Stella Natura 2008 Biodynamic Planting Calendar

Saving the Planet is More Than a Practical Problem

Patrick Holden

The following is an example of the articles to be found in the Stella Natura 2008.

Wearing my hat as Director of the Soil Association, someone who is associated with organic food and farming, but also with an interest in biodynamic agriculture, I was asked to speak at two recent Biodynamic Conferences. The first was at Botton Village in England in June 2004, to celebrate the eightieth anniversary of Rudolf Steiner's agricultural lectures, and the second at the Goetheanum in Dornach, Switzerland at the 2006 International Conference on Biodynamic Agriculture.

The theme of my second talk, as requested by the organizers, was "Which inspirations could foster the further development of organic agriculture?" Preparing and presenting these talks re-awakened a question that has preoccupied me for many years. This is the relation between one's 'inner' work, by which I mean the striving to live life in a more harmonious way, and 'outer' work in the world, which is inevitably and necessarily dominated by more material demands.

Looking back, it is interesting that this question arose in me at the same time that I first became involved with farming. At the beginning of the 1970s a group of six of us, full of the naïve optimism which was so characteristic of that time, decided to establish a rural commune in West Wales. Having concluded that agriculture should be an important element of our activity, but without any background in farming myself, I took a job on an intensive dairy farm in Hampshire.

Despite having to apply large quantities of nitrogen fertilizer, I learned about farming the best possible way – by doing it – and I look back on the year with huge affection. It was also my first direct taste of the amazing sense of health and exhilaration that results from hard and meaningful physical work in a productive relationship with nature (which is after all what farming is and always has been). This was both a revelation and an inspiration.

I spent my lunch breaks, a precious oasis of 45 minutes of quiet time, sitting up in the hay barn eating my sandwiches and reading the Penguin Krishnamurti Reader. Some 36 years later, I can see that this was the first time in my life that I devoted time on a regular basis to the question of the connection between inner and outer work. After that year I looked around for an appropriate course in organic farming. And someone suggested the Foundation Course in biodynamic agriculture at Emerson College in Sussex. This was my introduction to Anthroposophy and the biodynamic movement.

My time at Emerson influenced me on I many levels. Just one outcome was that I met Melanie Rebbeck, who was also in the Foundation Course, and her brother, Nick. He eventually bought the farm where I still live in West Wales, offering me a tenancy and then a partnership before finally passing over its ownership in 2003.

Am I farming biodynamically today? Well, no, not exactly, but I'd like to think that were he able to visit my farm, Steiner would at least give his partial approval to what we are trying for. We are, of course, farming organically, and have been for 35 years, but we do try to go a bit deeper than that. For instance our carrot crop, due to be sown within a couple of days as I write this, will go in on May 2, which is a 'root' day. We also subscribe to Steiner's philosophy that the farm should be seen as an ecosystem in its own right, and that our striving should be to move towards building and maintaining plant and animal communities, which are ecologically suited to its unique combination of soil, climate and place.

I also agree strongly with a point that was made in a discussion at the Dornach conference, namely, that a key difference between 'ordinary' organic farming and biodynamic farming is that the latter includes the farmer and the relationship between the farmer and the land as an integral element of the whole approach. To me, this is extremely important and relates back to the underlying theme in this article.

After I had given my presentation at the Goetheanum, I had lunch with Nikolai Fuchs, leader of the Agriculture Section of the School of Spiritual Science in Dornach. We ended up discussing our spiritual influences and the common challenge that is faced by all pupils and followers when the teacher dies. In this context, we reflected on what Rudolf Steiner might make of the results of his work today, over 80 years after his death.

As I understand it, the agricultural lectures were given in response to an approach by a group of estate owners and farmers who were becoming increasingly concerned at the apparent reduction in vitality of their crops and livestock. Steiner's advice was that this devitalization was the inevitable consequence of agricultural intensification, and to redress it he recommended that a range of specific practices should be undertaken intentionally by farmers. These, first described in the agricultural lectures, gave rise to what is now known throughout the world as biodynamic agriculture.

The inspirational parallel behind the organic movement and the Soil Association in particular were the ideas of Sir Albert Howard and his book, An Agricultural Testament, in which he gave precise indications of how to address the biological element of the problems created by the industrialization of agriculture.

Sadly, it is clear that for most of the farming community, Steiner's advice went largely unheeded. Agriculture has been industrialized, food quality degraded, and we are now on the threshold of a global ecological crisis on a scale that surely would have shocked those who gathered at Koberwitz in 1924.

However, change is in the wind, which gives cause for hope. The relative success of organic farming and the organic food market, which is now beginning to break out of its niche status, is a good example.

It becomes ever more clear to me that the ecological crisis currently afflicting our planet is also a spiritual crisis. By this I mean that for millions of people all over the world, the fruits of twentieth century development, including the benefits of industrialization, globalization and increased disposable income, are offset by a loss of meaning, of anchorage in being. There is an underlying wish that the result of one's worldly activities should bring the possibility to connect with some finer energy in life and the preparation for our inevitable death.

It is difficult to find the right words to communicate what for many people must rightly centre on their personal inner work, but I think it is important to try to share these thoughts at a time when there is such a void in so many people's lives. A new approach to agriculture and a different relation to our food have the potential to reconnect us with something more meaningful, in addition to restoring some of the damage that we have inflicted on nature over the last 100 years.

This brings me back to my question, what inspiration can support the development of closer co-operation between the organic and biodynamic movements? Of one thing I am clear – the organic movement, and the Soil Association in particular, urgently needs the influence of this finer spiritual dimension. It is not enough simply to farm biologically. I'd even go so far as to say that if the whole world converted to organic farming without a corresponding inner human dimension, that this would be a somewhat empty victory. As the man in the conference discussion said, one cannot leave out the person from the farming system.

In practical terms, how might the influence of the biodynamic movement benefit the work of the organic movement? My feeling is that there could definitely be mutual gain in closer co-operation. One area where I think there is scope for change is in certification. For example, the agricultural director of Soil Association Certification is a biodynamic farmer but he had to leave the Soil Association in order to obtain certification for his holding. I would very much like for the Soil Association to be able to offer biodynamic certification to farmers who are willing to adopt what I see as a higher level of organic farming. Of course, this may worry some people who see the Soil Association as a dominant organization with ambitions to get even larger, but this really isn't the case.

My own feeling is that our rapid growth, both in scale and influence, actually makes us vulnerable to progressive dilution of our core beliefs, and it will only be through active efforts that this will be avoided. For me, the more important question is, how can we, a community of people working in the field of sustainable agriculture, recognize that the current ecological crisis also has a spiritual dimension? I think that, whatever our organizational affiliations, we should constantly remind ourselves that this crisis, ecological and spiritual, is now so serious that if certain changes are not made, both in our attitude and our practices within quite a short time-scale, the consequences could be catastrophic.

How can we respond adequately to these challenges? The answer surely must be to explore all avenues for improved communication and co-operation, because in truth we are part of the same movement. I suspect that Rudolf Steiner would urge us to base our future actions on this premise. He would also point out that in agreeing to give the agricultural lectures, his aim was to support 'conventional' farmers facing worldly problems. Rather than restricting our activities to small groups of like-minded people, thereby excluding those who really need these influences most, we should recognize our brothers and sisters and together reach out and engage with the wider world. And without dogma or proselytizing, the biodynamic movement needs to share the inner resources that inspire and sustain it.

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