Not all, that many years ago, organic farming might have elicited the rolling of eyes. Today, the practice of growing products without chemicals seems common. However, a related approach remains relatively unknown.
Called biodynamics, it involves the use of harvested plants and remains of dead animals. Advocates kicked off a five-day North American conference in Madison on Wednesday.
WUWM Environmental Reporter Susan Bence set out to learn more about the farming practice that dates back to the turn of the last century.
She begins at a dandelion harvesting event outside of Elkhorn.
You many find a few descriptions “unsavory.”
Petra Duffner knew nothing about biodynamics – until 1991.
That was the year she took a break from college in her native Germany and landed on this farm in southeastern Wisconsin.
"I came as an apprentice to learn about organic farming, gardening in general more so and it just happened to be a biodynamic farm,” Petra says.
As it turns out, these 165-acres hold the oldest continually operated biodynamic farm in the United States. Petra Duffner, now Zinniker, jumped into the legacy permanently, when she married the owners’ son.
“We’re trying our best to continue the tradition,” Petra says.
On this “not quite sure when the sky is going to give way to rain” spring morning, the tousle-haired farmer is directing volunteers as they harvest plump, brilliantly hued dandelions. Zinniker instructs volunteers to dump the plants, by the buckets full, onto screens laying flat behind the farmhouse.
“The dandelion is one of the compost preparations. They help with the transformation of the nutrients,” Petra says.
After the dandelions dry, Zinniker will stuff them into membrane harvested from a dead cow.
“A skin that lines the intestines,” Petra says.
She’ll then bury the bundles – same spot every year, until this time next year. They’ll be extracted and applied in small doses to fortify compost heaps.
“That’s the instructions that Steiner gave. There’s relations with different forces and different energies that are way too complicated to explain in two minutes,” Petra says.
Zinniker is speaking of RUDOLF Steiner – the founder of biodynamics. The scientist and philosopher was born where Hungary meets Croatia in 1861. But Zinniker has no time to untangle Steiner intriguing history.
"If someone wants to grab the wheelbarrow we’re going to go out in the woods and get the cow heads,” Petra says.
Volunteer Thea Carlson trots along the high-grassed path toward the stream.
“I wanted to try working on farm the summer before my last year of college and I got introduced to the concept of a farm as an organism and the balance between the plants and animals. Which really was a different view than I got in my sustainable agriculture courses in college,” Carlson says.
Carlson now coordinates a two-year apprenticeship program for people who want to go biodynamic. She’s eager to build up her hands’ on experience.
“I filled the cow horns with manure a couple of years ago,” Carlson says.
The farm eventually sprays the so-called “horn manure” - diluted in a way prescribed by Rudolf Steiner - onto fields to boost microbial activity.
A wide-brimmed hat nearly hides the bespectacled face of Walter Goldstein. The seasoned agronomist - who holds a doctoral degree from Washington State University - latched onto biodynamics four decades ago. Goldstein’s work includes tested how crop quality compares following conventional, organic and biodynamic methods
“We did research with several different crops – with corn, winter wheat; some with oats as well – in replicated trials,” Goldstein says.
Goldstein says he has observed higher yields from biodynamically treated fields and, they seem to stand up better in extreme weather conditions.
“We saw these yield increases, so that’s good, because we’re in stressful years with all the climactic instability,” Goldstein says.
“When you look these complex processes which can seem rather bizarre.”
Robert Karp is executive director of the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association.
”These are medicines being developed; natural medicines for the earth,” Karp says.
Karp is not letting a few peculiarities halt his quest to spread the word about biodynamics.
“I know some of you came here wondering how can I grow better tomatoes and now you’re getting a philosophy course,” Karp says.
Weeks after the dandelion harvest, our paths cross at a two-acre community garden in the heart of Milwaukee.
“There are not just material processes at work in plants. Nature receives vitality not only from the material nutrients in the earth, but from what flows into it from the cosmos,” Karp says.
This is urban gardener Venice Williams first introduction to biodynamics. Although she’s not ready to handle all its ingredients without gloves, Williams says her head is filled with connections.
“As Robert started speaking it reminded me of dozens of conversations with my grandmother; planting by the moon and how everything in nature works together; and how if your spirit ain’t right, your garden doesn’t grow," Williams says.
It’s that “intangible” that disciples of biodynamics also strive to convey – their belief that all things – from soil to humans – have both a material component as well as a spiritual one.
Tending to what we see and what we feel is the balance biodynamic growers seek.