SOS….Saving Our Soil
How is Biodynamics different to organics?
by Mark Rathbone
Most people have heard about organics and maybe a few about bio-dynamics, but what's that all about and how is it different from organics?
My family have been bio-dynamic farming since December 1965 (when I was just 2 years old) so I am probably in a really good position to explain it.
My name is Mark Rathbone and I run my own business called Save Our Soil. Our mission is to inform people of the regenerative nature of bio-dynamic agriculture by growing tasty fruit and vegetables, selling them through farmers' markets and providing information on the subject via our website, speaking engagements and other media.
What experience have I had with bio-dynamics and food in general?
In the early 1960s, my father attended lectures on bio-dynamics by Alex Podolinsky (the founder of Australian Demeter Biodynamics) which were sometimes done on a farm, whilst walking around a paddock. In the early seventies, as a young child, I remember going to many of these farm walks. The farmers went on and on about soil, even walking and talking in the rain whilst I had some big ugly raincoat thrown over me and spent that time worrying that it looked like a dress.
Our Dairy farm in Late 1980’s
Dad, being an ex-conventional farmer, told me horrible stories about when he used to spray chemicals on the family orchard (mainly pesticides). He said "There was little instruction given in those days as to how to use the chemical sprays, no safety gear and you would stir it up with your hand" (these were the days of DDT), so after he would spray, he would sometimes feel sick.
As a result, in my teenage years, I was a little nervous to say the least, when I worked on conventional tomato farms (to earn money to buy my first car) and see pesticide spray planes fly overhead, not far from where we were picking.
When I left school at age 17, I started working on the family dairy farm and it wasn't long before we were hit with one of the worst droughts ever in 1983. It was so bad, farmers weren't able to feed or sell all the cattle they had bred up over the years, so they had to dig these huge pits just down the road from us and destroy hundreds of cows from all the neighbouring farms. (Unfortunately this was the most humane thing to do, considering they would starve to death.) Despite it being one of our worst droughts ever, the price of milk never increased enough to help farmers out. These were the times that supermarkets were starting to exercise their retail muscle and keeping milk cheap was high on their priorities to push out the milk bars.
To supplement my income, I worked in a conventional milk factory and fruit preserving factories as a plant attendant. Which means I went to all parts of the factories to maintain different sorts of machinery which gave me a good overview of the conventional food production system.
I did a year or two at a biodynamic / organic food wholesaler, selling to major retailers in late 80’s. This experience showed me that major retailers were only interested in one thing, not quality, not health, only if the product sold or not. Their shelf space was like real estate and if it didn’t have a good financial return, the product was dropped from their range.
In that time, I learnt about cheese making in a factory at Timboon (it was only for an intensive week, but informative none the less). I soon realized after standing in a white room, wearing a white coat and white hat, that I was never going to build a milk factory. I learnt about biodynamic wine making at Robinvale in the mid 90’s before going on to sell biodynamic wine direct.
One of my main goals in life though was always wanting to have a paddock to plate biodynamic food system. I started a home delivery service in 1994 which ran for 7 years, then started growing vegetables part time on our home dairy farm in 2000.
One of our first Melon crops
Coincidently the longest drought in our farming history came around the same time and I knew vegetables were going to be more sustainable than dairy farming. So in 2008 I obtained a government grant to find underground water which gave us adequate irrigation for vegetable production.
Our underground irrigation pump
In 2009, whilst we were 9 years into the longest drought in our farming history, a neighbour came over the fence and offered to buy the dairy farm for the price my parents would obtain in a year of high rainfall. It wasn’t that the land was highly valued but the irrigation water attached to it was. So my parents, at age 73, sold off the dairy farm in 2010 so they could retire and I decided to just grow vegetables on my own 50-acre property (which was the back paddock of the original 400-acre dairy farm).
Our vegetable patch in summer
Now in 2015 I have been running Save our Soil full time for 4 years, growing seasonal biodynamic vegetables for over 200 families every week through farmers' market in the central suburbs of Melbourne.
Our farmers' market stand ready for action
Farmers Market FAQ
What is the difference between biodynamic and organic food?
Although the answer is detailed and involved, I will have to use 'easy to understand' terms in order to explain it, so if there are any biodynamic farmers reading this then please forgive the simple language.
What is bio-dynamics?
Biodynamic is similar to organics in its holistic approach to farming and doesn't use toxic chemicals anywhere in the process. The main difference is that it was created by Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian scientist, in the early 1900's and focuses on building soil humus levels to feed the plants and not using some sort of un-natural water-soluble fertiliser.
Similar to nature, bio-dynamics relies solely on humus to grow plants. The farmers are trained to know how soil biology works and use certain techniques to maintain and increase humus levels.
The goals of a biodynamic farmer are
- to grow the most nutritious plants possible and to build health for the end user.
- to use a closed farm system that has very little, if anything, brought onto the property to treat the soil or plant.
- to increase the humus bank in the soil, so there is enough for future crops. If there is a deficiency of elements or unusual climatic conditions then some substances may be needed to remedy a situation. In this case, permission must be received by the farmer from the certifying body, before going ahead (eg mineral fertilizer).
How does bio-dynamics work?
Biodynamic farmers use a set of biodynamic preparations or cultures to add soil biology to the soil, or compost instead of some element or chemical. This soil biology has a composting action to produce humus (the only true plant food) and feeds the plants as required by the metabolism of the plant via the sunlight and warmth.
One of the main tools we use (but not the only one) is a substance called 500 which is made from cow manure. 500 refers to 500 million micro-organisms which is not an exact number perhaps but more a reference to the abundant life within a small portion of the substance. When the 500 is applied it’s a bit like a probiotic for the soil, in that it adds a broad spectrum of microorganisms to balance the soil and build fertility. This is stirred in a certain way (very specific, not enough room to mention all the details here) for an hour to cultivate more potent micro-organisms in several litres of water and then sprayed out on the moist warm soil, where the bacteria multiply and break down all the old root systems, leaves, manures and compost them in the soil. The need for broad acre composting is not essential for soil development in this case.
One of the first stirring machines ever built
We all know how compost benefits the soil, by adding 500 (to the right soil conditions) we create the same action as a compost heap, without all the heaping, turning and spreading out. The way we add organic matter to the soil is to grow many different cover crops to inject deep root systems into the soil to be composted. The microbes are then added and move in association with the plant, deep into the subsoil. The microbes then digest the root system of the plants thus creating a carbon rich humus. The plants can be either existing or introduced varieties.
What is humus?
The fungi and bacteria in the soil interacts with the minerals, plants, air and water, then as a part of their natural life cycle take elements into their bodies. These elements are held in the biomass and are still not available to the plants. Then the larger predatory microbes such as protozoa and worms come along and eat the smaller microbes which are rich in nutrient. These excess nutrients pass right through the predators and create a colloid called humus. This is indicated when you see dark brown moist material in the soil and this is a naturally balanced water soluble plant food. (as shown in the soil photo below ).
Biodynamic humus-filled soil from my father's dairy farm.
Humus and 500 are like a perfectly digested compost that doesn't smell and is full of moisture. If you were to roll it in a ball tightly, no moisture will come off in your hand, it's colloidal (like a jelly or butter). There are many other vital techniques used by bio-dynamics to create ideal soil conditions in association with the spraying out of the 500. Without the understanding of these techniques and principles, the 500 may not work or may become less efficient. (Too lengthy to mention here).
How does it differ from organic agriculture?
Biodynamic and organics are similar because they both take a holistic approach to farming, in that it’s a fundamental part of our society, it affects the overall ecology of the world and we want it to be beneficial for all those concerned (by not using harmful chemicals). The main differences are that biodynamics likes to create farm fertility as mentioned above from the resources of the farm itself, whereas organics can buy fertility in. For example, a truck-load of chook manure or rock minerals may be purchased for an organic farm and spread out on the soil. That is not to say that some organic farms don't create their own fertility on-farm. I am just saying it's not as high in the priorities, in their philosophy or standards. However, in bio-dynamics they use their unique preparations to build fertility on-farm and are far stricter in their certification standards in regards to inputs.
Most of an organic soil preparation program is resting the soil or rotating it with other crops, growing cover crops and then ploughing them in, to build soil life. Most experienced organic farmers use compost or apply raw manure in association with a cover crop but depending how long the farmer has been doing organics, some may use a few water soluble non-chemical fertilizers regularly.
The water soluble fertiliser mixes with the soil water and causes the plant to feed through tap root and less through the small feeder root systems which may cause excessive un-natural growth of the plant. This is fair enough in remedial situations when the farmer is first starting out or there is a soil deficiency but if the farmer regularly brings in tonnes of manure or inputs every year on the same paddock, this could become detrimental.
Some of these non-chemical water-soluble fertilizers could include animal manure, poorly digested compost, rock phosphate, seaweed extracts, and many others. Whilst these are from natural sources, nature wouldn't apply them in large quantities on a regular basis. For example 50-500 kg per acre occasionally might be alright, but if tonnes are used every year you might want to look for an alternative. Have you ever seen in nature, millions of birds fly over a property and dump tonnes of manure per 1 acre of land in just one day? Look to nature as a barometer and a guide. If too many nutrients are applied they may run off the farm into rivers and the sea.
Good organic farmers will use non-water-soluble systems which include well-digested compost, decomposing crop residues and then use remedial (small) doses of minerals for deficiencies, but biodynamic farmers know of the living power of the biodynamic preparations and the knowledge of how these work.
How can I tell if my food is fed through water soluble fertilisers?
There are indications if a plant has been overfed with water soluble fertilizers. Water soluble plants all look the same (factory like), oversized, dark green and floppy leaves, root systems have big taproots (less hairy white feeder roots), the produce lasts only a short time in the fridge and may be lacking in flavour. (Just walk down the conventional fresh produce aisle in your supermarkets and you will see what I mean).
Non-water soluble plants (eg Biodynamically grown or well grown organics) all look individual, they are naturally sized, lighter green and upright leaves. The root system is mostly small hairy ones and the produce lasts a long time in the fridge and is full of flavour.
I challenge you to try out what I am saying by seeking out certified Demeter biodynamic produce at your local organic retailer or farmers' market and do the taste test. (I think you will find it will surprise you.)
The proof is in the (biodynamic) pudding. FLAVOUR.
C . Copyright 2015
Disclaimer. The written material above is the personal opinions and experiences of the author and are not necessarily representative of any persons or organisations that he may be aligned with.