Our final CRAFT tour of the season was graciously hosted by Nicole and Gaelan of Green Toe Ground in Celo, NC on October 7th. We were greeted by cloudy skies once again, and once again our dedicated CRAFT members braved the rainy weather and chilly conditions to come and learn about the day’s theme – an Introduction to Biodynamic Farming. We are grateful to Nicole and Gaelan for taking the time to share their passion for Biodynamic growing and inviting us to their farm.
As Gaelan put it, “This farm has been a lot of things in our 11 years.” As farm businesses tend to do Green Toe Ground has evolved from a CSA model vegetable farm when they started out to now focusing primarily on their direct markets selling at three Asheville Tailgate markets, and raising animals.
While they have always grown with organic methods, about nine years ago Nicole and Gaelan ventured into the realm of biodynamic growing. Nicole explained that biodynamic farming is the most common organic agriculture system worldwide, but it has yet to gain a widespread following here in the U.S. Rudolph Steiner, an Austrian scientist and philosopher, developed the Biodynamic growing system in response to the use of chemical fertilizers just emerging during that era. He envisioned a system of farming that emphasizes a holistic and intentional understanding of how the soil, plants, animals and the larger universe are interrelated. Sowing and planting is based on an astronomical calendar following phases of the moon, sun and planets. In the Biodynamic model the farm is the center of human life, with everything else radiating out. The cow is the ultimate base for that operation, chosen for its personality, relation to the earth, and manure. Manures and compost are main sources of fertilization on a biodynamic farm. The intentional preparation of a compost pile serves as the metabolism on the farm in the same way a cow’s digestion system functions – a complete breakdown of organic material producing a fertilizer rich in minerals and active microbial life.
To enhance the compost a series of nine fermented and herbal preparations are made throughout the year. They are either inserted in the compost pile in small doses or sprayed on the soil or plants to enliven the soil with the different attributes and minerals contained in each preparation. The different preparations make use of common herbs like nettle, yarrow, valerian, oak bark and dandelion and several are prepared using cow horns or the metabolic system of a slaughtered cow. These particular herbs are thought to contain high amounts of particular minerals they suck up through their growing process, and are then made available to the soil in the preparations.
A biodynamic farmer farms not for the plants but for the soil. Gaelan explained that when they started growing their soil was very sandy, and didn’t hold organic matter well. But after increasing their focus on the soil with biodynamic methods their soil quality has greatly improved, and he is able to water half as much during the summer months. The greatest virtue of biodynamic farming Gaelan asserts is that it provides a reason to study your farm, be intentional and create an intense relationship with the land.
While Biodynamic agriculture is ultimately designed to be a do-it-yourself model, making the preparations is a community aspect of the process and in other parts of the world where Biodynamics is more popular community members will slaughter a cow and make the preparations in large batches. This scenario is too labor intensive for Nicole and Gaelan to complete each year as a single farm. Fortunately, they are able to purchase preparations through the Josephine Porter Institute based in Virginia.
The biodynamic approach also strongly emphasizes integrating raising animals with crop production, and maintenance of the land. We were able to see how Gaelan and Nicole have done this by raising 6 ewes, selling lamb meat in the spring, and selling handspun fleece allowing them to maintain their open fields and increase their economic viability by having multiple animal products to sell. We also visited an overgrown sloped field where they have been gradually moving 4-5 Yorkshire pigs who in their own pig way will bust up the sod, eat crab grass and other weeds, and deposit their manure, enhancing the field for growing vegetables.
If you are interested in learning more about Biodynamic agriculture Gaelan and Nicole suggest starting with the Josephine Porter Institute, and if you’re really brave reading Rudolph Steiner’s work Agriculture Course: The Birth of the Biodynamic Method. You can also look into the Demeter Biodynamic Research Institute which provides Biodynamic certification and is a worldwide standard.
For our much loved potluck, Gaelan fired up the pizza oven and we feasted on fresh made pizza pies, abundant salads, and winter squash pie – a great way to cap off the CRAFT tour season. Huge thanks to Nicole and Gaelan again for hosting us and sharing their insight into the world of Biodynamic farming.
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Agatha Hannah holds a degree in Environmental Studies — Sustainable Agriculture from Warren Wilson College. She has more than twenty years of experience working with non-profits focused on farmer education and sustainable and regenerative agriculture at the local and national levels. As a farmer, mother, and community activist with an off-grid homestead in Floyd, Virginia, Agatha has a deep commitment to cultivating a vibrant agriculture system based on thriving family farms.