• picture
  • picture
  • picture
  • picture
Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

You can find food products labeled "organic" in almost any supermarket these days. But, most shoppers are unfamiliar with the "biodynamic" label. Biodynamic farmers follow the teachings of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner and in 1924 he published his unique recipe for replenishing soil, a recipe that is observed by a persistent movement that continues today. Jeb Sharp of member station WBUR reports on what makes this farming practice different.


CURWOOD: You can find food products labeled "organic" in many supermarkets these days, but have you ever seen the "biodynamic" label? And is it gobbledygook, or is does it mean something? Biodynamic farmers follow the teachings of Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner, who was also the founder of the Waldorf Schools. In 1924, Herr Steiner published his unique recipe for replenishing the world's soils. The work sparked a small and persistent movement that continues today. Jeb Sharp, of member station WBUR, visited a biodynamic herb garden in Rhode Island, and reports on what makes this farming practice different.

[Various birds chirping]

SHARP: The Meadowbrook Herb Garden, just south of Providence, is small by farm standards, just a few acres along a busy road. It does a steady trade in culinary and medicinal herbs. Owner Heinz Grotzke tills the soil here using biodynamic methods, a practice invented half a century ago by Rudolf Steiner. It's a kind of organic farming, no synthetic chemicals are used, but biodynamic farmers also apply natural remedies, or preparations, to their land, and follow a lunar calendar. Today, Heinz Grotzke is showing the farm to Anne Mendenhall, an inspector from the Demeter Association, which certifies biodynamic farms in the United States.

GROTZKE: This is chopped, and then dried--

[Sounds of pouring granular substance]

GROTZKE:--and it has a different consistency.

SHARP: In the climate-controlled cellar, where Heinz Grotzke stores his product, pungent aromas swirl and mingle above barrels with labels like 'lemon balm,' 'nettle,' and 'celery.' He takes the lids off, one by one, scooping up handfuls for Anne Mendenhall to inspect.

GROTZKE: See how it sifts through?

MENDENHALL: That maintains the essential oils, too.

GROTZKE: Yeah. Right.

[Spade cuts into soil]

SHARP: Outside, the inspector turns her attention to a compost pile, and the soil in each field. Soil quality is the main focus of biodynamic farming, and Anne Mendenhall checks it by look, and feel, and smell, bringing handfuls right to her nostrils.

MENDENHALL: You kind of can see or sense the activity in the soil, and you can sense it through the aroma of the soil. You can use your nose to tell you that this soil is alive.

SHARP: The hallmark of biodynamic farming is the application of preparations, prescribed by Rudolf Steiner, to improve soil and plant life. They're made from cow dung, and quartz crystal, and a variety of herbs, and, like homeopathic medicine, they're applied in tiny amounts. The Demeter Association's Anne Mendenhall says it's pretty easy to explain what farmers like Heinz Grotzke do, but hard to explain why it works.

MENDENHALL: It's real easy to talk about quantitative things, and I can explain to you that, as a biodynamic grower, I got better yields on my wheat and on my soybeans than I ever did as a chemical grower, and you can relate to that. But if I then try to talk to you about how the soil feels and acts more alive, or if I try to say that the food has a lot more vitality in it, those concepts tend to get lost.

[Pounding and scraping]

PROCTOR: We fill this up with very good soil--

[More chalk mark scraping]

SHARP: Three thousand miles away, New Zealand farmer Peter Proctor, the author of "Grasp the Nettle," a new book on biodynamics, is giving a talk in San Francisco. He says to understand biodynamic farming, you must understand what Rudolf Steiner called, "the energy of life."

PROCTOR: He made the statement, of course, that the cosmic activity that is surrounding the Earth, is actually supporting plants. Now if that life force, that life energy, is unable to penetrate the Earth and the soil, it cannot support plant growth. So, the whole idea of the preparations was, to actually re-open the land, to make it able to be able to support, or to bring in, these cosmic energies, these cosmic forces. And it's just really as simple as that.

SHARP: Chemicals have depleted agricultural lands around the world, says Mr. Proctor, and biodynamic preparations are the treatment that can re-invigorate this exhausted soil. The main one is cow-horn dung.

PROCTOR: The cow dung is actually put into a cow's horn, the horn of a cow, and buried during from the fall through to the spring. And when it's dug up, it's completely transformed. No longer is it cow dung, but it's a very sweet-smelling humus material, which is very high in bacteria, and used in very, very small quantities, it's activated by stirring it for one hour, in a clockwise motion, and then reversing it, after you've formed a kind of a crater in the middle of the pile of water you're using, and then it's sprinkled on the soil. In the afternoon, basically in the autumntime, and that has an effect of, you might say, strengthening the soil, to the point where you get a very, very fertile soil.

SHARP: Skeptics could dismiss biodynamic preparations as hocus- pocus, if it weren't for the work of soil scientists like Professor John Reganold of Washington State University. In a 1993 article, in the prestigious journal "Science," he compared 8 biodynamic and 8 conventional farms in New Zealand over 4 years.

REGANOLD: In almost every case, the soil quality was better on the biodynamic farm. In particular, physical and biological properties, and when I say that, I mean there was usually an inch more topsoil, better structure; the soils were less compact, better root development; biologically speaking there were more microorganisms, more earthworms; in fact, most of the conventional farms had no earthworms. When you look at the economics, basically the farms were equally profitable.

SHARP: Initially, Professor Reganold's work raised a few eyebrows, but the results convinced him the alternative farming method warranted further study.

REGANOLD: I mean, I had colleagues that said, here, you're sure you want to do this? I mean, you may be offering up your career if you do something like this, this is so strange." It was like communism, or something, come on, and I said, "Well, you know, it doesn't really matter how strange these are. Let's see if they actually benefit the soil. We're scientists." And so, when I started seeing scientifically, in the lab, and in the field that they were benefitting, I just thought, "Well, to heck with what a--it's really a minority, what a few people are saying."

SHARP: Now, he's comparing biodynamic and organic plots to see if it's really the preparations that make the difference, or simply the chemical-free practices common to both biodynamic and organic farmers. Anne Mendenhall, of the Demeter Association, appreciates Reganold's research, but she doesn't need scientific proof to know biodynamics works. She says she can see the results in a handful of moist soil, and taste the results in a mouthful of fresh herbs and vegetables.

MENDENHALL: So this is just a list I run down to make sure that I've covered everything. We have another form here to go through. I've verified that there is on-farm processing, and there is--

SHARP: It's late in the day now, and she's winding up her inspection of the Meadowbrook Herb Garden. She has walked the fields, perused the crops, checked the soil, and cast her eye over Grotzke's records, to make sure he's not breaking any of the rules of biodynamic farming.

MENDENHALL: I don't find any areas in non-compliance, so I believe we have to look at the restoration--

SHARP: The inspector's approval means Heinz Grotzke can begin labelling his teas and herbs with the Demeter Association's "biodynamic" label, joining the ranks of 28 other officially certified biodynamic farms in the United States. He hopes consumers will learn to recognize the label, and spur a demand for biodynamic products, which he and his colleagues believe are healthier, tastier, and better for the land than anyone else's.

MENDENHALL: You have a layer of stones or--

[Shovel hits on something hard]

MENDENHALL:--something in there, or else it's the plough pan.

[More shoveling]

SHARP: For Living on Earth, I'm Jeb Sharp.

[Shovel sounds continue]

MENDENHALL: It feels kind of gritty, though, like stones.


MENDENHALL: And then you get through that--

[Still more shovelling]

GROTZKE: But if you hit the stone, like this one...



Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

Living on Earth
62 Calef Highway, Suite 212
Lee, NH 03861
Telephone: 617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth