Practical Workshops Encourage Biodynamic Practice

Bathurst, Gunning & Boorowa – NSW

“Just Do It” may sound like the slogan for a certain athletic campaign, but it is also the rallying cry of the Biodynamic Road Show, composed of Hamish Mackay and John Priestley. This dynamic duo is currently bringing biodynamic agriculture to the Aussie countryside and a growing population of individuals including, farmers, croppers, grazers, horticulturists, and viticulturists, interested in an alternative to mainstream, conventional agricultural practices. Both Hamish and John warmly welcomed me as an objective participant, interested in the feasibility of applying biodynamic agriculture at a sustainable and notable level and the implications for overall environmental sustainability, during the first week of February as they carried out workshops in Bathurst, Gunning and Boorowa, New South Wales.

Priestley, who generously gives of his time and expertise voluntarily and Mackay, now the executive director of biodynamics2024, are committed to promoting and explaining the practical application of biodynamic agriculture at many levels, from home-scale gardening to large-scale cropping and grazing. The week included three intense workshops and farm visits which combined the theory of biodynamic agriculture with active workshops that enabled participants to get hands-on experience. As an environmental scientist and avid gardener, I was fascinated by the wealth of knowledge and patience conveyed by Mr. Priestley and the energy and commitment projected by Mr. Mackay. The two do not preach the biodynamic process in an effort to “convert the masses”; rather their aim is to clarify biodynamics and explain it’s potential for the future of sustainable agriculture. Hamish explains the basic theories of biodynamics by juxtaposing conventional practices and theories with their biodynamic counterpart and is supported by John’s over fifty years of real-world experience and candid ability to answer just about any question one might pose with regard to Australian agriculture, soil, climate, flora and fauna. John’s expertise is rooted (excuse the pun!) in his own biodynamic and highly successful citrus and cattle production which is a model for food quality. John proves that biodynamics is not only ecologically-viable, but can also offer economic advantages as overall input costs are lower than conventional agriculture and quality products receive top market prices, achieving a high standard of appearance, flavour and nutrition as well.

Returning to the workshop outline, the twosome endeavour to simplify what is often misunderstood as a complicated or tedious process. There are many individuals with understandable misconceptions of biodynamics and so Hamish and John stress the “doing” of biodynamics, rather than in-depth theory. They illustrate the practical so that the workshops become enabling and empowering – participants see, hear, feel and do biodynamics and the majority ultimately realise , in most instances, that biodynamics is far simpler, straight-forward and sensible than initially believed.

To aid the transition or experimentation with biodynamics, Biodynamics2024 provides the preparations necessary to start biodynamic agriculture at any level. Although the goal is that farmers and gardeners will eventually control their own preparations, this jumpstart enables people to get started right away and maintain the momentum and practise facilitated by the workshop. Thus the task seems less daunting and participants can benefit from the security of a network ready to jump in and assist the initial transition to biodynamics.

This support is unique amid biodynamic associations and I found John and Hamish extremely generous with their time, knowledge and expertise, which stressed overall, the importance of individual observation and practise in order to best apply biodynamics to each unique farmer and property. Participants often arrived to the workshops with uncertainty and doubts as to what biodynamics really is. The majority left enthusiastic and confident enough to give biodynamics a go and took the initiative to invest in further materials to aid their own understanding. Even the sceptics seemed to grasp the validity of using natural and traditional practises to balance and economise their farm systems and the need to be more flexible within natural systems in order to adjust to the needs of each individual farm or garden system.

Overall, I found the workshops surprisingly in-depth for their relatively short time investment and extremely worthwhile to the future of biodynamics and global food production. I thank Hamish and John for their contribution to sustainability and promotion of flexible systems that replicate nature and enhance the ecology of the planet as a whole. I encourage others to aid and/or participate in the future development of workshops that truly bring biodynamics to life.

Submitted By:  Karen C. Jones Padidar


Krinklewood Vineyard – Hunter Valley, NSW

In his welcome to the workshop participants, Rod Wyndham, owner of the Krinklewood Vineyard, spoke of the Goosebumps he gets whenever he has an opportunity to meet and share Biodynamics with likeminded people. With great warmth, he also wished the fifteen people present the same inspiring and remarkable experience he had in his initial Biodynamic workshop. His description of Hamish and his ability to facilitate was, “The most passionate of speakers, and most enthusiastic motivating presenter you will ever come across!”

Hamish starts his workshop by inviting all participants to write down the questions they arrived with. This time he had left his ‘coloured bits of paper behind’ and had asked Sandra Norman to cut up some A4 sheets, I will introduce Sandra properly a little later. The paper given to participants was bigger than usual, and Hamish’ first lesson of the day was, bigger pieces means people write more. He comments that a tendency is developing in questions people are bringing to the workshops: Climate change? Compost and recycling? Self sufficiency? Water use? Weeds? Economic balance? Working with birds and insects? Natural pest control and preventative methods? Right crop for the right place? Biodynamics and Permaculture? Question reflecting at the same time the desire to have clear and solid foundations to start with, and a presence of mind in regards to the future of our planet and a need for solutions that can be applied without delay.

The first session focuses on allaying the false assumption that Biodynamics is not scientific. Hamish explains that the human organism can be ‘calibrated’ so finely by training observation skills and sense perceptions that it is more than adequate to be a tool of science. He is working from a Goethean science point of view, based on the observation of phenomena, confidence in developing human sense perceptions, and enthusiasm for continued research. The outcome he aims for is, to provide people with confidence, to develop enthusiasm, to grasp the concept of Biodynamics, and to apply its practices.

After the science of Biodynamics has been established, Hamish presents the Soil Food Web, as described by Dr Elaine Ingham. Pens and paper are taken out, people start taking notes, as he adds explanations, they start to nod, this makes sense and it is logical – something they can all think independently as soon as they have the crucial key: someone to make this practice accessible. Hamish leads over to the connection between healthy Soil Life and water retention. He explains how a destruction of this organic microbial life through Superphosphate ultimately leads to erosion. The objective of Biodynamics is to heal and rebuild and increase the Soil life. “The plant lives between the farthest extremes of the cosmos and the centre of the Earth.”

“A lactating cow gives out more calcium in its manure that she gives out in her milk.” The statement takes the participants beyond the in-put-out-put thinking and into the concept of Horn manure preparation, in its relation to the calcium processes, and their relationship to abundance. “This abundance leads to extensive plant growth, counters compaction in soil, and balances the pH.” A sample of Horn manure is passed around, noses are inserted in to it, to catch the earthy scent, people rub it between their fingers; there is a buzz in the room. Hamish moves on to the Horn Silica, and encourages again to ‘just get started’. He creates an atmosphere in which you can feel relaxed about starting something new, and at the same time, relax about the somewhat ‘out there’ aura of biodynamics, while becoming totally excited at the prospect of getting in to it. He uses the example of Silica to explain how biodynamics is the ecological, economical, safe alternative to Genetic engineering, producing better and more predictable outcomes with total respect to food safety.

“Insects, weeds, and pests, etc are not here to give us grief, they are messengers, here to let us know that something is out of balance.” Hamish is creating a focus on working through, rather than against phenomena the grower encounters. His emphasis is again on the capacity to ‘calibrated’ human senses so finely, through training observation skills, that we are a more than adequate a tool of science. This scientific observation of problem messengers allows us to work out what needs to happen to bring about balance.

People are getting excited and asking questions, some writing fast to catch all the information. Someone who has been to a workshop points out that there is a ‘little green book with the information in it, so it’s ok if you don’t get it down exactly.’ Hamish pulls out the Biodynamic Resource Manual and a relieved chuckle-and-groan ripples through the room.

“I am the only person on the planet with Hamish-Protein” he states and explains the total individualisation of our living organism, and its relation to processes taking place in our metabolism; he compare this to the processes that are undertaken in the sterile situation of a laboratory with work on dead matter. This is his lead into the Yarrow preparations, and its relationship to multiple processes, while maintaining ‘an overall’ intelligence that allows the plant to find what it needs. He works his way through the compost preparations, while samples of them are handed around the room, again people smell them, touch them and look at their structure and texture – the room is inhabited by Goethean scientists comparing living substance with living substance. Someone says that, “There is no need to supplement the soil with NPK – because if you used these {the preparations}, the NPK will appear. Right? The answer is, “In extremely deficient soils you may need input to get things going”. The message is: don’t be dogmatic, but if you put minerals on, use the preparations to make the minerals available to the plants. Otherwise you are wasting your resources.

People are fascinated; they want to know more – how do you make the preparations? Hamish gives a very brief description of the use of animal organs and plants, asking permission to ‘just state this’ without allowing questions due to time constraints, and the fact that this is an introduction to Biodynamics and making the preparations is advanced work.

Sandra Norman, is a Biodynamic gardener with a large vegetable garden, fruit trees and some livestock; her family comes from the Hawkesbury where her father had orchards. When Sandra had her own children she decided she wanted to cut loose from agricultural chemicals. Her interest in good nutrition goes back to the Demeter Bakery days, where she also initially met Hamish. She speaks of her discovery of the toxicity of chicken feed fed to developing chicks and the possible relationship to the ‘Newcastle disease’. “With chemicals you can do a lot of harm, with Biodynamics the only harm you can do is this: if you do it the wrong way, you just have to start again.”

Sandra uses 8 hectares of her much larger property, her vegetable garden is 20 square meters and her orchard is mixed with approximately 90 trees, there are additional grapes, passion fruit, raspberries, strawberries, and other similar crops, as well as a dozen macadamia nuts. Birds have been a problem, netting has stoped the birds, but it excluded the owls, which led to a rat problem … life goes on. Sandra uses this as an example to illustrate the complexity of the web of life. “Solutions are never as simple as dealing with only one aspect – getting netting against birds – because you loss the in-put of the owls – and as a consequence, you get problems with rats. She also keeps chicken, Muscovy ducks, turkeys, cows, and horses as well as an abundance of wild life. Sandra has herbs growing under her trees such as comfrey. She has rarely less that three or four varieties of fruit on her table, it is not in commercial quantities but it sustains her family, especially as she supplements her fruit and vegetables with the muscovy drakes, “The boys fight too much, so I don’t like keeping too many of them.”

She applies the preparations by tractor and by hand. In her experience people need the right thinking to do the stirring, so she was particular about who was allowed to stir and put out the preparations on her property. She speaks of putting out the Silica spray and her experience of the beauty of this spray, when the fine mist catches the light and shimmers in rainbow hues. She tells a story of ‘old Eddie’ a farmer who treasured his cow manure. Sandra asked him for a few barrows of dung and was allowed to take some. She found she needed more for her flowers and was only grudgingly allowed to take ‘one more’. Old farmers know the value of cow manure. She also shares her battle with fireweed growing as thick as a crop of canola and the hours of pulling it out by hand only to be reinfested by seeds from neighbouring sites. She discovered that, over time, the use of Biodynamics has changed the soil to such an extent the fireweed has left of its own accord.

Sandra’s use of the calendar extends beyond planting and harvesting; she also uses it to decide when to put things up for storage – like onions – and has had good results. She describes the Echidna, a spiky contraption used on compacted soil, in the early days the spike would not really penetrate the soil, after 18 months the spikes penetrated to their full depth.

In her vegetable garden she uses only tined instruments – “no spades or anything that shears the soil. I am really aware of compaction.” Sandra rotates her vegetable crops ‘strictly’, because she sees Biodynamics as a whole method, including an understanding of root, leaf, flower, seed, and their different requirements on the soil. She plans her planting with Brian Keats’ Antipodean Astro Calendar and can confirm the accuracy of his research and consequent predictions.

“You can’t mulch were you have chickens and ducks, and as soon as I compost, the fowls follow me and start scratching the moment the compost is down. The fruit trees where the fowls live were not doing so well, so I use a foliage spray as well. I also grow ‘living ground cover’, clovers, yarrow, bulbs and daisies, as I like biodiversity. I also have thick hedgerows for insect eating birds, with a good mix of things. We have ponds for frogs, and my children love digging for worms.”

Sandra has found that the mixed soils on her property have deepened, and even on the worse areas the topsoil depth has dramatically increased. The roots of the grasses were more than spade deep in places that had no top spoil in 1999. The fencing contractor who has been coming to her place for years has grudgingly confirmed the dramatic improvement in the soil.

As for helpful literature Sandra found Peter Proctor’s book Grasp the Nettle the most useful book after the Biodynamic Resource Manual and Rudolf Steiner’s Agriculture Course. She admitted that the latter was not as easy to read as the others, and asked Hamish if it was fair to state that. Hamish replied that there were two types of people, some read it and gave a sigh of relief because things finally made sense; others found it was like chewing concrete. “In which case start with Chapter 8, and work your way to the beginning.”

Suddenly the NBN arrives and the cameraman asks Hamish to deliver two minutes of ‘really interesting stuff’ there is a wave of laughter through the room, some one says ‘Are they kidding?’ Sandra is obviously relieved that she has just finished her session. For Hamish this is no challenge, he is up there in a second talking about ‘Farmers are the solution’, he and everyone in the room is riveted, and forgets there is a cameraman, or that this is being filmed. The crew pack-up and in parting say, “Thank you very much; I can see why you are hanging on every word. This is great!” The NBN crew get a round of applause.

After lunch we move on to compost making. Hamish gives a brief theoretical intro via the Biodynamic Resource Manual, and explains the need to prepare the materials before use, i.e. all dry matter needs to be soaked 24 hours before building the heap so that the cellulose has time to absorb to moisture. The event itself is lively; people start ‘pitching in’, sharing the shovelling, grabbing armfuls of dry leaves, adding manure, grass clippings and other materials.

After the compost making, a cow pat pit, seaweed brew, and weed teas were tackled; as the weather looked as if it might turn nasty and a very brief stir and spray demonstration, followed by a ‘look at the soil in the vineyard’.

The next day started distinctly cool but sunny with high open skies and thin wisps of high cloud – and the calendar. All participants have a copy of the 2008 Antipodean Astro Calendar to work with as part of the course materials. Hamish says the calendar is there to “help you develop and make sense of the observation you make. The most important thing is to start using the preparations, the calendar just helps …” He describes a situation he experienced during the Canberra fires … and found the strange shift in the weather accurately reflected the elements and zodiacal signs of the calendar. “Don’t use the Calendar as a rule book or you will drive your self crazy.” He begins by describing the Sun and Moon rhythms, stating that they are a good inroad into the calendar. He becomes more specific by explaining waxing and waning moon, ascending and descending moon phases and how to recognise this in the sky and in the calendar. Perigee and apogee are explained next, followed by the nodes, how they occur and why work rests in Biodynamic agriculture during this phase. The last introduction made is Moon opposition Saturn.

Hamish explains a fundamental point: Biodynamics works with Astronomy not Astrology, relating to the Ptolemaic view rather than the Copernican view of the universe, as the plant experiences primarily the sun’s circling not the rotation of the planet. Full moon is referred to regarding its influence on all fluid processes, “If you cut hay on full moon it takes longer to dry; if you castrate your beasts on a full moon there will be prolonged bleeding.” Soil preparations are best applied during a descending whereas the silica is best applied during and ascending period. Moon opposition Saturn is optimum for seed germination and applying the 500 on the evening, and the silica preparations in the morning, during this time has brought best possible results. “Make it enjoyable, otherwise you wouldn’t do it consistently.”

Again, there is an atmosphere of concentrated listening, while at the same time people feel excited to be hearing this – for some, really ‘out there’ stuff.

The Calendar is brought out, “This line here shows you where the sun is …” heads are bent and there is enthusiastic pointing and shared remarks. Hamish points out that Brian Keats has researched the effect on of the moon on weather patterns, as it travels north or south of the equator sometimes crossing the tropics of Capricorn and Cancer and sometimes not (rainfall patterns over 18 years).

It is question time, people are conversing, others are asking Hamish about Moon opposition Saturn, the nodes, times of duration, etc and eagerly listening to replies there is definite excitement over the calendar and the possibilities that can unfold with its use.

The symbols are explained; flower sign related to air, leaf sign related to water, fruit which contains the seed is related to fire, roots are related to the earth. “So if you are aiming for an outcome, like a flower crop you would work predominantly under the flower sign. Hamish tells a story of his bafflement as a child that the conductor gets the applause although “he just waves a stick at the orchestra.” He uses this to demonstrate the importance of the ‘one who knows the whole score’. This is of course the task and skill of the farmer. Biodynamics facilitates the getting of wisdom in agriculture, becoming aware of the wholeness of the ecology and how to optimise outcomes without expecting more from our land than it can sustain.

The focus moves to peppering, and Hamish makes a distinction between weed-teas and peppering, as weeds are messengers not the enemy; if the problem can’t be overcome through improved soil health, peppering is another option. However, one that needs to be thought through, Hamish talks about a farmer who completely eradicated thistles from his farm, but wound up with a copper deficiency, and had to ask a neighbour for thistles to make a tea for his plants.

It is after morning tea and we are viewing some pictures of John Priestley filling horns. The pictures prepare the ‘after lunch’ session, at which this group will fill and bury horns – many for the first time. They will also stir the Horn manure preparation and put it out on to the vineyard. Pictures of aerial spraying and discussions of possible quantities draw astonished exclamations, as do the images of some longer-term biodynamic properties and stories of their success – clover growing abundantly where there had been none for the last ten years.

It is open question time:
What are the differences between compost – humi-compost, mushroom compost etc. What is ‘yours’ called? Hamish explains that Elaine Ingham refers to it as vermi-compost, but it is not the name, which is a marketing thing, it’s about the process of transmutation. The end result is not the sum of its parts. Compost it a self-regulating living organism, because it contains the biodynamic preparations it is already different; if it was analysed we would most likely find it is more that the sum of its parts.

What about carbon dumping? Hamish points out that carbon is best managed by plants, particularly perennial grasses, as carbon is a very different thing in the air as when it is in the soil. The plant can anchor the carbon in the soil, as living carbon. It does this by taking dead carbon (CO2) out of the atmosphere, enlivening it then separating and releasing the oxygen and sequestering carbon that is surplus to its cellulose needs into the soil.

Animals in orchards are also a topic and people start to swap experiences among themselves. It leads back to questions of how to keep unwanted animals out and back into peppering, but also beyond into thoughts of why are they there in the first place. Are they after the fruit or do they need the moisture? Hamish gives an example of a farmer who hangs water stations into trees to help Silvereyes in need of a drink, the birds no longer take a peck out of his fruit; someone suggests that adding a bit of honey might work even better.

Someone asks about the use of a refractometer, the suggestion is made to use it by all means, but to look at and feel and taste the fruit – or grass or hay – too and add this to the results you get from the mechanical devise. In other words keep refining your own senses and observation skills.

Its lunchtime, conversations flow and it feels as if everyone is rearing to go home and start trying all this stuff out. A group of TAFE students – studying winemaking – arrive, and get a speed intro from Hamish, while we finish eating. After lunch there is more practical work, filling horns, burying them, and spreading the preparations, as well as making more weed teas.

This is followed by a walk in the vineyard, with several stops to look at the soil. We cross into a neighbour’s vineyard and find stark differences in the soil quality, ground cover, vine health and over all vitality. Comments such as “it just feels so different”‘ to “the ground is so much softer” and “you just have to look around to you and you know Biodynamics is the way to go”. The horns have been buried, the horn reparation has been put out, and people feel sated with all they have seen, heard, and experienced. To complete the circle, the questions that have been asked at the beginning are now taken down one by one and each addressed in turn.

It is time for thanks and farewells, and requests of more such workshops in future – and annual event is in planning. It has been a lot to take in but the participants leave with confidence that biodynamics makes sense, with enough practical hands-on understanding that it is doable and an energy that indicates there is plenty of enthusiasm to go home and have a go.

There is much to do to change the world but here it is happening one farmer at a time.

The workshop was hosted by Rod Windrum and family at their Krinklewood Vineyard at Broke in the NSW Hunter Valley on 17/18 May 2008.

Participation was supported by the Hunter-Central Rivers Catchment Management Authority.

Report written by Iris Curteis


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