Biodynamic Demeter Method - FarmerIncubator Intro Course
I've said it 1000 times and I'll keep saying it - I learn about almost everything through Instagram. Strangely, the new generation of social media addicts (i.e. me) and our obsession with images and quick-source information has led to more gardeners and farmers using IG for promotion and updates. I came across @FarmerIncubator this way, advertising their garlic program for 2018. Not long after I decided I couldn't commit to the nine-month mentored farming experience (I intend to be on the other side of the world come garlic harvest) I found the Connecting Farmers Tour Series - #1 Vortex Veggies, Introduction to Practical Biodynamics with Darren Aitken.
My borderline non-existent knowledge of biodynamics was something along the lines of "bacteria...moon phases...cow horns...". Organics, permaculture design and regenerative grazing were the buzzwords soaking into my brain over the last two years, while BD was always sort of hiding in the shadows. Biodynamic produce has a reputation for producing some of the most amazing high-quality, high-nutrient fruit and veg on the planet - this is often reflected in the cost of the produce, which is why we rarely eat it. So off I went to the course, and learned a heap more about BD farming...
Demeter is a branch of BD that is considered to be 'practical' BD - hands-on, results-based and pretty straightforward. The core of BD is the 500 preparation - a small black blob of humus, cow manure and bacteria that allegedly contains 500,000,000 bacteria per GRAM. This prep is applied in a very specific way to cultivated soil often before or just after planting, a couple of times a year. There are other key preparations that contribute to the creation of 500 and the healing of soil, which include specially composted herb preps - dandelion (silica and potassium), chamomile (nitrogen), oak bark (calcium), yarrow (sulphur and potassium), nettle (potassium calcium and iron) and valerian (phosphorus). 501 is a very different prep of finely ground quartz dust, applied to the air directly above growing crops to capture light, enhancing photosynthesis, chlorophyll production, taste, smell and appearance.
Biodynamic soils can be tilled, though with specific attachments so as to not invert soil, blitz it into dust, or create hard pans. They provide an amazing, unique environment for root formation - the examples we saw at the farm were amazing. Water holding content is phenomenal, where water use on similar crops can be about one third of that for conventionally farmed crops. All crop "waste" (i.e. unharvested plant material) is ploughed back into the soil to break down again, intermittently planted with green manure crops. No added fertilisers or compost are needed - wow. No herbicides or pesticides, organic or otherwise, are applied as they are to the detriment of soil fertility. Darren proudly stated that, due to the health of his soil and vegetables, he has never lost an entire crop to disease or pests in the 20 years he's been on the property. OK, if your jaw hasn't hit the ground yet, you're not paying attention..!
The most amazing information I learned on the day was the difference between BD and "organic" farming with added water-soluble fertilisers. With a diagram and a very scientific, clear approach, Darren explained how nutrients become available to plants and how they move within the soil in both farming styles (if you don't know your soil basics, now might be the time to brush up!). Biodynamic soil is rich in organic matter/humus, holding nutrients within itself. Preparations applied maximise microbiological life in the soil, providing highly bioavailable nutrients for crops to uptake as needed. Water sits around soil colloids, and is taken up as needed also. Nutrients cannot leach out of the soil in their state, as molecules in the soil contain them until bacteria process them and plants use them. In stark contrast, when water-soluble fertilisers are applied to crops, the added nutrients is present in the water. Water sits around soil colloids, now containing salts, as these are the solvents needed to create soluble fertiliser. Plants take up water and in doing so, take up extra nutrients (whether they like it or not - it's not just filtered out). If you know your concentration gradients, you'll realise that uptake of salts will encourage more uptake of water to encourage a balance - but the water in the soil is... still salty. Additionally, nutrients can leach from this soil, being present in the water, e.g. in heavy rain, creating potential pollution problems (remember that water is cyclical and dynamic, it doesn't just stay on the property). The resulting vegetable may be water-logged, salty, and deep green in colour (depending on the crop). This softens tissues, enhancing susceptibility to pests and diseases, and reducing storage time and structural quality (remember that kale that wilted in your fridge the day after you bought it? Damn it..) The salt is also more attractive to pests too. Once the veg has been eaten (by yours truly) I will ingest those salts and excess water - the produce is understandably less healthy for us this way. This might be why many people seem to think BD produce tastes better and fetches a higher price at the markets.
While I am yet to learn much more about Demeter BD farming and science behind the results, I'm so far very excited by the idea of such a sustainable, low waste, healthy method of food production. I like to think of BD as farming the soil, as opposed to farming crops or animals. When the soil is at its optimum health, mother nature does the rest. The results are varied and vast - carbon sequestration, regeneration of perennial species, water use reduction, erosion reduction, high nutrient long-storing crops, farming waste reduction, and I'm sure a lot more. Right now, myself and a farming friend are just starting up our own trial of BD veggie growing and it's excited as hell! We wouldn't have had the opportunity if it weren't for FI and Darren - I'm so thankful that everyone I've met so far in the sustainable farming community has been insanely generous with their time, information and resources. What a perfect way to start my year of learning...!
If you're a young person interesting in farming practices, land acquisition or industry contacts, I highly recommend you contact Emmy and the team @FarmerIncubator via IG or visit their website here. Read more about Vortex Veggies here. Follow Instagram @seedblog to see updates of our 1/10th acre plot over the growing season. We may have fresh and preserved produce for sale in 2018 pending the success of our endeavours!