So I’ve taken a bit of a hiatus from the West Coast and am visiting another farm gal up here in the historic and beautiful state of New York. Who would think that 45 minutes outside of the city, the charming village of Chestnut Ridge holds the nation’s first Waldorf School and education center based on the writings of Ehrenfried Pfeiffer and the principles of
Rudolph Steiner, grandfather of biodynamics.
The Pfeiffer Center here in the valley boasts 120+ acres of summer camp, a school, a eurythmics studios, intern and staff housing, an organic/biodynamic cafe, two miniature draft horses, historic barns and a community-centered garden. My good friend is here doing a year-long internship with the garden and is getting an intensive education of all things biodynamic.
To start off with, the soil and its health are everything to the biodynamic farmer. Live cultures and a viable life energy are the focus of building the soil through intensive composting and different concoctions made out of both plant and animal material that are added to the compost piles or made into a “tea” and sprayed over the crops and soil.
This morning we brought all the compost bins (trash cans on wheels) from around the community; one from the Waldorf school where the kids toss in everything from half-eaten apples, to lunch leftovers to the tired jack-o-lanterns of the last holiday; two from the co-op store up the street where the staff toss in food and drink leftovers from to-go meals and coffee; one from each dorm building on the campus where mostly kitchen waste and the occasional bouquet of flowers makes its way in; and even food scraps dropped off by neighbors and members of the greater community.
The mesh-lined compost bins are lined with straw or dried leaves on the bottom and around the sides as more is added to the heap, and between each good 5″thick layer of fresh food scraps about 2 cups of powdered lime is sprinkled on top and covered with a thin layer of readymade compost from a previous pile – a sort of inoculant to the new batch, kind of like keeping a sourdough starter going to use in fresh bread every week – before putting the mesh-lined lid of the container over top. After about a month the container pile will have decomposed and packed down enough to scoop by the forkful to an open pile that is then covered with straw and allowed to fully decompose and break down to the point that it resembles rich, dark garden soil. At this point the pile will be gradually added to the garden rows after heavy-feeder crops (like corn and all the Brassicas) and also used as the inoculant for the contained fresh piles.
I have yet to encounter anyone or any farm that focuses so heavily on composting, makes it into a weekly ritual even. And from first-hand experience, the folks here can tell you that the ‘biodegradable green cups’ (like what most hip, organic coffee shops give you to take your morning latte with you) are still in the piles after the rest has turned to humus, so they’re probably not the best composting material out there. Although, the corn- or sugar-based utensils and cups that mimic their plastic counterparts break down readily and are don’t leave a trace as they break down just as fast as whole-food waste.
As I mentioned before, there are some compost ‘preparations’ that are used regularly; their purposes are to fertilize, make nutrient uptake more efficient, protect against diseases and give a certain vitality to the plants. It could be said that these preparations give biodynamic produce that little bit of an edge over conventional and even organic produce from the same region – if you haven’t tried it, trust me (and then try it), biodynamic produce just tastes better!
Prep #500 (this doesn’t mean that there are 499 before it, it’s just the name assigned to the concoction…don’t ask me) Manure is stuffed into a female cow’s horn (it’s hollow, as opposed to a bull’s horn) and buried in the ground for a year. After a year it’s dug up, mixed into a barrel of water – stirred quickly one way and then the other for about an hour, this is said to “introduce chaos and potentize the tea” – and flung onto crops with a large paintbrush. It’s said to stimulate root activity, promote beneficial bacteria, regulate pH and mineral content and help seeds to germinate.
Prep #501 Silica is also stuffed into a horn and buried for a year, then dug up and stored in direct sunlight. It’s mixed in the same way as the manure tea, by short and quick rotations of stirring one way and then the other before being flung onto garden plants. It resonates with light metabolism in the plants (photosynthesis and the making of chlorophyll) and heavily influences the color, flavor, keeping qualities and even aroma of the plants.
Prep #502 Dried yarrow is stuffed into a stag’s bladder, hung up over the summer and then buried for a year before being placed by the teaspoonful into a slot made in the compost pile then covered back up. This happens anytime the compost pile is turned, maybe once every 6 months. It helps plants take up any trace elements in very miniscule amounts for their optimal nutrition preference.
Prep #503 Chamomile is buried from fall to next summer inside cow intestines and upon being dug up also placed as a teaspoonful into a slot made in the pile and covered up. It helps majorly with stabilizing the nitrogen (N) in the compost and invigorates the soil “life” which helps stimulate plant growth.
Prep #504 Nettle is another herb used in the compost pile, usually at its center, or “heart”, as nettles are known to enliven the soil and resonate with circulation and iron content. A teaspoonful is placed in the middle of the pile and covered back up.
Prep #505 Oak bark is chipped off a tree and ground into a fine meal before being moistened and stuffed inside the cavity of a cow skull and buried in a swampy, moist area for a year. A teaspoonful goes into the compost pile the same way and gives healing qualities to the plants to combat diseases; like a dose of white blood cells for your crop.
Prep #506 Dandelion is placed inside the mesentery of a cow, buried also and placed in the pile similarly. It helps forge a bond between silica (Si) and potassium (K), and thus aids Prep #501.
Prep #507 The nectar of valerian flowers is droppered into water to make a tea form that is then dripped into a hole in the compost pile as well. Its use is for proper phosphorus (P) usage in the soil and plants.
Prep #508 The final prep is a spray of horsetail tea that is sprayed over the compost pile once all the other preps have been placed inside it. It helps in resistance to fungal diseases and improves the moisture content of the soil.
*This is a great visual source for the preps
Sound cosmic, paganish or just plain weird? Maybe. But the strong spiritual ties that biodynamic farmers feel in relation to the soil, garden and animals (in particular, cows) is attested to in the fantastic flavor and heartiness embodied by biodynamic produce. To quote a member of Monday’s sauerkraut-making party: “It’s biodyummy!”