps,” infuse the fertility and the medicinal value of particular herbs, minerals, and cow manure with concentrated cosmic energies. Two of the preps are prepared by burial within a cow horn, a medium with the capacity to further concentrate life force into the material. Before use, these horn preps must be dynamized by stirring a small amount extensively in water. The vortex of water formed by the stirring process maximizes the exposure of the prep to air and thus to cosmic forces. The horn preps are applied directly to plants, either on the soil or on the leaves and flowers. The rest of the preps are made from different medicinal herbs and applied to the compost pile to infuse fertility and cosmic forces into the material that will eventually be spread on the soil. The compost preps are each associated with a different planet, bringing the forces linked with that planet into the garden.
The last aspect of biodynamic practice that Wright covers is natural control of pests and diseases. Whereas conventional agriculture seeks to attack and eliminate these problems through pesticides and genetic engineering, the holistic biodynamic worldview attempts to understand these occurrences within the bigger picture of the ecosystem. This approach relies on careful observation of the symptom and a willingness to consider how the system can be returned to a balanced state.
In the final section of the book, Wright discusses how to implement these principles and methods in the garden and in the kitchen, how to build intuition in the garden, and how biodynamics may evolve in the future in and beyond the garden scale. On the practical side, Wright suggests evaluating how a garden operates in terms of the four elements and carefully designing the garden to achieve balance. She mentions beneficial planting practices such as companion planting and interplanting crops in the same bed. In the kitchen, Wright describes how a biodynamic approach calls for eating local foods in season, further connecting ourselves to the rhythms of nature.
The holistic biodynamic worldview, the foundation of all the methods described above, also encourages the gardener’s development of intuitive capabilities to perceive the spirit imbued in the natural world. This capacity requires expanding awareness beyond the five senses, allowing perception of the natural world both objectively and subjectively, without separating ourselves from the world we are observing. This expansion in reality contrasts starkly with the mainstream Western worldview, making it difficult for the biodynamic movement to grow to a larger population of farmers and gardeners in the future. Wright also argues that the slow pace of biodynamics is anathema to our Western culture of quick solutions and endless profits.
This slower pace, this expansion and contraction through natural rhythms, is exactly what we are navigating as we adjust to life on the farm and begin to implement the principles outlined in this book.
Our first task on the farm was to prepare the growing beds in the CSA field. Located on the south side of the property, the CSA field has been used over the years to grow food for sale through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) as well as for home use. The field currently consists of ten beds 150 ft long by 5 ft wide (one bed is 8 ft wide). Additional beds have existed during larger CSA enterprises in the past and have since grown back to pasture. Adjacent to the beds are a large hoophouse growing tomatoes and other nightshades, a small greenhouse for starting seedlings, and a combination tool-storage and distribution shed where CSA members can pick up a weekly share of produce. The CSA field provides an important function on the farm, cycling nutrients created on other parts of the farm through compost and mulch to grow food. The nourishing food grown in the beds feeds people and animals on the farm, as well as provides an opportunity for sales, creating income for the farm and building community connections.
When growing anything, it is important to understand the history of the ground beneath your feet. Lopez Island, part of the San Juan Islands, was shaped by glaciers during the last ice age as massive amounts of ice flowed over and carved the bedrock that comprises the islands. The ice retreated north by 10,000 years ago, leaving behind Puget Sound as we know it today. The remnants that the ice sheet left behind include large amounts of rocks, big and small, known as glacial till. Today, a relatively thin soil horizon of about 6 inches is all that covers this glacial debris. The development of the CSA field confirms this story. Henning has removed many truckloads worth of rocks from the field, and we still remove small rocks by hand as they are dug up in the beds. The soil depth in the newest beds is, in fact, only about 6 inches deep. However, soil can be built up over time, and the older beds that were originally double-dug to deepen the soil horizon are now as deep as 24 inches.
After the growing season ends in the fall, the beds are prepared for planting the following spring. This work ahead of time allows for an earlier start to the next growing season. Typically, early spring is too wet for working the soil but is a good time to start planting if the beds are ready to go. Because we didn’t arrive until the end of October, we had to work quickly to complete the work before the winter rains arrived. This timing meant that we were not able to plant any cover crops and that we were forced to till the beds rather than aerate by hand. In future years we will be able to start work earlier in the fall in order to implement the most soil-friendly practices.
After aerating to bring more oxygen into the soil and weeding to remove unwanted species, we applied about an inch of compost across each bed to add fertility to the soil. This compost is created on the farm from both plant and animal matter. To provide protection to the beds over the next few months, we covered the compost with about 3 inches of hay mulch. The exception to this was the bed of strawberries, which, as suggested by their name, were covered with straw mulch. As described in Wright’s book, winter is when life energy is focused underground, and we hope that our preparations have effectively nourished the soil for a productive winter season.
Our next steps will be to create a crop plan for the spring and to develop the logistics for our CSA enterprise. We look forward to using the biodynamic calendar to bring structure to our plan and provide guidance to our search for the right pace on the farm. This pace is not easy to follow given the many tasks that need to be completed each day in a limited amount of daylight, not to mention finding time to feed ourselves and manage to get some sleep. On top of these responsibilities on the farm, the overbearing expectation of our culture is to always be productive without taking time for rest and renewal. Our task is to find the balance between completing all the responsibilities on the farm, and honoring the rhythms of our bodies and of the world around us. We anticipate that striking this balance will not be something we solve anytime soon, but an ongoing process throughout our lives as farmers.