What is Biodynamics?
Growing in popularity, the biodynamic style of farming offers a more holistic, ecological, and ethical approach to agriculture.
Just when you thought you were getting more familiar with sustainable agriculture terms, such as “organic”, “local”, “community supported” and even “regenerative”, along comes a new term: biodynamic agriculture, which describes a more holistic, ecological approach to farming. With the overall goal of achieving an agro-ecosystem that functions as an integrated, whole, living organism, you might guess that biodyanamic farming is the latest new-age agricultural buzzword on the block, but you’d be wrong about that. Biodynamics has been around since 1924, when philosopher and scientist Dr. Rudolf Steiner first introduced the concept of integrating science with a more spiritual, holistic view of nature in the application of agriculture. These are the roots of the biodynamic farming movement, which is growing in popularity among farmers, ranchers, home gardeners, and other stakeholders in the food system.
It was so fun to interview Thea Maria Carlson, Executive Director of the Biodynamic Association, on what biodynamic farming really means, to you and the planet. Thea is a leader, facilitator, educator, and farmer dedicated to building living soil, growing nutritious food, and nurturing vibrant communities. She holds a B.S. in Earth Systems from Stanford University and a permaculture design certificate from Occidental Arts and Ecology Center. She is also a graduate of The Coaching Fellowship and the Center for Courage and Renewal’s Academy for Leaders.
Check out our interview below.
What is Biodynamics?
Things you will learn in this episode:
- How biodynamics differs from other types of agriculture.
- How biodynamics can help improve the agro-ecosystem.
- How biodynamics can help bring restoration to the land.
- Where you can buy biodynamic foods.
- What the future holds for biodynamics.
What is Biodynamic Agriculture?
Check out the transcript from my interview with Thea Maria Carlson below.
Sharon: Hi everyone! This is Sharon Palmer and I have Thea Maria Carlson with us today and we’re talking about biodynamic agriculture. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Thea: Sure! I’m the executive director of the biodynamic association, which is a national nonprofit membership association. We have about 1700 members currently who are farmers and gardeners and people who are interested in biodynamic agriculture and all aspects of how it plays out in food and farming. I have a background in agriculture, farming, community gardening, nutrition education, so all of my paths have been kind of related to that as well as strategic communications work, and I studied environmental science in college.
Sharon: Cool! Well it’s so nice to have you with us and we’re just going to plunge right into our questions about biodynamic agriculture. First of all, can you just tell us a little bit about what that means in a nutshell?
Thea: Yeah, so biodynamics is a holistic economical and ethical approach to agriculture, farming, gardening, and nutrition. It’s really based on the idea of the garden being a living organism and nurturing the health of that whole and everything that comes out of it; the plants, the soil, the animals and the people.
Sharon: What are the differences between that kind of agriculture and conventional agriculture?
Thea: Conventional agriculture as it’s practiced especially in the U.S.; it’s kind of an industrial mechanistic model. You see the farm as a factory with certain inputs and outputs. It’s all about, how do I maximize the quantity of yields. Biodynamics is focused on life; building healthy life and an abundant whole that generates all this wonderful food out of that health, so it’s a completely different paradigm of agriculture.
Sharon: And how does that differ from organic agriculture?
Thea: There are a lot of similarities between organic and biodynamic agriculture and there are many farmers who consider themselves both. Biodynamic encompasses everything organic does. It doesn’t contain chemical inputs and focuses on the health of the land and has an emphasis on the system as a whole and creating a self-sustaining entity, so we’re focused on generating fertility from within the farm, trying not to bring in inputs and also really trying to integrate plants and animals. There’s also a focus on increasing the diversity, so those are all things an organic farm might do, but doesn’t necessarily have to do, whereas it’s really embedded in the biodynamic model.
Sharon: So, it’s really going beyond organic in many ways?
Thea: Yes. And one of the other things that distinguishes from other forms is the specific medicinal herbs we call them preparations. It really helps to enliven the compost and the soil to improve the quality of the crops that we get.
Sharon: Can you tell us a little bit about the history and inspiration behind this movement?
Thea: It started in Europe in the 1920s and at that time after WWI, it was kind of the beginning of chemical agriculture. The machines and the chemicals used for warfare were then applied to farms when it wasn’t war time. So pesticides and using more of the mechanistic type of an agricultural model and moving away from the locally adapted heirloom seeds and animals living on the farm was practiced. And there were a group of farmers that started noticing a decline in the health of their land and in the germination of their seeds. These farmers were all interested in Rudolph Steiner, a philosopher, scientist, and social reformer who’d already done a lot of work in other areas. Very much a renaissance man, he was the founder of the Waldorf schools, which many people were familiar with and they’re also called the Steiner schools in other parts of the world. Those farmers approached Steiner asking, “Do you have any insights on how to bring back health into agriculture?” He gave a series of lectures to those farmers and that formed the basis of biodynamics, and it spread all around the world over the past century, and the anniversary is coming up so it’s been evolving in collaboration with researchers and farmers in the past 95 years.
Sharon: Wow. What about how this sort of agriculture repairing the ecosystem? How does it help our ecosystem?
Thea: I think there’s both the reduction of negative things and also some positive. In conventional agriculture there’s pollution of the water and the air through agri-chemicals; sometimes there’s too many nutrients in the ground and that causes dead zones. A lot of conventional agriculture and even unfortunately industrial organic uses only one plant for the whole farm, which decimates the need of pollinators and wildlife because there’s nowhere for them to go (no food). I think a really important part of biodynamics is that we’re trying to generate even pest management from within the system of a healthy whole. There are a lot of organic approved pesticides that are less toxic than chemical pesticides but can still be toxic and with biodynamics, this is a last resort. We’re trying to figure out what’s in the system that could balance that out, so we don’t have that pest problem in the first place. That really mitigates that impact on the environment. If you want your farm to be certified biodynamic, you need to set aside 10% of the land for biodiversity. There’s a really strong focus on increasing the biodiversity both of crops and animals and there are things that can feed plant and animal life. That looks different in every farm because every farm is an individuality, but it can help bring restoration. One thing about biodynamic preparations that I mentioned is that they are wonderful at bringing health back to soil and degraded plants. People may use them not only on agricultural fields but maybe on a woodland area or a pasture or field to help bring life back into the more natural ecosystem as well.
Sharon: It’s all about the soil, right? So, do we know if there’s any nutrition or health benefits associated with biodynamic food and products of biodynamic agriculture?
Thea: Yeah, the research is kind of on the edge because as I said I used to be a nutrition educator. I think there are so many wonderful advancements that have happened in research recently. We used to think of nutrition as how much protein and carbs and fat and it’s hard to distinguish the subtle differences but I think when we start talking about phytonutrients and the microbes in the soil and how that affects your gut microbiome, we’re going to start seeing some real clear benefits of eating biodynamic food. Personally, I feel so much better eating biodynamic food; it’s both the physical substance of the food and the experience of eating food that has really high quality and intense flavor. One of the ways that biodynamics has come more into the mainstream in the U.S. is through wine, and one of the reasons is we haven’t been paying that much attention to the quality in our food but more in the quality of wine. So when people are tasting biodynamic wine they go, “Wow this tastes so much better,” and now that’s starting to come into the food and people are saying, “Oh wow, this biodynamic carrot, I didn’t know a carrot could taste like that.” And I think that translates to nutritional benefits although we don’t have as many studies to back that up.
Sharon: Right, it’s kind of the same with organic agriculture, the research is not showing this dramatic difference in nutrition but to me there are so many other more compelling reasons. I think we are going to learn more about phytonutrients and I also think it’s interesting about the wine and biodynamics. A lot of us might know of biodynamics because of wine. So that’s kind of bringing a bridge to the food system. If someone wanted to purchase biodynamic food, how would they even know how to look for and find it?
Thea: As I said before there is a certification system for biodynamic and it’s an international certification called Demeter and so in Europe there’s a Demeter brand that’s an orange logo and in the U.S. there’s a Demeter certified biodynamic seal that you can find on products, so that’s something you can look for in health food stores. If you want to get direct from farmers, that’s a great way to get biodynamic produce. Also, for dairy there’s a directory that Demeter USA which is a certifier of biodynamic farms called biodynamicfood.org and you can see a map of where different producers and processors are and what products they have so that can help you find them as well. And then it’s great to just ask at the farmers market if they are practicing biodynamics, because it’s one of those things consumers are just starting to learn about. Sometimes people are practicing it but don’t think there’s enough demand, so they don’t even say anything. If people are asking for it, I think that can help them more focus and share what they’re doing, and more farms become certified biodynamic.
Sharon: Which leads me to my next question; this is a growing field, there are more farmers getting into this. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Thea: Absolutely. Like I said, it’s a worldwide movement. I was just in India a couple years ago and there are 100,000 farmers practicing biodynamics and they’re just doing it because it works, and it costs less than using chemicals and they’re healthier, and their produce is better. You know, one farmer does it and another sees what they’re doing, and it just spreads through whole regions. Here in the U.S. it’s definitely growing as well. Our membership in the Biodynamic Association a few years ago was about 1,200, now we’re up to 1,700. And again, that’s both farmers and gardeners and people who are seeking it and just care about biodynamics. There’s a lot of interest for sure and another example of that is our biodynamic conference. For years it was about 100-200 people that were in the know attending, and we’ve seen really dramatic growth. We had 900 people at our conference last year. There’s really a lot of people who are becoming more interested in this and are wanting to be part of this movement.
Sharon: I live in CA, as do you, and I feel like there’s more of an opportunity in our region. Is that true?
Thea: Yeah, I live here in Sonoma County which I think has the highest concentration of certified biodynamic farms and vineyards in the country. But California is a hotspot, New York is another hotspot, that’s where we’re going to have our conference this year. And last year we had our conference in Oregon. There are tons of biodynamic crops there, but we have members in all 50 states. Even in Utah or Nebraska there are biodynamic farms there too.
Sharon: Are a lot of them participating in CSAs or farmer’s markets? Is that kind of the most likely route that consumers might engage with?
Thea: In the Community Supported Agriculture movement the first two CSAs were actually biodynamic farms. There’s a lot of alignment between the principles that Steiner laid out that are associated with economics and the idea of a CSA where you’re actually supporting the food, you’re not just buying a discreet product but you’re making an investment in the part of the farm that gives back to you. So yeah, there are definitely a lot of biodynamic farms that have adopted that model and that sell directly to consumers. And there are a growing number of consumer-packaged goods that you can find in natural food stores as well. Down in Southern California, Erewhon is probably the market that has the most biodynamic products.
Sharon: Very cool. So, what is the future looking like for biodynamics? It seems very positive but what do you see? What are some of the things you’re looking for? Do you need initiatives or programs?
Thea: I think there are a lot of farmers that are wanting to practice biodynamics and they’re not quite sure how because it’s not paint by the numbers, You’ve really got to understand the principles and relate to the individuality of your land because it needs to be practiced slightly differently everywhere. So that’s something we’ve really been ramping up in the Biodynamic association; how do we support those farmers with farmer training? Right now we’re in the process of developing a peer-to-peer farmer program so that farmers who have already gotten some of the biodynamic principles under their belt can help come along. So that’s something that I’m really excited about. I also think there’s more and more people in the world wide earth movement who are paying attention to biodynamics and I think in addition to more people actually going fully into biodynamics, biodynamics is going to be influencing how agriculture is practiced generally, and we’re going to start thinking differently on things like, “How do I approach my farm as a whole even if I’m going to use chemical inputs? How can I think a little more creatively?” I think the other thing we’re seeing is that more and more people are going to be growing their own food and I think biodynamics is a great support if you just have a small backyard garden and you want to be able to grow food for your family. It can help you grow really healthy food and experience the connection you have.
Sharon: I love that. I’m really passionate about helping people grow more food and getting in touch with that no matter where they’re at; really taking advantage of the opportunity. I like the idea of biodynamics being a form of agriculture they could do and learn more about. It would be totally within that reach; keeping the soil fertile and all that. Another thing I wanted to ask you about is resources. You mentioned a few and I will include the links in this blog, but if you want to mention any resources you have, we will be sure to share them with everybody.
Thea: Well the Biodynamic Association is a membership association, so we welcome anyone who’s interested in learning biodynamics and supporting it to become a member. We have a sliding scale that starts at $5 a year so it’s really accessible whatever anyone’s financial needs. And with membership then you get access to our journal which has articles every quarter to help you learn more, and also connections to other communities. We do interactive member salons via Zoom so everyone can get to know each other and engage in different topics. We also have webinars and online courses at our conference that’s coming up, which again anyone is welcome to come regardless of your background in biodynamics. We want to make sure we have a really strong intro to biodynamics because there’s always going to be people coming forward and I love that the conference both welcomes folks who have been involved for 20, 30, 40 years and people who are like, “I think this might have something for me and I’m just going to come and see what it’s all about.” There’s a bunch of resources on our website and we really encourage people to connect with us because we want to support everyone in their journey in biodynamics whatever that may look like.
Thea Maria Carlson is Executive Director of the Biodynamic Association
Main Image: Biodynamic winery in Sonoma County.