The Harmony in Food and Farming conference was a momentous step in manifesting HRH the Prince of Wales’ vision of a more harmonious world. The Harmony Principles, which he has written about, promote the qualities of diversity, interconnectedness, holistic thinking and natural cycles in all systems – principles that are also at the heart of biodynamic farming. Biodynamic farming is an important element of the conversation on harmony and what generates it, with over 90 years of experience of working with its principles, it is as relevant today as it ever was.
Biodynamic farming is rooted in each farmer’s own experience of working his or her land, inviting a reflective approach to its management. Biodynamic farmers view soil as the respiratory organ of the earth and they see their role as helping to manage the balance of air, moisture and minerals needed for soil biological life to thrive. Peter Brown, former director of the Biodynamic Association and farmer at Tablehurst Farm, recounted his experience of farming in South Africa where he took on the challenge of farming on extremely sandy soil. Over 15 years Peter successfully transformed this soil by observing the plant species that thrived on it, and mulching them to provide fertility for crops – all the while avoiding bringing in large amounts of inputs onto the farm. In his view “It’s the plants that are actually creating the soil.”
Ueli Huerter, leader of The Agricultural Section at the Goetheanum, explained that plants have a unique place in the ecosystem because of their vertical growing position. “Plants live in both the light and the dark spheres,” with their roots in the earth and their leaves pointing to the sun. In nature, plants do not grow in monocultures and biodynamics seeks to encourage diversity so that plants can thrive. For example, Alex Valsecchi, who manages Albury Organic Vineyard in Surrey described how in her vineyard she has a range of different plants growing among the vines including yarrow, comfrey and nettles. This diversity encourages a balanced ecosystem in which pests are kept at bay by natural predators.
Conventionally, farms are often seen as a box, with inputs and outputs and a process in the middle which changes resources into products. Biodynamic farming considers a farm as a living ecosystem with different ‘organs’ within it that work in an interconnected way. As soon as one part is neglected and becomes unhealthy, the rest of the farm will suffer too as a consequence. Animals play an important role in helping to keep the whole farm healthy by being a crucial part of fertility building, nutrient cycling and increasing productivity. Biodynamic farms aim to be closed-loop systems, which means they are self-sufficient in terms of fertility and animals feeds, by producing these on farm.
Living systems cannot live in isolation and would become stagnant if they did. According to Ueli, creating a farm that is a self-sufficient closed-loop system is not enough for it to be healthy, and farms must strive to have an openness and receptivity to wider energetic influences. To explain this, Peter Brown used the analogy of a compass, suggesting that we ask the question “why does it point north?” By inspecting only the compass itself and its inner workings, one will not find the answer; but by looking beyond the mechanics of it and realising that invisible magnetic forces are at play, it can be understood. Each farm has a distinct character determined by many factors including its exact location, micro-climate, height above sea level and geology. Spending time observing these subtleties, Brown explained that this informed his decisions about he would manage a farm. For example, when he took on a new farm in England he noticed that there was a lack of water, so he built reservoirs for irrigation purposes, but also “because it just felt right within the landscape”. Biodynamic methods encourage farmers to closely observe the natural world, as well as subtleties of the cosmic world, such as the movements of the planets in our solar system, and to work with their patterns and rhythms in a positive way that enhances the farm ecosystem.
According to Ed Berger, farmer at Vale Head Farm, humans have the capacity to create, but also to change paradigms. “Maybe we are in the position as a society that we are in, so that we can learn to work our way out of it.” Humans can work with nature to enhance natural processes while also being able to feed themselves, instead of it being a question of either/or. Ed works with the positive potential of human interaction with nature and farming at the Ruskin Mill Trust, which runs six therapeutic education centres for children with complex needs. In particular, Ed finds that working with goats on the farm is especially therapeutic for children with autism. The goats offer a way of encouraging very introverted autistic young people “to step out of themselves more.” While for students with ADHD, goats demand an awareness and the students develop a sense of responsibility when herding them. The biodynamic approach views humans at the core of farming, but farming is also a means for social transformation.
Here you can watch the conference session in full:
This article was first published on the Sustainable Food Trust’s website on the 17th August, 2017
Photograph: Sustainable Food Trust