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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture

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Farmer John Embraces Biodynamics to Heal the Farm and Build Community

July 29, 2011 |

In the documentary, The Real Dirt on Farmer John, John Peterson says that he “began to see the farm as a living organism.” Upon further reflection Peterson, the founder of Rockford, Illinois-based biodynamic farm, Angelic Organics, says that he’s always seen the farm that way. He says that the works of Austrian scientist and philosopher Rudolf Steiner helped to crystallize his thoughts around this idea.

In 1924, Steiner first proposed the idea of biodynamics to a group of farmers concerned with poor seed, soil, and animal quality. Biodynamics, both a philosophy and practice, takes into consideration forces in nature that are not completely understood by science.

“Biodynamics goes way beyond the idea of the farm as a place.  It reaches into the cosmos and creates the farm as a poetic place – a much more significant place,” describes Peterson.

Farmer John

Healing the Farm through Biodynamics

Under tremendous debt pressure, Peterson lost most of his family’s farmland in the ’80s and was “laid flat by losses.” To heal himself he turned to classical homeopathy. It was restorative.

Peterson sought a similar “energetic medicine for the earth” as he rebuilt his farm in the ’90s. This led him to biodynamics.

Biodynamics is about deepening relationships between the farmer and the farm,” says Peterson.

Biodynamic farming depends on the health of the soil, which in turn determines the vitality of the food that is produced. As its own ecosystem, a biodynamic farm mimics the diversity found in nature.  Steiner saw the farm as a self-regulating, interdependent ecosystem, capable of providing its own fertility through the use of manure, compost, and cover crops.

Strict biodynamic practice has specific soil preparations, as well as prescribed planting and harvesting times, taking into consideration the natural rhythms of light and seasons.

In his collection of short stories, Glitter and Grease, Peterson describes his start with biodynamics, in the story, “I Don’t Believe It”.

“It’s a gradual process,” I replied. “There all these crazy influences coming at the land today—radar, radio waves, chemical drift, toxic rain, stray voltage. They alter the resonance of the soil. The soil has to let go of these old patterns and acquire new ones. We apply the horn manure maybe twice in the fall and twice in the spring…”

“It takes into account the sky, the earth, the flowers, the birds, the orchard. Worms. Vegetables. Livestock. The manure from the livestock—totally important for building compost that’s sort of a celestial beacon. It covers everything a healthy farm can be, and it puts the whole thing together in a harmonious way.”

Although biodynamic farms recycle their nutrients, there is still an overall loss of soil quality. To restore the missing elements, the soil is fed and managed through nine preparations.

Biodynamic preparations include the use of minerals and herbs like dandelion, stinging nettle, chamomile, oakbark and yarrow. Preparations are made using specified techniques. Some are stirred in a particular manner, while others are buried and allowed to decompose or ferment before use. The preparations are then added to the field or mixed with compost to feed the soil.

“Develop the ecosystem. Go beyond the preps,” says Peterson. “Working with the preparations gives you a focus. [The] main thing is that the farm needs to be treated as an individual with fewer inputs.”

“Biodynamics is similar to working with children,” Peterson explains. “If you engage with the right openness, something in the child informs the teacher of what they need.” In this case, the soil and farm inform the farmer of its needs.

Peterson describes a fellow farmer’s idea of biodynamics: “Biodynamics is about the human beings and how human beings treat one another. Take it further, what do animals, plants and soil want?”

Peterson advises farmers wanting to incorporate biodynamics into their farming practices to read Steiner’s agricultural lectures, and to observe. The “farm needs to be treated as an individual,” he says. “When you start noticing, the farm starts to speak.”

Farms as Cultural Centers

Peterson spent almost five years traveling to promote his film and book. While traveling, he says he was continually surprised that despite a growing interest in quality food among the people he met that “farms were running behind that interest.” Peterson thinks that the interest should start with the farm and trickle down to the food; that our connections with the farm are most important.

In his travels, people told Peterson that the farms were so far away, out in the middle of nowhere. “But the farms are somewhere,” he says.

Toward the end of his tour, while hiking in the Alps, Peterson began to prioritize. “I had imaginations of how to work with built spaces – of finishing and creating social spaces (on the farm),” he explains. “My focus, or passion is creating a place where people come together and seeing what happens.”

Peterson says, “farms need to touch people’s heart, anchor people to the earth, relate them to nature. Even just a stop over can stay with you forever.” He relates stories of people that spent a day or two back on his farm forty years ago, that still hold on to the warm memories of the visit.

“I love farming, but I love what happens on farms socially.” Peterson says that farms differ substantially from most businesses in that they have buildings, fields, animals, and crops that can inspire.

Angelic Organics, Community Supported Agriculture

Naturally, Peterson’s farm uses both the principles of biodynamics and community building as part of its business practice. Peterson’s farm, Angelic Organics, serves about 1,200 Chicago area customers, or CSA (community supported agriculture) shareholders. Shareholders buy a stake in the farm each season, providing upfront capital to buy seeds and equipment to get the season started.  In turn, shareholders are invested in the harvest, getting a box of produce each week during the growing season.

Throughout the season, shareholders are invited to the farm to visit the farm for family farm camp; cooking, cheese making, and organic gardening classes; walking tours and a myriad of other activities. Peterson is working on refurbishing some of the original barn buildings to provide even more social spaces for his farm community.

On Sustainability

Peterson says he is frustrated with the term, sustainability, and how it is over-used today. “Ideas of sustainability can be materialistic when you try to quantify the impact,” he says. “A lot of things go beyond measurement and economics.  Because we are in a material age, a lot can be overlooked, like beauty.”

Peterson says sustainability “starts with integrity,” but he feels integrity is missing from the conversation. “Integrity is about keeping your word – where people don’t cheat one another. [There is an] emotional or spiritual aspect to sustainability. It’s not all about resource in, resource out.”

In the future, Peterson predicts, “farms are going to be healing places. If they can be sustainable: hire people at a right wage, and come together to create a little village, [farms] will contribute immensely.”

Peterson is passionate about the farm as a place of community, but he is equally “passionate about great crops-excellent, fertile, abundant, and without weeds.”

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