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Bio-Dynamic Farming In Australia


#1

The next episode of Landline on ABC TV at 12:30 PM tomorrow has a segment on the development of bio-dynamic farming in Australia.

In FNQ, an Atherton Tablelands dairy farm, Mungalli, has been producing bio-dynamic milk and other dairy products.

We absolutely loved their full cream milk until my wife needed to switch to Pauls Physical and myself to Dairy Farmers Heart Active milk.


#2

Biodynamic farmers may well produce good products, that means they are good farmers. It may or may not mean that biodynamic practices are as important as they say or at all. It is very mystical and nobody knows how it all works although there are some hints about some areas.

On the positive side it teaches that the whole growing system must be considered rather than just throwing chemicals at one aspect of a problem, in this and other ways it is indistinguishable from organic growing. Where it is problematic is the insistence on following ritual closely in its operations and the magical framework used to explain the practices.

Processes are supposed to be timed according to the phases of the moon. I have looked hard but never found the slightest shred of evidence that this has any value. In fact it is a problem because farmers have many constraints that they have to juggle when deciding what needs to be done and when, another constraint doesn’t help.

At one point in the manufacture of one of their magic preparations the mixture has to be swirled around in a circle. Apparently it has to be processed to turn the liquid one specific way - I forget if it is clockwise or anticlockwise. Now I can see how swirling exposes the mix to the air but setting the direction is to pick up on some exotic energy that nobody can detect.

Like its creator Rudolf Steiner biodynamics is a mix of many things inside an opaque wrapper and it is very hard to tell the necessary from the waste of time. This matters to the consumer because you are probable paying more for a product that could be just as good but produced cheaper if they didn’t spend so much time on ritual.


#3

I guess it is the word “Biodynamic” that consumers translate into “must be good for you” and willing to pay more.


#4

You may be right. The biodynamic growers I know are all very genuine, they would be horrified if you said they were defrauding anybody as they are true believers in what they do. If they are any indication of the biodynamic community you will get quality fruit or veg that has been grown with passion and care, whether this translates to food that is any more healthy and whether it is really worth the money is unknown to me - and I suspect to anybody.


#5

Perhaps the value should be seen more in that the product has been produced in a way that is more a case of good stewardship over the environment that any benefit of healthier food. Well it is healthier in that the environment was more cared for than by using “artificial” means to produce the goods and so we suffer less as a World from that production.


#6

There are plenty of systems that do that without the magic.


#7

I am not a follower of the system, I am just making the comment that if it is one that creates a product with as little harm as possible then is it wrong to use it even if they believe in “magic”. Lots of people believe in “magic” but they are still good people even if I think the idea of magic is a bit strange. As long as the idea is not forced on me that it is magic I allow them the freedom to believe it.


#8

Having a science background, I am sceptical in relation to biodynamic farming and its practices. It is a belief type practice and some of the principles of these practices have merit (such as producing stabilised soil conditioners/composts for incorporation into soils to improve their properties), but some may fall into pseudoscience.

I am dubious about the merits of some of the preparations (or potions is possibly more apt) benefits as the levels applied are minuscule to that needed to result in any change in properties. Any change in properties is likely to be due to more conventional farming practices (zero tillage, incorporation of composts/returning plant residues to the soil, crop rotations etc) than the potions they make and apply.

It is also likely that a farming practice or scheme which doesn’t replace nutrients taken up by plants and exported off the farm (agricultural products taken to market), will result in some deficiencies overtime.While using legumes on a farm can assist in nitrogen replacement, most nutrients can’t be replaced infinitely by the soil over many crop rotations. There are many bio-organic farmers which don’t import nutrient sources and rely on the potions to do such work.

I also agree with @syncretic about other farming systems which have good stewardship over the environment. Any farming system (inc. biodynamic and organic) will have both positive and negative impacts on the environment where the farm resides. Often the negative impacts are ignored as the positive ones are the focus of attention and give one that warm glowing feeling.


#9

I like Permaculture, I like growing our own produce as much as we can, I like to source from as local as possible. These are all steps in reducing the impacts of broadacre farming on our environment. If a bio-dynamic farmer wants to pour a potion on the ground and they grow their produce with least harm principles then I won’t stop them, I may not agree with their methods but they probably don’t agree with mine.


#10

As the old saying goes, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

For those who did not read the article in full or watch Landline yesterday, the extracts below are pertinent.

"Lynton Greenwood has an easy answer to critics of biodynamic farming.

“The defence is we’re still here,” he said.

“[After] having started it many years ago when we were ostracised by our neighbours, most of our neighbours we’ve bought out since then.” "
"
At Nathalia further north, three decades of biodynamic farming are paying solid dividends for dairy farmer Mark Peterson.

His herd size is half the district’s average but his biodynamic milk fetches three times the price of conventional milk.

The farm is almost self-sufficient, hardly needing to buy in fodder while elsewhere drought and poor milk prices bankrupt many.

“We were ridiculed 30 years ago when we started,” Mr Peterson said.

“Most of those people that passed comments have sold their farms, gone broke, moved on and we’re still here, so that’s a fairly telling story.” "

Whilst dairy farmers have been struggling with $1/liter milk, the bio-dynamic milk is retailing for around $3/liter.


#11

It’s the “feel good” factor of “biodynamic” that make people want to pay more for milk, combined with being close to the market. As a farmer, there’s little you can do (unless you have access to water) to survive drought, particularly with heavy drinkers like dairy cows and thirsty pastures. Where beef farmers can reduce stock, rotate cattle through paddocks, dairies can’t - there a limit to the distance dairy cows can walk twice a day to the dairy for milking. I suspect the statement is that they had access to water or were not in drought, while those further out couldn’t survive.

As consumers we trust that farmers & producers do the right thing - if it says organic or biodynamic we trust they have followed that to the letter. I did an organised farm tour of a local operation who “value add” to their product - they offer a product lovingly grown and processed into many preparations from roasting to flavourings, oils, slices etc with aspersions that it is organic, in tune with nature etc, etc. So you pay more.

During the orchard walk they admitted that not all spraying was “organic” but done because they were trying to run the place on their own. Eg they spray to force the trees to ripen at once making harvesting a one day event per block, or if pests or disease got ahead of them. They send their raw produce to a co-operative which also takes in 80 other growers, but they are assured they get back at least 60% of their nuts and have taken up to 20% more to fulfil orders. So about half of the nuts I just paid a premium for, are possibly from this farm, the others could be from anywhere in the region, grown under any regime.


#12

There are many aspects of plant growth and soil condition that remain a little mysterious, or rather poorly researched. Without taking sides, it may be beneficial to understand just how much or little actual scientific research has been undertaken into the whole of biodynamic farming practice/s. And in more depth than simply comparing practice with the modern knowledge base.

Perhaps we are all missing something?
Soils whether in good or poor health are full of micro-organisms including fungi. Perhaps as you suggest the magic cow horn potion helps to feed the soil or add a particular mix that stimulates positive outcomes. The same outcome might also derive from adding back to soil typically rotted cow dung and compost. The effectiveness of either may vary with many factors.

The ritual associated with biodynamics if nothing else is a good way of reinforcing the core methods and techniques. Perhaps typical of more ancient practices where written learning was lacking.

I’ll simply note that the juice from weeds rotted in water basins here seems to have a more positive/immediate effect on the plants, than piling the weeds up to rot above ground.


#13

Sure, a good farmer will outlast others. That doesn’t mean biodynamics is responsible.

His product is popular but that doesn’t mean biodynamics is better. If you have a top brand name there are industries where you can get 10 or 30 times the price for the same product that has no name. What people will pay is a measure of many things, quality of product is only one of them.

You miss the point that there are so many confounding causes possible for any of these outcomes you cannot say if biodynamics is the explanation.

AFAIK no controlled study has been done that teases out the effect of biodynamic practice from the myriad of other effects. At best we have to say nobody knows. Given that some aspects like moonplanting have been debunked pretty well an impartial observer should probably remain skeptical. So no, the proof of the pudding is not in the eating.


#14

A little. Research shows increased soil carbon under biodynamic using compost inputs compared to broad acre cultivation where little plant material returned to soil (no surprises here). Others also have analysed potions etc.

This is due to disolving of soluble plant compounds…compared to those same compounds being held in a dry biomass matrix. In some respects is is like a quick action soluble fertiliser (‘plant tea’) compared to a slow release fertiliser (spread biomass or mulch).

At the end of the day, the plants either dry or teas will move more of less the same concentration of nutrients (albeit low)…nitrogen may differ depending on how the plant matter is stored and what it has been exposed to (but biomass N is mostly very low in any event. Legumes are often thought to be higher as they produce some of their own through nitrogen fixing bacteria/nodules on the roots). One can’t use alchemy to create something from nothing.

The concentrations used are next to nothing and usually soil flora (bacteria, fungi, algae) are different to those found in compost. One lives in organic mater (with a benefit of breaking organic matter, some pathogenic etc) while the other lives in mainly a mineral matrix containing come organic matter (some are pathogenic, some benefit soil structure while others increase availability of soil nutrients etc). I am a bit sceptical that one flora can live and thrive in another substrate successfully. Soils are also alive with most soils used in agriculture having a popuution of microbes in one cm3 simikar to the human population of the world. Different soils have different soil flora due to a wide range of factors. Some also have higher pathogenic communities.

It is also worth noting that soils high in organic matter can assist in the control of pathogenic nematodes. Fungi that lives on these nematodes flourish in organic matter. Such effect is from organic matter and not from the spraying of potions.

If the potions were as wonderful as claimed, then one would not need to disseminate small concentrations of these potions to have an effect. The same effect could be achieved by spreading compost around a farm and is likely to have a greater effect.

The perceived benefit may be more associated with ritual beliefs rather than science. If one believes in the rituals, then one is more likely to believe in the benefits.

Edit: Should have also said that if one practices biodynamic farming and can sell their products at a premium in the market, to those who wish to pay a premium for such products, good luck to them as it makes good business sense to differentiate a product from others in the market place and also receive a premium price for efforts employed.


#15

Was there an outcome?


#16

Yes, but not overly postive. Here is one such example…

http://jtropag.kau.in/index.php/ojs2/article/view/155

As outlined above, there is science about the benefits of soil conditioners and composts, but relying on potions is possibly based on the belief they work. The benefits of using composts and other soil conditioners (such as manures) could be mistaken for an effect of a potions.