Soil Voodoo

Every Friday, Stephen Decater and his apprentices harvest, wash, and package beets, tomatoes, squash—whatever’s in season. Decater’s son drives the bounty to drop-off points in Mendocino County and San Francisco, where volunteers divide up the vegetables and flowers into boxes. The produce is far fresher than any supermarket’s, but it’s markedly different in another way: Decater’s Live Power Farm in Covelo is biodynamic.

Ask most people what “biodynamic” means and you’ll get a blank stare or an off-the-mark lecture on biointensive gardening methods such as double-digging. In fact, biodynamics is a spiritual and physical practice that predates organic—and it contributed much to that concept’s popularity.

Before the 20th century, all farming was organic. That changed during World War I, and as early as 1924, European farmers, worried about soil and plant degradation from chemical fertilizers, decided to consult an expert. A delegation was sent to ask Austrian philosopher and scientist Rudolf Steiner to comment on the crisis. Steiner responded with a series of eight lectures on agriculture, and biodynamics was born.

The crux of this method is to become more conscious. “Biodynamics is reharmonizing and strengthening the natural world,” says Decater. The watchful farmer is in communication with his soil and his plants, and he adds compounds in response to conditions he notes. These preparations, numbered 500-508, are made by a formula described by Steiner. Plant materials are stuffed into a cow’s horn or intestine and buried over the winter, then stirred for an hour before tiny amounts are used—homeopathic soil science.

Most biodynamic farmers in Northern California grow wine grapes. Decater has a simple explanation: “Blind tastings.” When wines made from grapes grown on small—and often unknown—biodynamic farms kept winning blind tastings, vineyard owners began to incorporate methods some call “soil voodoo.”

Decater had farmed organically for more than a decade before he read Steiner’s lectures in 1985. “It really struck me because I felt that earth has a sacred, living quality. Maybe there is a spiritual power that’s imbued in earth. The preparations enhance it. I can’t scientifically explain it.”

Experiments are being carried out all over the world, and it has been found that the minute quantities of compounds added to compost or to the soil increase the number of microorganisms, helping prevent fungal diseases. When soil fertility is low, the compounds increase it, but the effect lessens as the soil becomes richer and conditions improve. Some researchers believe the compounds regulate the fertility of the soil and plant growth, bringing that growth into balance rather than creating larger and larger plants. (Recent research suggests that while higher levels of CO2 from fossil fuels will make taller and more efficient plants, their nutritional value would be lower, creating what the United Nations terms “hidden hunger.”)

Decater is more interested in balancing his soil than in researching why it works. He thinks of his farm and its animals—he plows with draft horses—as a single organism with a flow between plant and animal and man. He worries that conventional agriculture, industry, and fossil fuels have altered the world in ways we can’t imagine: “We are now becoming co-creative because we’re affecting climate and everything else.”

Live Power Farm is certified by Demeter, biodynamic’s equivalent to organic. The two carry significant differences: Demeter, for instance, requires that an entire farm be certified, while organic certifies parallel production. Demeter focuses on building soil and fertility and includes humane treatment of livestock—mutilation such as debeaking and tail cutting is prohibited, and all livestock must have access to the outdoors. Organic does not regulate any of these.

Decater says, “People are so separated from the food they eat. The market doesn’t work because it’s a non-relationship. We don’t pay the real costs of food on a sustainable basis.” Decater says that biodynamic farms have fed people for decades without loss of soil fertility. “Let’s make it clear,” he says. “People don’t buy food, they pay us a stewardship fee. For instance, the horses are a solar tractor. It’s only a hundred years since all food was grown by muscle power. Horse agriculture demands that you have land to support the horses—it’s not sustainable to plow fence-to-fence. We need to develop a conscious relationship back to the farm and to the land. If you eat, you occupy the land on which your food is grown.”

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