About nine years ago I decided that I wanted to stop trading my life energy for money at two different jobs and instead make my daily work the work of living, that is growing food, cooking, cleaning and crafting. I sold my car, paid off my credit cards and moved to Camphill Village Minnesota. The year and a half I spent at Camphill Village changed my life. I write today in tribute to Camphill Village Minnesota and other biodynamic farms all over the world.
Camphill is a community where volunteers live and work with people who have special needs such as autism, developmental disabilities and Down syndrome. There are Camphill Villages and similar communities all over the world. The movement began in Scotland shortly before World War II. Everyone in the community participates in the meaningful work of daily living. Many communities sell the products they produce. Many of them also manage biodynamic farms.
The village I chose has seven houses, a bakery, a processing kitchen, woods and prairies, a weaving workshop (to make rugs and scarves), a biodynamic garden, a herd of pastured cattle, an orchard and some chickens. Music and art are a big part of daily life. Growing, storing and preparing food occupies most of the work time. Sharing meals and time together, celebrating holidays, meetings, study groups, musical entertainment, worship services and caring for the homes occupies evenings and weekends. Everyone eats the main meal of the day at lunch and almost everyone rests for an hour after lunch. Most people are involved in some way with the biodynamic farm.
I know I tend to toss around the word biodynamic as if everyone knows what that means. You may have seen the word on your tub of yogurt or in a recent magazine, but maybe you aren’t totally clear on what it means. Biodynamic is sometimes described as “a step beyond organic.” That description may be true, but oversimplifies a system of farming in harmony with nature. The movement began out of some lectures by Rudolf Steiner and grew into a detailed method of raising food that is scientific, soil saving and spiritual all at the same time.
Here are four of my favorite things that I learned from the year and a half that I spent on a biodynamic farm.
1. Farms and communities work best together.
At Camphill Village Minnesota, the biodynamic garden and animals provide food that is shared between the whole village. The surplus is sold in the greater community to help fund the other needs of the village. I love the way various members of the community are able to use their time and favorite skills to help nourish all 40+ members of the community. Some people enjoy growing vegetables. Others prefer working with animals. Still others are great at processing, freezing, canning and making sauerkraut. There is always important work to be done on the farm and in the kitchens. Those who enjoy artistic pursuits work in the weaving studio and other craft workshops.
The garden produce and animal products are made available to all seven houses, based on need. I think that these Camphill Communities were the original Community Supported Agriculture farms. Now more and more people are renewing their own connection to land and farming through CSA shares, where they pay up front for a weekly portion of the season’s harvest. Many CSA’s offer consumers the opportunity to work on the farm and participate in the harvest. This is a good thing because digging in the dirt is more than just work. It nourishes us in ways that go beyond the food we produce. Farms and people need each other.
2. Weeds are good.
I remember the first time that I worked in the Camphill garden and was corrected for pulling up a clover plant. The vegetables were growing in slightly raised rows divided by foot paths. The foot paths and even some of the garden beds had some wild clover plants growing in them. I don’t remember if I was initially told to leave the clovers to provide cover for elemental beings such as gnomes and fairies, food for pollinators, or nitrogen for the garden plants. Perhaps it was all three. In addition, the weeds help hold the soil to prevent erosion. For all of these reasons, we worked around the clovers whenever we could.
We also worked around nettles, wild berries, coneflowers, huge stands of calendula, various types of mint, comfrey, bee balm, lemon balm and more! The gardens are surrounded by stands of natural prairie plants and various blooming things. These plants provide food and habitat for beneficial insects. Yes, bugs are good too!
The weeds, leaves and flowers also provide herbal medicines and ingredients for biodynamic preparations. We gathered and processed the herbs and flowers according to a biodynamic calendar that helped us harvest in relationship to the phase of the moon and time of day. Because the moon affects water content, among other things, the calendar can be especially useful to grape growers and wine makers. (click here to order a 2014 biodynamic calendar)
For those weeds that you really do want to remove, they are still useful. These less desirable weeds give us important clues about the soil. Based on which weeds are growing, we can know whether the soil is too compacted, recently disturbed or deficient in minerals. I’m not personally an expert in this area, but I know several organic and biodynamic farmers who can tell you quite a bit about your soil health just by looking at the weeds that want to grow in your garden. They may also tell you that leaving some weed roots and other organic matter in your soil will feed important beneficial microbes, worms and bugs. I’ve often wondered if these various helpful creatures are the true fairies or elemental beings that I mentioned before.
3. Animals help complete the circle.
We raised quite a menagerie of farm animals when I was at Camphill Village. My favorite was the herd of dairy goats. If you have never spent time with goats, I encourage you to find a way to meet some. They are very charismatic little creatures. They also have an amazing ability to forage for food, making them very popular in areas of the world that aren’t suitable for growing other foods.
I enjoyed taking the small herd of goats for walks in the woods. They would munch on brambles, weeds and even poison ivy, turning these “unwanted” plants into two important products, fresh milk and manure. The manure was composted before being spread on the gardens. Some of it also fertilized the goats’ own pastureland after being spread around and cleaned up a bit of worms and bugs by the free range chickens. The goats also enjoyed vegetable peelings from our kitchens, turning them into milk and fertilizer as well.
I’m glad that we can still find small, humane farms that utilize animals to replenish the nutrients that vegetables remove from the soil. So many modern farms have separated the animals from the land. They concentrate large numbers of animals in buildings or on cement feed lots. In these situations, the waste becomes a problem rather than an important resource. To grow grains for the animals, farmers pay the chemical companies for synthetic anhydrous ammonia, which they spread on the fields as a source of nitrogen. Composted animal manure provides not only usable nitrogen and potassium, but a host of other nutrients as well as beneficial soil bacteria.
4. We need to stop treating our soil like dirt.
Speaking of beneficial bacteria, did you know that a spoonful of healthy soil contains a billion bacteria? Yes, soil is mostly alive. Well, at least good organic or biodynamic soil is alive. The soil on conventional farms, well, it hangs in there as best it can, but the bacterial composition is different. Just like a course of antibiotics will indiscriminately kill many of the beneficial as well as the bad bacteria in our guts, pesticides and herbicides disrupt the metabolic pathways of many things besides just the weeds and bugs they are meant to kill.
Recent research on the popular herbicide glyphosate, for example, shows that it kills beneficial bacteria because many of the good bacteria rely on the same metabolic pathway that the herbicide disrupts. Bt toxin, now present through genetic modification in the plants themselves, has a detrimental effect on bacteria as well as many beneficial bugs. I believe that this war on soil bacteria is one reason that genetically modified crops have not been outperforming natural plants at the rate that was predicted. In fact, they have been shown to have weaker root structures and lower nutrition than other crops.
Biodynamic farmers utilize homeopathic preparations, compost, beneficial plants and insects and other natural methods to control bugs and weeds. They understand that a well-nourished plant will be better able to withstand the assaults of insects and weather. Maybe I’ll have to write another post about some of my favorite biodynamic preparations and methods. For now, check out the resources below for more information.
In addition to what we put on the soil, the way we care for soil structure is just as important. Biodynamic farming uses cover crops to both protect the soil from erosion and provide nutrients and organic matter. I’ve mentioned the unique preparations and compost. The beds and paths of the garden are yet another way to preserve soil structure. This system prevents soil compaction in the garden beds and reduces the need for tilling. Whenever possible, rather than getting out the rototiller, which harms soil structure and increases compaction, soil was instead worked by hand or aerated with a broadfork. The result is rich, loamy garden soil that teams with beneficial nutrients and critters both seen and unseen.
As you can imagine, the food at Camphill Village is delicious and nourishing. The workers in the processing kitchen freeze corn and beans at the peak of ripeness, put up hundreds of jars of tomatoes, ferment delicious sauerkraut and stock the pantries of every household with various salsas, sauces and pickles. The root cellar stores carrots and potatoes to last for most of the winter. I don’t think I am biased when I say that I prefer food from biodynamic farms. For these four reasons and many more, biodynamic farmers are doing a great job.
For more information on biodynamic farming and the Camphill movement:
Demeter USA – An organization that certifies biodynamic farms
Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association
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