Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems

Biodynamic Agriculture Joins the Regenerative Movement

by CRARS staff member Sheryl Karas. M.A.

Tablas Creek Vineyards

Tablas Creek Vineyards

A systems approach to agriculture is one of the key developments in Regenerative Agriculture—it’s about looking at the farm and surrounding environment as an integrated whole when making decisions. In particular, it is about attempting to grow crops and raise animals with nature instead of “despite” it. In the best of circumstances, it is also about not making choices that harm the environment that supports the farm and the people who work on it (or live nearby). Native Americans and other indigenous people say that is how raising food was traditionally done. But in modern times conventional farming veered away from that concept in the pursuit of higher crop yields and efficiency in growing the most food for the lowest possible price.

However, back in 1924 in Europe, a system of farming was proposed by Austrian scientist and philosopher Dr. Rudolf Steiner(opens in new window) that used almost all the practices used in regenerative farming today (plus a few others) and also saw the farm and its environment as a system. It was, and still is, called “Biodynamic Agriculture(opens in new window)” and was started in response to the concerns raised by a group of farmers seeing rapid declines in seed fertility, crop yields, and animal health. Steiner believed that modern practices that attempted to treat farmland as factories that achieved results through synthetic pesticides and fertilizers were to blame—choices that wouldn’t be made if the land with all its plants and creatures was seen as a living system instead of as an inert object that could be manipulated without consequence. “Biodynamic” comes from the idea of biology in a constant state of dynamic transformation. (Think: photosynthesis and biogeochemical cycles such as the water, carbon, and nitrogen cycles.) Steiner advocated that a farm be treated as a self-sustaining living organism working holistically with the forces of nature, and that is what led to the adoption of the term “organic farming.”

It should be mentioned that Steiner’s thinking was not just scientific but also strongly guided by spiritual beliefs and experiences. Because of that, there has been a movement to discredit his work, as is also true when it comes to the voices of indigenous people who rely on a combination of spiritual beliefs and lived experience in their approach to gathering knowledge—qualitative instead of quantitative, holistic instead of limited to controllable components. At this point in time, however, there have been so many quantitative studies showing the efficacy of most of the mutual practices Biodynamic and regenerative farming employ that it seems a shame to shy away from a forthright discussion of the topic. 

Biodynamic Practices

The basic premise behind Biodynamic Agriculture is that every farm, when managed correctly in concert with its environment, can be a self-sustaining ecosystem capable of maintaining its own health and vitality without external inputs. Biodiversity is an important part of a healthy natural ecosystem so integrating animals and multiple plants is considered essential to the health of a farm. Farm waste is also recycled to replenish the health of the soil through green manure (mulch), animal manure, and compost. The Biodynamic Demeter Alliance certifies Biodynamic farms through Farm and Processing Standards that include:

  • Processes on the farm must be regenerative rather than purely extractive (or degenerative).
  • A minimum of ten percent of the farmland needs to be set aside as a preserve for biodiversity. This can include forests, wetlands, riparian corridors, and deliberately planted insect habitat.
  • Year-round bare tillage is prohibited.
  • The land should be kept covered as much as possible through the use of careful crop rotation, mulch, and cover crops.
  • Soil fertility is created through the recycling of products of the farm, not synthetic fertilizers.
  • Pest management is achieved through plant diversity, balanced crop nutrition, insect predator habitat, and attention to light penetration and flow.
  • Weed control is achieved through timing of planting, use of mulch, and paying attention to the influx of invasive weed species and avoiding spreading them.
  • Animal cruelty is prohibited. All animals need to be given adequate room to roam and to be protected from excessive heat, humidity, dust, and gasses (such as ammonia).
  • At least 50% of animal feed needs to be grown on the farm and at least 80% of the remaining feed needs to be Demeter certified.

Most of the above practices are similar to what are used on regenerative operations, although some of the standards are stricter and much more restrictive than what is currently done in most regenerative systems. Where Biodynamic Agriculture significantly differs is in the use of the following two practices: 

  • Biodynamic compost “preparations” and compost sprays made from various combinations of medicinal herbs, minerals and animal manure are required and applied at different times of year. They are used in homeopathic doses to encourage the growth and biodiversity of beneficial soil bacteria and fungi, to strengthen the quality of the compost by stabilizing nitrogen and other nutrients, and to help attune the compost to the farm as a whole.
  • Paying attention to the cycles of the earth, sun, moon, planets and stars to determine when to plant, cultivate, harvest, and use Biodynamic preparations.

A homeopathic approach to farm health flies in the face of modern practices which are more akin to an allopathic point of view that attempts to fix problems with substances or practices that force change (drugs, radiation, or surgery when applied in a medical situation). The theory behind homeopathy is to use a minute amount of a substance to encourage a living system to heal itself in the way that it needs without forcing a change in a blanket way that may or may not be appropriate for a specific individual situation. If the system doesn’t need a particular homeopathic, it won’t do any harm. But if it does need that kind of support, significant and positive changes have been seen to happen. The Biodynamic Association(opens in new window) links to several studies on their Biodynamic Research References Portal(opens in new window) that are of interest in this area.

The use of astrology in farming is an ancient practice common to most, if not all, indigenous cultures. Finding respected modern-day researchers willing to put their time, energy and names to the study of it, however, is a challenging task. There is one study (PDF) on the Biodynamic Association’s website showing that seeding according to the phases of the moon does appear to have an effect. And, certainly, old-time farmers are quite familiar with the practice. The Old Farmer’s Almanac(opens in new window), in publication since 1792, goes into great detail about yearly moon phases correlated with crop cycles and is still a popular resource for those who wish to experiment on their own (or enjoy the other folklore and humor they like to include).

Some CRARS Regenerative Mentor-Farmers Use Biodynamic Principles As Well

Tablas Creek Vineyards

Because vintners have a strong tradition of wanting their grapes and wines to express the unique signature of the land they grow on, Biodynamic farming is very popular among winemakers. One of our mentor-farmers, Jordan Lonborg of Tablas Creek Vineyards(opens in new window) in Paso Robles, CA, shared extensively about the biodynamic approach they use on their operation on our website(opens in new window). The vineyard itself promotes the importance of their grapes reflecting the entire ecosystem— “the land, the animals, and the stars.” They say it’s more than respect for the land, it’s their philosophy of life.

Biodiversity is at the heart of the Tablas Creek approach. They employ a flock of 290 sheep and alpacas who are moved through the vineyard in a managed way to weed and fertilize it. In the summer, when they can’t be allowed in the vineyard, the animals graze in the surrounding forest where they help thin invasive species, reduce fire danger, and regenerate the land with their manure. Tablas Creek also interplants hundreds of fruit trees around and within the vineyards, uses compost made on site from prunings and grape must, applies compost tea made from the on-site compost to encourage healthy microbial balance in the soil, and uses natural pest controls such as 39 owl boxes placed around the vineyard. The property also includes sections of native vegetation left natural to attract pollinating insects and other wildlife.

Finca Luna Nueva

Finca Luna Nueva

Finca Luna Nueva

Tom Newmark of Finca Luna Nueva(opens in new window) in San Isidro de Peñas Blancas, Costa Rica says that his road to regenerative agriculture(opens in new window) started with a shock. After years of growing food using organic and biodynamic methods, soil testing revealed that their crop fields did not have the soil organic matter needed for adequate carbon sequestration. The land they used for grazing pasture was better, however, and the land at the edges of the property that was reverting to secondary forest were best of all. They studied what was going wrong and realized that tilling the soil every few years and not using permanent ground cover where they were growing their crops must be an important factor. They were also planting crops in monoculture plots with plants of uniform heights. That’s not how nature grows food. To be more in biodynamic alignment with their rainforest environment and with their goal of carbon sequestration, they needed to pay even more attention to complexity and biodiversity than they were before.

Today they plant polycultures with foliage at differing strata and are experimenting with fungal-dominated compost. They now have 100 species of fruit trees established at their farm and are focusing more on tree crops like cacao, allspice, cinnamon, cloves, multiple citrus species, and nutmeg, plus vines like black pepper and vanilla.

Biodynamic Agriculture Becomes More Regenerative

In recent years there has been significant attention in the Biodynamic Agriculture community on carbon sequestration. Climate change wasn’t a known issue at the time Steiner developed this form of farming. Even though Biodynamic practices already improve soil health and additionally capture carbon through maintaining forest, wetland, and other natural habitats, the Demeter certification program is now attempting to help Biodynamic farmers be even more in alignment with the goal of helping to mitigate climate change. The Farm Standard (PDF)does not specify tillage except for prohibiting year-round bare tillage; but elsewhere(opens in new window) Demeter is now encouraging low or no-till practices. They also prohibit monoculture. In 2017, they started soil testing for carbon sequestration as part of the annual Demeter certification renewal process. They hope this will provide data farmers can use to make sure they are building biologically active soil and intend to aggregate the data to support research in regenerative agriculture as a whole.