Biodynamic Farming Grows in California

Photo: Rosa Ramirez/California Health Report
Photo: Rosa Ramirez/California Health Report

An unusually beautiful tomato plant led Cynthia Sandberg to discover biodynamic farming a decade ago.

Sandberg, who owns Love Apple Farms in the Santa Cruz mountains, was amazed at how robust the plant was, especially considering that it was October, outside of the plant’s growing season.

She tracked the farmer down and asked him his secret. When he told her biodynamics, she headed to the Internet to learn about the unfamiliar term.

“It seemed pretty crazy,” she said. “I would have disregarded it if I wouldn’t have seen the proof in the tomato plant.”

An alternative approach to farming that involves planting in accordance with astrological signs and burying manure in cow horns, biodynamics was developed in the 1920s in response to lectures by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner. Described as a “spiritual-ethical-ecological” approach to agriculture by the Biodynamic Association, biodynamics goes much further than organic farming.  Under the rules of the biodynamic-certifying agency the Demeter Association, the farms must not only eliminate synthetic chemicals, but they must be as self-sustaining as possible, grow a variety of crops and incorporate animals.

“It’s the gold standard of environmentally friendly farming,” said Glenn McGourty, a farm adviser with the University of California Cooperative Extension.

McGourty said the approach has critics because some of its methods are hard to validate scientifically. As an example, there is not a great body of knowledge on the biodynamic practice of applying preparations to the land. The mixtures of fermented manure, mineral and herbs are intended to restore vitality to the soil.

“Biodynamic agriculture originally consisted of a mystical and therefore unscientific alternative approach to agriculture,” wrote Linda Chalker-Scott, a horticulturist with Washington State University in the report “The Myth of Biodynamic Agriculture.” “Recent addition of organic methodology to biodynamics has resulted in a confused mingling of objective practices with subjective beliefs.”

Other reasons farmers don’t go biodynamic is because of the additional work. It takes three years to be certified biodynamic by Demeter USA. The initial transition to biodynamic farming can be expensive but in the long run farmers can save money as they stop buying chemicals and save their own seeds.

Biodynamic farmers pioneered Community Supported Agriculture, the now common system where farmers sell directly to customers. Biodynamics also inspired the work of “Silent Spring” conservationist author Rachel Carson.

Only a tiny percentage of California farms use biodynamic methods – McGourty estimates that the number is less than a quarter of 1 percent. There are a total of 170 biodynamic farms, processors and traders in the nation and about 75 are in California, according to Elizabeth Candelario, co-director of Demeter USA.

Candelario said interest in biodynamics is growing and points to the Whole Foods Market chain as an example. The company highlights biodynamic products in its stores. “They see it as a higher commitment to sustainable farming and pure products.”

She said farmers choose to farm this way for a variety of reasons, including interest in the environment, health and product quality.

Benziger Family Winery in Sonoma County became biodynamic-certified in 2000 after years of farming with conventional methods. The family started thinking they needed a new approach after they noticed their land seemed to be deteriorating.

“There were no bees, the soil was cracked, there were horrible issues with erosion,” said Jessica LaBounty, Benziger’s marketing director. “The land was hard, it didn’t seem healthy.”

Now less than half of the 85-acre property is planted with grapevines. In accordance with the biodynamic principle of biodiversity, the property also features vegetables, fruit, nuts, wetlands, cow and sheep pasture and an insectary, a garden of plants that lure in helpful bugs. Visitors comment on the property’s lush, colorful beauty.

Biodynamics can be a difficult sell in Fresno, where Marian Farms grows biodynamic almonds, oranges, lemons, grapes and raisins. Barry Gleeson, the sales manager, said that’s because people don’t understand the depth of the biodynamic philosophy.

“Biodynamics is about the culture of life and not the culture of death,” he said.

Gleeson invites critics to sample the products. “The quality of our food is unbelievable,” he said. As an example, he said biodynamic lettuce can last in the fridge in great condition up to three weeks.

He said that’s because the biodynamic farmers take into account the forces of the universe. “We’re dealing with the cosmic rhythms of the sun, the moon, planets and the stars- they influence the earth and contribute to the life, growth and the content that forms the plant. It’s important to understand these natural rhythms.”

Harald Hoven, who teaches biodynamic farming at Rudolf Steiner College in Fair Oaks, said the method is far more accepted now than it was when he began teaching 40 years ago.

“Back then, it was just hippies who were interested in far out things,” he said. “I think younger people today are looking for something spiritual that is more substantial. There’s not as much prejudice against anything that’s not the regular way.”


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