A Look at Biodynamics in Action Overseas
Schwäbisch Gmünd, Germany is similar to Burlington, Vermont in some ways. It’s about the same population, has a lot going on in terms of activities and places to eat, is a very walkable city, has lots of greenery, and feels like a small town. Why even bring up this obscure location? Well our Co-op, along with two other co-ops in different regions, won a trip to visit Weleda’s biodynamic gardens where they grow some of their plants and herbs for their products. Weleda is one of our more popular skin and body care brands in the store. So anyway, no big deal. I got to fly to a really beautiful city in Germany, blah, blah, blah. I joke! I feel so grateful to have gone on this trip! I met some amazing people and gained so much knowledge of and respect for biodynamic farming.
My intentions are to take you on a quick tour describing the brand and their approach to this style of farming. Why a quick tour? Well, because I honestly don’t quite understand all of the aspects fully. A three day trip is not enough time to learn about the complexities of this practice! Also, this blog is intended to give you a glimpse into what it means to be a biodynamic farmer. And hopefully, I can demystify the topic for you or, most likely, raise a lot of questions and inspire you to learn more about it by reading books and articles written by experts!
Before I went on the trip I wanted to get a general idea of this concept. So I discovered Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian scientist and philosopher, who developed biodynamic farming, among other things. His teachings reflect an understanding that the spiritual world and the cosmos play just as important roles in producing a vital crop as mastering the physical tasks. I needed more than Google on this one.
When I arrived to Schwäbisch Gmünd, I was glad to see that the gardens were only about a 30 minute hike from our hotel through beautiful woods and still within the city. The woods were pristine, filled with trees and moss with bright orange slugs encouraging us along our way. The gardens are about 50 acres, filled with a variety of plants and herbs: Calendula, St. John’s Wort, Echinacea, and White Mallow to name a few. Some very happy bees and ducks were thriving there, helping to maintain the balance of the ecosystem. The gardens have been in operation for over 70 years and were beautiful. The old location, also in Schwäbisch Gmünd is now home to Weleda’s offices and bottling facility.
Field of calendua at Weleda biodynamic gardens
Weleda also has Fair Trade projects around the globe for other plants they do not produce in Schwäbisch Gmünd. We were fortunate enough to speak with Weleda Naturals Manager, Michael Straub who heads up the Fair Trade projects. Straub mentioned that Weleda gets some of their roses from Turkey, Sea Buckthorn from Italy, and Ratanhia from Peru, for example. Sourcing these products not only helps to bring plants and herbs on-site in a fair and sustainable manner, but also reinforces biodynamic and organic practices with smaller farmers around the world.
Now, I will briefly describe some of the aspects I feel really give you a sense of what makes biodynamic farming intriguing:
Biodynamic farmers consider many factors when deciding when, where and how to plant their crops. They look to the moon to figure out when they should plant and when they should harvest. I’ve heard it has something to do with water retention in the plants and soil. I have so many questions on this one!
In some cases, crops are sprinkled with specific powdered metals to enhance medicinal properties. I believe this technique is geared more toward medicinal plants versus ones that are used in body care. It was explained to me that certain metals represent specific planets and characteristics. Gold attracts warmth and represents the sun, while silver attracts coolness and represents the moon. They look at the plant’s growing preferences to figure what the plant is used for, where to plant it, and what metal, if any, will help bring out its healing properties. So, if a plant flourishes in the shade, silver will be sprinkled onto the plant to help increase the cooling qualities and maybe that particular plant will be used for stress relief. Gold, like the sun, provides warmth and uplifting energy, and when sprinkled onto St. John’s Wort leaves and buds, more sunlight is captured. Thus, the plant’s mood enhancing abilities are intensified.
Planets and the metals they represent
In biodynamic farming, beneficial bugs, such as bees, are embraced and appreciated. At Weleda’s gardens, there’s even a dedicated greenhouse on site for larvae to grow and flourish, and when they are ready, they can start “working” on the gardens just outside of their home. Ducks are also welcomed, as they help to keep the pests at bay.
Biodynamic farmers prep the soil with animal manure, green manure and other natural fertilizers. Green manure is made from plants, such as alfalfa and clover, which have deep roots that provide various benefits, like producing minerals, developing topsoil, and breaking up soil deep below the surface to provide air pockets for microorganisms that help produce healthy, nutrient-rich soil. In some cases, it can take 3 years until the soil is ready and can be used for producing crops!
Andrea, our Weleda tour guide, explaining the importance of green manure
No chemicals are used, as they do not want to kill or discourage organisms that live in and around the soil. Soil microorganisms all play a role in the health of our plants and in turn, the health of all of the planet’s creatures. Also, most plants are picked delicately by hand, but certain plants, such as Sea Buckthorn are more tedious to harvest so special machines are used to make the process more efficient.
Water is prepared with nutrients from animal manure and, sometimes, with special “rituals.” Farmers prepare the water, typically rain water, by using dried dung and mixing it in a particular way that, to my understanding, “educates the water.” I’ll try to explain. In autumn, a bull’s horn is filled with animal manure and placed in the soil. Come spring, the horn is dug up and the manure is now in a powder form. The dried dung is then mixed with water. The mixing takes around an hour, making swirls or vortexes in one direction then switching slowly in the other direction, gradually increasing speed to create another vortex. And this goes back and forth. This movement symbolizes the circle of life, of giving and receiving and maintaining vitality. The person stirring gets into a rhythm too, which I think is meditative and relaxing.
Andrea, our Weleda tour guide, explaining how they prepare the water before fertilizing their fields
I hope that this gives you a sense on how detailed biodynamics are. My main take away was that everything is connected. That no matter the size, no matter how far it is from you, it plays a role and has influence. Everything is vital. I know I am inspired to learn more and try some of these techniques in my own garden someday. What about you?
Thanks for reading!