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  • Writer's pictureAnneliese Abbott

The Other Strand of Organic History: Why Biodynamics Is Important

Rudolf Steiner's Agricultural Course
Rudolf Steiner's Agricultural Course is very hard to read - don't start here if you want to learn about biodynamics

I have a confession to make. In all of my earlier articles about the history of organic farming, I left out one critically important element—biodynamic farming.


I can admit now that it was a purposeful omission. Biodynamics had been dutifully mentioned in all of the secondary sources I read, but it was usually in a skeptical or even negative light. All these sources mentioned about biodynamic farming was that it included adding “preparations” to compost piles. Weird things like manure that was buried in a cow horn over the winter, or oak bark buried in a sheep skull in a swamp. Those were just two of the things that Rudolf Steiner mentioned in his very confusing and hard-to-read Agricultural Course, given in 1924.


Not wanting to ridicule something that I didn’t fully understand, I completely avoided writing about biodynamic farming for five years. I though it wasn’t very important, and the secondary sources I read seemed to support that idea. Organic farming, they argued, would have developed basically the same even if biodynamics had never existed.


But as much as I tried to ignore it, biodynamic farming kept coming up. Organic farmers kept mentioning it. I discovered that the phrase “community supported agriculture” was coined by the biodynamic community and that all of the first CSA farms in New York and Pennsylvania were biodynamic. I discovered that many of the earliest organic farmers in the United States—including Paul Keene, the founder of Walnut Acres—were biodynamic. Most importantly, I began to realize that even J.I. Rodale got the phrase “organic farming” from biodynamic leader Ehrenfried Pfeiffer, not from Sir Albert Howard. Far from being peripheral to organic history, biodynamics turned out to be right at the center.


Finally, in 2022, I interviewed my first biodynamic farmer—Jean-Paul Courtens. Jean-Paul attended a four-year biodynamic training school in the Netherlands and started one of the first CSAs in New York—managed with biodynamic methods. He explained that the coursework at the biodynamic training school was extremely practical. In the first year, they did intensive unit studies on topics like soil science, crop production, vegetable growing, and landscaping. The second year included a long apprenticeship on an existing biodynamic farm, the third year converted a farm to biodynamics, and the fourth year was more practical education.


The most surprising thing to me was that Jean-Paul said that he didn’t even read Rudolf Steiner’s Agricultural Course—the foundational text of biodynamics—until his third year. “They did shield us a little bit from getting too much into the weeds of the esoteric components of biodynamics,” he explained. “We were allowed to either immerse ourselves in the teaching of Steiner or ignore it altogether.”


Following that advice, I decided to skip Steiner’s Agricultural Course at first. I started with Ehrenfried Pfeiffer instead, found some secondary historical accounts that weren’t skeptical or derogatory, and read what biodynamic farmers wrote about their own history. After that, I was finally ready to read Steiner in his appropriate historical context. And what I discovered was that biodynamic farming did make an extremely important contribution to mainstream organic farming. It introduced the holistic concept of the farm as an organism, an “organic whole.” And that’s where the word “organic” came from.

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