Biodynamic Farming
Field Day
at Williams River Produce,
Williams, Western Australia
14 October 2005

Introductory note by Dennis Argall

While staying further east, at Lake Grace, we heard on the morning Rural Report of the ABC an interview with hosts of a biodynamic farming [BD] field day held at their property near Williams, Western Australia, on 14 October.

We decided it would be an interesting place to spend a day, see something of organic farming in Western Australia and meet interesting people.

In the public mind, 'organic' tends to mean 'clean' or produced without chemicals... and often enhanced pricing, a fancy niche market.

In the obligations of farm certification as organic as required by government and embodied in rules worked out with organic farmers in the early 1990s, there are much more extensive obligations as to management of the farm. I had Mount Eurobodalla certified organic in the early 1990s, met such standards.

At the core, as a principle, is that from one year to the next, one decade to the next, soil is sustained and becomes stronger, more full of organic life.

It is fundamental that all farming involved removal of product, robbing of the product of the land. Conventional farming focuses on using the land space to grow food using immediately added soluble chemical inputs. Unfortunately this process tends to diminish all organic life (fungi, bacteria, creatures of all sizes and particular the humus content of soil) and increase the rate of degradation, increasing vulnerabilities to run-off and loss in wind; plants and animals grown on such soils become more vulnerable to disease and... (this is the consumer interest which is difficult scientifically to demonstrate) less nutritious.

The whole system is in great stress now, production year to year sustained by heavy inputs of fertiliser and poisons, by farm amalgamations, by much greater investments in machinery to achieve profits from wider spaces of land, corporatisation and the departure of families from farms. Since the 1980s, people on the land have been, much as people in the city, increasingly captive of a spiral of debt and demands of financial planning systems which involved greater and greater consumption, more complexity and difficulty of life, often with reduced individual day-to-day well-being and sense of community.

Who thrives? Away from the field day, a conventional farmer recently said to me:

"I'll tell you this about farm advisors. He tells me to plant and plant and stock heavily with animals, much more than I do. He arrives in a fancy car, he asks did you do it, I say no I didn't, he says why, I draw his attention to the fact it didn't rain. He goes, he never fails to send me a big bill."

One farmer present on the day said he had come with a sense simply that "we can't keep doing things the way we have been doing them."

It may be that some farmers can be attracted to a system of farming because there may be a price advantage with consumer demand for organic products.

It ought realistically to be seen by farmers that there is more profit in building farm soils for the long term rather than grinding them towards desertification.

The always precarious farming environment in Western Australia has perhaps been an important contributor to the fact that biodynamic farming is more popular and accepted here here than anywhere else on the planet. Precariousness now advances across rural Australia.

There are a number of organisations in Australia meeting government criteria for certification of farm practices as 'organic'. William and Kelly Newton-Wordsworth, running this field day, are certified by the Biodynamic Research Institute (BDRI), using the Demeter label.

This group follows strict rules laid down by its leader for decades, Alex Podolinski. Podolinski would already be annoyed by this text in its lumping of 'biodynamic' under 'organic.' He has fiercely protected the Demeter label and asserted successfully to government that one should speak of Organic and Biodynamic.

Biodynamic is a term coined by Rudolph Steiner, whose philosophies of human development (anthroposophy) have gained popularity in the last two decades in the Steiner (sometimes called Waldorf) schools around the country. BDRI demands strict adherence to Steiner's views of the cosmos and explanations of soil fertility, derived at a time of comparatively limited scientific knowledge, about as limited as that available in Germany in the 1800s when Liebig carried out mineral analyses of soil and gave rise to what is now 'conventional', 'chemical' agriculture.

This makes it a frustrating task, to my mind, to explain and expand support for biodynamics in the modern world, to the extent that it is advanced as a fundamentalist belief and potential commitment, rather than something for which good scientific support can be found. The best exponents, the best practitioners, are trapped within a system in which they cannot advance their cause in modern terms.

This was evident on the day. However, the day was also blessed by much practicality and the presence not only of the very successful Kelly and William but also of other successful BD farmers. They argued powerful cases for farming in ways which diminish radically dependence on inputs and management of the soil and its life with observation and insight and wisdom.

Masanobu Fukuoka, in his major work One Straw Revolution [please google] offered the metaphor of sword fighting in explaining his approach to 'natural' farming in Japan. Chemical farming was like fighting with two swords, fighting nature on all fronts to get a result. Mainstream organic farming could be thought of as fighting with one sword, limiting oneself to not toxic, non-industrial inputs, but going about the farming process still with much the same adversarial view of nature (in his own cultural idiom comparable to Hinayana Buddhism). 'No sword' fighting, his own perspective, was one of greatest possible harmonisation with nature (comparable with Mahayana Buddhism, the broad path), minimisation of inputs, maximisation of thoughtful and (hard work) exploitation of natural processes to derive crops. BD is certainly out in that end of organic farming thought and Fukuoka was spoken of by several favourably on the day.

At the core of BD practice is the use of a preparation called 500 by Steiner. This drives many practical people away from it, but does represent a fundamental approach to increasing natural health in plants which deserves greater attention. The BD practitioners have, many of them, experimented with variants, but none are as effective.

To make Preparation 500 manure from biodynamic cows (healthy, not treated with chemicals, not fed on diminished pastures) is packed in cow horns and these are placed underground through winter. In spring the cown horns are dug up and contain a rich dark substance, including many worm castings. This has a very long shelf life when properly stored. Once or more often a year, a small amount of this substance is dissolved in water using paddles which turn first in one direction, then the opposite, creating vortices and allowing maximum contact with air. This very dilute solution is then strained (at a gauge of strainer allowing worm castings to pass through) and this is sprayed in the evening onto pasture or crops. There could be good arguments for this scientifically, but there is a BDRI restriction on other than Steiner's cosmic explanations (beginning with the character of the cow and the shape of the cow horn) and you can't acquire a bit of Preparation 500 to give it a go, you have to join the organisation, adhere to the rules, first. This is a situation which makes it difficult to secure wider respect and adherance to the use of a substance and soil life stimulatory process which may indeed be the most positive and beneficial approach to increasing soil humus content, improving tilth and plant vigour and thus also of animals grown in such environment.

It was an excellent, informative field day, we made friends, we learned, we had a good time. We saw a healthy farm which had a superphosphate bill of $36000 20 years ago, but has not used chemical fertiliser inputs since. A diversified farm, producing much more than the limited cropping and grazing of 20 years ago. An application of broad principles of soil health to particular circumstances paddock by paddock, season by season.

Here are some pictures:

A team of juniors did the registration; there is a brightly cloured cafe on the farm producing wondrous food

our hosts, Kelly and William Newton-Wordsworth

The farmer, the cow horn, the Preparation 500, demonstration of stirring; the machinery for stirring

A visit to the house garden to see a robust and complex system,
deriving also from permaculture principles (not normally associated with BDRI)

Out to the olive grove to discuss methods and soil tilth

Over lunch we enjoyed the company of Dayle Lloyd of Eden Valley Biodynamic Farm, Dumbleyung, WA whose flour mill is the only one in Australia producing biodynamic flour products.

Dayle was an immensely valuable source of ideas on how farmers could convert to organic and biodynamic. He is of the view that present climate stress makes the process more difficult, as does the extent to which conventional farms year by year have been subjected to longer longer chemical treatments, have lost tilth and organic content. The road back to health is longer, the climate stress and lack of moisture makes it all harder. He and other BD farmers constitute a positive and practical group of mutal support and advice.

After an afternoon discussion of such issues, Kelly and daughters and others provided delightful entertainment.

and we said goodby to new friends

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