On the (Biodynamic) Farm
This ongoing column is devoted to news in the field (no pun intended) of sustainable agriculture through the eyes of a new farmland owner turning a former conventional farm over to biodynamic farming with the help of a farming partner. My hope is for readers to learn about the rewards and challenges of becoming an active participant in this burgeoning movement and to show how food is transforming the landscape of a small town and community in the Hudson Valley of New York State.
After 5 years of searching, in April of 2013 I finally purchased farmland. It had been owned by a family for 70 years as a dairy farm, and then when the parents passed on, the children, who were all grown up and not interested in farming, put it up for sale. The buyer was very active in the biodynamic farming movement and so he put it into land conservancy trust, meaning it can only be used for agricultural or educational purposes. Interestingly enough, after selling, the oldest son of the dairy farmer and his wife decided they wanted to live on the land, and so bought back a parcel from the new owner. I bought the remaining portion which was separated from theirs by a narrow, meandering trout stream.
Soon after buying, I signed a five year farming lease with a neighboring biodynamic farm, Hawthorne Valley Farm (HVF). In addition to a farming exemption on my taxes, I would also receive the hands on expertise of the farm’s director and grain manager. In return for farming my land, they would own the crops grown on it. This seemed like a fair deal, especially since I would receive a free CSA (Community Sustained Agriculture) share, enjoying the bounty already growing on their main campus, 4 miles away.
After walking the land with them, I learned what work needed to start right away. Although physically beautiful, it had not been actively farmed for over seven years and some of the fields were in considerable state of neglect. They required being brush hogged (mowed with an enormous stainless steel rotating blade attached to the back of a plow) to weaken the invasive weeds and small trees solidly entrenched in the compacted soil. If they were left for one more season, Nature’s intrinsic need to return itself to brush and forest would win over our fight to farm them.
Improvements were also needed to raise the soil’s fertility. Although preliminary soil analyses indicated there were no harmful chemical toxins like arsenic or other heavy metals present, levels of important nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and other minerals were low and the soil was too acidic to support growing food crops. So, seasoned manure from the horse farm next door and 2 tons of crushed limestone were applied to the fields.
Lastly, a biodynamic additive was sprayed onto the soil. Simply labeled ‘500’, it consisted of fermented cow dung taken from a lactating cow (to bring in calcium) that was buried in a cow’s horn underground for 9 months, then dug up and stirred nonstop for one hour in a drum of water. This is considered to be an essential element in biodynamic farming, believed to raise both the energy vibrations in the soil and the vitality of the crops grown on it [For more information on biodynamic farming, read Beyond Organic]. Although I had learned the theory behind the different preparations when I took agricultural intensive seminars HVF, I had never made any myself, and so I assisted in making (See photo).
Following these treatments to the soil, one field was planted with alfalfa and oats seeds for a cover crop. A cover crop is turned back into the soil to fertilize for the next year’s growing season, while the brush hogged tract was sowed with rye. Called winter rye, it is planted in the fall, sprouts before the winter frost, and then dies back, coming back to life again in the spring. It will get harvested in July and subsequently turned into flour to be baked into amazing health breads.
In a 100x100 foot plot along the perimeter line of this field HVF kindly agreed I can piggyback onto their efforts and actually plant my first food crop. I have chosen garlic which I’m told is an easy and hearty plant to grow and does not need too much tending (except weeding), which suits me just fine. The land has no fencing or electricity yet. Hopefully, I won’t have to worry about animals eating the crop before I can harvest it (they don’t like the taste of garlic). I ordered 35 lbs of different varieties of organic garlic from a farm in Colorado and will keep a farming journal to record my progress. I studiously read Growing Great Garlic by Ron Engeland, a book recommended by farming friends, and invited some friends to come for a garlic planting party. Assuming a few show up, I am ready to get my hands into the soil. Here we go!