I once read that if you can only afford to buy one organic product for your holiday table, you’d do well to make it cranberries. Abundant bog weeds, fruit worms and other insects make cranberry growing a tricky business, and the list of herbicides, pesticides and insecticides used to grow berries in conventional bogs wreaks havoc with the ecosystem. (Stories about rampant deformities in frogs are the most telling sign that something sinister is going on in conventional cranberry bogs.)
So, when I searched for organic cranberries just before Thanksgiving, I noticed a new label on the bag below the USDA/Organic seal. These cranberries, from a family farm in Wisconsin, were “Demeter Certified Biodynamic.” And they were less expensive than the organic berries in the produce bin.
Come to find out, “biodynamic” is the new buzzword in environmentally sound growing practices. Whole Foods stocks a smattering of products that were grown biodynamically. They include the cranberries from Wisconsin that I purchased, several brands of whole-wheat pasta and a couple of Republic of Tea products. Some Amy’s Kitchen frozen food meals are also certified biodynamic, though I couldn’t find any at the Whole Foods in Portland. Several wines in the eco-friendly wine aisle touted their biodynamic origins.
According to the Whole Foods website, consumers should think of biodynamics as “organic 2.0.” The goal of those who practice biodynamics is to create a self-sustaining farm system that depends solely on materials created on the farm. That means even the compost and natural pesticide methods are developed and produced right on the farm.
The money saved on buying compost and other materials and having them trucked in from other sources may partially explain why those biodynamic cranberries were less expensive than their organic counterparts. But the major impetus to switch to biodynamics seems to be a decidedly spiritual one. Biodynamics increases the grower’s spiritual connection to the land and to the concept of work. Whereas conventional farms deplete the soil year after year and require lots of crop rotation and soil enhancement, biodynamic farming’s purpose is to improve soil health and water quality as time goes on – as well as to do no harm to the ecosystems that surround the farm.
Deb Soule of Avena Botanicals is Maine’s only certified biodynamic farmer, which makes perfect sense, given the products she produces. Avena Botanicals is considered the gold standard when it comes to locally made, medicinal, healing herbs. Her website is an encyclopedia of information that explains which extracts, elixers, and tonics are meant to ward off various ailments and to improve the health of various body systems.
Soule began preparing herbal extracts, tinctures and teas in 1985. She launched Avena Botanicals at the Common Ground Fair in Windsor. She had become immersed in the use of herbs to ease physical and mental upsets during time spent living in Nepal, close to three Tibetan monasteries. There, she came to understand not only the use of plants to heal the individual, but also the spiritual practices of farming to heal whole ecosystems.
According to her website, Soule has been practicing biodynamic farming in the production of her dried herbs, essential oils, salves and teas for more than 16 years. Her farm earned the Demeter Certified Biodynamic seal of approval in 2011. Soule explains that it is “in the spiritual realm” that biodynamics goes beyond organic in terms of agricultural practices. She succinctly explains on her website how the principles were developed in eastern Europe in the early 20th century as a way to improve the health of depleted farms.
“One of biodynamics’ core beliefs and practices is to help heal the earth by using specially made preparations that are applied to the soil, leaves, and compost pile following the natural rhythms of the day, season, and the moon and planets,” she writes.
For Soule and other practitioners, biodynamic agriculture is a way of relating to nature and reacting to the specific challenges growers face in a mindful, common-sense way. Soule and other biodynamic practitioners believe that their practices not only improve the soil, but that the products grown on biodynamic farms “help humans be more conscious, more spiritually awake, and more aware of the divine energy present in all of life.”
If you’ve ever had a garden, you’ve probably felt a swell of pride when you pull up your first fully formed carrot or slice the first tomato you’ve nurtured from seeds or seedlings. Even carving up a pumpkin from your own garden for a Halloween Jack o’ lantern seems a sweeter undertaking. And the soups and sauces you make with those vegetables seem to have more delicate but deeper flavors.
While we suburban gardeners have no way to go all biodynamic in our little garden plots, we could at the very least become more spiritually conscious consumers when it comes to the food we buy. According to the biodynamic philosophy of food and farming, our physical and spiritual health might just depend upon it.