Biodynamic Farming: Sounds Weird But Some Believe In It

PULLMAN - You could call biodynamic farming woo-woo agriculture, considering the "preparations" proposed in 1924 by its founder, a German mystic named Rudolph Steiner.

Preparation 500 involves stuffing cow horns with cow manure, burying them in winter, digging them up in spring, mixing the reputedly transformed and "sweet smelling" dung with water for one hour (reversing the stirring direction three times a minute to get the right combination of "vortex and order") and sprinkling the result on farm fields at the rate of an ounce of manure per acre.

Preparation 501 involves grinding up quartz crystals, mixing with water and spraying onto fields.

Preparations 502 through 507 involves using specially prepared herbs and flowers to leaven compost, including putting yarrow flowers in a stag bladder, chamomile in cow intestines and oak bark in a sheep skull.

Does anyone take this seriously?

Well, a number of New Zealand farmers do.

So does a Washington State University organic farming professor named John Reganold, after he analyzed biodynamic farm output in that country.

And today the sober journal Science published Reganold's paper on his results, co-authored with three New Zealand academics. The paper does not explain the details of biodynamic farming, only its crop and soil result.

In general the biodynamic farms did better in soil quality, and as well in crop yield and profit, as did adjacent conventional farms

that use fertlizers and pesticides, Reganold found.

Why? "It really might be these preparations," Reganold said. "I don't know."

He noted, however, the biodynamic farms also use ordinary organic farming methods such as crop rotations, composting and natural pest controls. That could account for the results.

In an earlier study published in Scientific American comparing side-by-side conventional and organic farms in the Palouse in Eastern Washington, Reganold found less erosion and better soil quality on the organic farm, slightly higher crop yields on the chemical fertilizer farm, and about the same profit on each.

Then came a year's sabbatical in New Zealand, where Reganold heard of active practitioners of Steiner's methods and proposed a serious study of the results.

This is not mainstream farming. Steiner called his guidelines "spiritual science" and linked his preparations to the seasonal cycles of the Earth and movements of the planets. He compared them to "medicines" for the soil.

But biodynamic farming has caught on with a few farmers in Australia, the U.S. and Europe. There is a Biodynamic Farming Association in Pennsylvania.

Reganold compared seven New Zealand biodynamic farms to nine conventional ones with similar site conditions and found the biodynamic ones had more organic matter, thicker topsoil, more mineralizable nitrogen, and far more earthworms. He also discovered New Zealand consumers paid up to a 25 percent premium for biodynamic farm produce.

The scientist was also fascinated by the commitment of biodynamic farmers to a time-consuming, painstaking process. If they weren't convinced stuffing cow manure into horns was working, he said, they wouldn't do it.

Reganold said that as a scientist, he can't explain why any of Steiner's preparations would make an agricultural difference. He does believe organic farming is growing in acceptance.

"I think we are overusing the land in the Palouse," which is the top wheat producing region per acre in the world, he said. "The Palouse is one of the top 10 erosive areas in the U.S. What we are doing now is not sustainable 50 to 100 years down the road."

He suggested farmers look at alternate methods with an open mind.