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  • Writer's pictureAnneliese Abbott

Before Organic: Ehrenfried Pfeiffer and Biodynamics in the United States

Ehrenfried Pfeiffer
Ehrenfried Pfeiffer popularized biodynamic farming to a general audience - including J.I. Rodale

Beginning in the 1950s, J.I. Rodale started writing historical accounts about how he started Organic Gardening magazine. He always told the same story—how he read Sir Albert Howard’s Agricultural Testament and started the organic movement in the United States. But in these accounts, Rodale left out an important part of the story. It turns out that biodynamic farming reached America before Howard’s Agricultural Testament was published—and that Rodale himself was influenced by biodynamics far more than he later acknowledged.


Biodynamic farming started in 1924, when Rudolf Steiner gave a lecture about agriculture in Koberwitz, Poland. Steiner was the founder of Anthroposophy—a “spiritual science” that rejected reductionism and materialism and emphasized a holistic, spiritual worldview. In his Agricultural Course, Steiner applied anthroposophic spiritual principles to agriculture, but he passed away less than a year later. It was up to his followers to turn the “indications” he had given in his lectures into a practical system of farming. In 1928 they began using the phrase “biological-dynamic” (later shortened to “biodynamic”) to describe Steiner’s farming methods.


In 1938, Steiner’s disciple Ehrenfried Pfeiffer wrote the first book-length summary of biodynamic farming for a general, non-anthroposophic audience—Bio-Dynamic Farming and Gardening. While still coming from a holistic perspective, Pfeiffer’s book did not mention the more esoteric spiritual components of Steiner’s original lectures. Instead, it was packed with practical farming information, including an emphasis on maintaining soil fertility with manure and compost instead of chemical fertilizers.


From 1938 to 1942, many farmers who were not familiar with Anthroposophy read Pfeiffer’s book or took farming classes with him. They were worried about the terrible state of American agriculture, and they saw holistic, biodynamic farming as the only way to save and renew rural America. These non-anthroposophic “biodynamic” farmers included Luigi Ligutti, president of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, and Ralph Borsodi, founder of the School of Living in Suffern, New York.


J.I. Rodale met Ehrenfried Pfeiffer and read Bio-Dynamic Farming and Gardening before he launched the first issue of Organic Farming and Gardening magazine in 1942. In that first issue, he discussed biodynamics and the Indore Method as two equivalent composting systems and featured articles by both Ehrenfried Pfeiffer and Sir Albert Howard. Rodale also included significant quotations from Pfeiffer in his 1945 book Pay Dirt. But when Rodale wrote the first history of his magazine in the early 1950s, he didn’t mention Pfeiffer or the term “biodynamic.” He made it sound like his only influence had been Sir Albert Howard and that Rodale had been the first person to “import” organic farming from England.


What happened? I’ve heard from multiple sources that there was some kind of “falling out” between Rodale and Pfeiffer, assumedly in the late 1940s or early 1950s. Was that why Rodale failed to give Pfeiffer credit for his contributions to those early issues of his magazine? Was that why Rodale failed to even mention biodynamics in his histories? I hope that someday I will be able to answer those questions. But even if I can’t, there is one thing I know for sure—Pfeiffer’s version of biodynamic farming played a very important part in the early history of organic farming in the United States.

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Feb 23

Thanks for this piece of the puzzle. In the UK, Pfeiffer and BD were deeply involved in the establishment of organic agriculture ( Lady Eve Balfour was a great supporter of BD, but Sir Albert Howard was very sceptical and when organic was called 'all muck and magic' BD was blamed for the magic part - not without reason. (For me that isn't pejorative but that was how it was intended.) John Paull has written that the Betteshangar summer school was the missing link between BD and organics. The chain being Steiner > Pfeiffer > Lord Northborne > Lady Eve. Whilst I don't doubt that 'Life To The Land' (1940) may have contained the first written use of the phra…

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