Tag Archives: biodynamics

Biodynamics versus Permaculture

We had a lovely outing on a recent Sunday to Stanmer Park near Brighton, where the Brighton Permaculture Trust  had organised their 2016 Apple Day. Apple Day celebrates all things to do with the apple, including the revival of old Sussex varieties of apple, some of which the Trust has brought back from the brink of extinction. I’ve bought two of these Sussex varieties (Forge and Saltcote Pippin) for our garden and can’t wait to collect them for planting in December.


Delicious Sussex apple varieties on display at Apple Day

It was a wonderful autumn day with lots of sunshine and the fine weather brought out families in their thousands. Apart from the focus on apples (including cider-tasting), there were stalls from many local organisations and food producers, as well as morris dancers, a Brazilian salsa band and dancers, a ukulele band, a choir, talks about bees, scything demos, tours of the orchards, permaculture taster activities etc. It was all very good-humoured, well organised and a truly impressive example of a community-based activity that also put across a serious message about sustainability and caring for the earth.

The Apple Day came just a few days after news of the death in Tasmania on September 24th of Bill Mollison, one of the two founders of permaculture.


Bill Mollison – photo via permaculture.co.uk

Bill Mollison was quite a character and the source of many pithy quotations. Here are some of my favourites:

“Though the problems of the world are increasingly complex, the solutions remain embarrassingly simple.”

“The greatest change we need to make is from consumption to production, even if on a small scale, in our own gardens. If only 10% of us do this, there is enough for everyone. Hence the futility of revolutionaries who have no gardens, who depend on the very system they attack, and who produce words and bullets, not food and shelter.”

“I teach self-reliance, the world’s most subversive practice. I teach people how to grow their own food, which is shockingly subversive. So, yes, it’s seditious. But it’s peaceful sedition.”

“The tragic reality is that very few sustainable systems are designed or applied by those who hold power, and the reason for this is obvious and simple: to let people arrange their own food, energy and shelter is to lose economic and political control over them. We should cease to look to power structures, hierarchical systems, or governments to help us, and devise ways to help ourselves.”

“If and when the whole world is secure, we have won a right to explore space, and the oceans. Until we have demonstrated that we can establish a productive and secure earth society, we do not belong anywhere else, nor (I suspect) would we be welcome elsewhere.”


If you’ve not come across permaculture before (the name comes from “permanent agriculture” but is also coming to mean “permanent culture”), it is both a philosophy and a farming and living method that grew out of the books and permaculture courses of Bill Mollison and his fellow Australian farmer and researcher, David Holmgren. Permaculture systems or gardens are modelled on patterns observed in nature. Structures, access and water systems are also designed to be energy efficient and placed with a focus on the relationships between elements of a system rather than on individual components themselves.



Bill Mollison and David Holmgren – photo via Dr Benjamin Habib’s blog.

David Holmgren once explained permaculture quite neatly by saying “Traditional agriculture was labour intensive, industrial agriculture is energy intensive, and permaculture-designed systems are information and design intensive.” As a basic definition, permaculture is a holistic design system for creating sustainable human settlements and food production systems. It is a movement concerned with sustainable, environmentally sound land use and the building of stable communities, through the harmonious interrelationship of humans, plants, animals and the Earth.

Clearly the work of the Brighton Permaculture Trust is having an excellent effect in the locality – they have for example helped to establish about one hundred community orchards, revived interest in local food production and sustainable methods of agriculture, and they specialise in working with schools and community groups. They have made enough of an impact to attract sponsorship for Apple Day from Infinity Foods, one of the UK’s leading wholesalers for organic and natural foods.

The impression I got was that those attending the Apple Day are exactly the sorts of people who are concerned that our society has become estranged and alienated from nature, and that this increasing alienation has been to the detriment of both our health and the natural environment. My guess is that these are people who believe that there are effects of food beyond nutrition and that there are aspects of what constitutes a good life which go beyond the modern ideas of health and wealth. As such points of view become more widespread, they are gradually building a foundation for real change and for moves towards a more sustainable future. How many of these people know about permaculture in any kind of detail I can’t say (only a few, I suspect) but clearly they all know the name of the Brighton Permaculture Trust and associate it with the kind of things that they wish to support.



Thousands of people attended Brighton Permaculture Trust’s Apple Day.


I couldn’t help but ask myself whether biodynamics would get a similar level of name-recognition from these people – my sense is that probably it would not. Biodynamics and permaculture, however, clearly have a great many of the same attitudes and aspirations. What are the differences and similarities between the two systems?

Permaculture would claim to be an applied science, as its focus is on the application of scientific knowledge to achieve certain practical aims. It’s not about gathering information just for the sake of research but for the purpose of putting its scientific findings into practice. Observation and experience as tools in permaculture suggest that it is not a theoretical discipline, but one grounded in practicality and everyday reality.

I would say that biodynamics shares all of these characteristics with permaculture, although some might argue that, as the origin of biodynamics lies with Steiner’s supersensible perceptions and observations, it is not a science in the same sense. But these perceptions and observations by Steiner have been followed up, tested and proved on farms around the world now for more than ninety years. So I think we can argue that biodynamics is also both an applied and an empirical science.

Another shared feature is that, unlike other sciences, both permaculture and biodynamics are holistic and not reductionist. Both of them describe the connections and relationships between natural systems, the multitude of living organisms on this planet, and the planet itself. Both share strong philosophical and visionary ideas about sustainable patterns of living and social and ecological ethics.

Similarly, both permaculture and biodynamics share the goal of creating an almost perfectly closed system, in which all the inputs come from your own resources and as little as possible is brought in from outside. Permaculture does, however, imply that your system grows towards a natural maturity and then sustains itself there, while biodynamics works with fewer permanent plantings and has crop rotation cycles over several years.

Biodynamics, of course, also takes into account the connections with the cosmos, which permaculture does not, except inasmuch as it involves planting by the phases of the moon.

But I think there is a fundamental difference between the two: permaculture deliberately does not have an underlying spiritual system, whereas biodynamics arises out of a particular philosophy and spiritual system – anthroposophy. It’s relevant to quote Bill Mollison here: “We can teach philosophy by teaching gardening, but we cannot teach gardening by teaching philosophy”. What I think he meant by this is that one’s personal philosophy should arise from one’s experience of caring for the Earth and the plants and one’s life experience – and not from reading about it. Not (of course) that this is how most people come to biodynamics – it is often because of the totally delicious food, or the sense that a biodynamic farm is a place where the wellbeing of the earth, plants and animals is tangible – but biodynamics may be seen as carrying a certain amount of historical and intellectual baggage from anthroposophy that is not always easy for people to get past.



A display of French apple varieties – photo via Brighton & Hove Camera Club


And here I think is the reason why those people attending the Brighton Apple Day might find themselves feeling more at ease with permaculture than they would with biodynamics. It is because permaculture, with its claims to being a science with its own values and ethics, can co-exist harmoniously with most religious and spiritual systems (or indeed with none) without offering a challenge to them or anyone’s pre-existing spiritual outlook. Biodynamics, on the other hand, is all too often tarred with the “all muck and magic” brush – instead of what it really is, which is a super-advanced science that scientists may catch up with one day – or with some other straw man set up by skeptics in their attempts to attack Steiner and anthroposophy.

It is of course perfectly possible for a permaculture farmer to be biodynamic and for a biodynamic farmer to farm using permaculture techniques. My own view is that biodynamics is greater and more all-encompassing than Bill Mollison would ever have acknowledged; I suspect he would have said: “Permaculture is the wardrobe and biodynamics is one of the hangers inside,” which is probably the reverse of the actual situation.

But I also suspect that Bill Mollison’s approach is the one that is more likely to find favour with the kinds of people who attended the Apple Day. In one of the obituaries for Bill Mollison, some words from the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu were quoted: “True change is to so change things that it seems natural to everybody but no-one knows who thought of it.”

That surely is how the change that we all so desperately need is coming – like a thief in the night, without governments or media being aware of it, but happening in the hearts and minds of people everywhere – until the necessary changes just seem right and natural and commonplace.  Biodynamics, permaculture, organics and good conventional agriculture will all have their parts to play in making this happen.


Filed under Anthroposophy, Biodynamic farming, Biodynamics, Permaculture, Rudolf Steiner

Epiphany on the Farm with the Three Kings

On New Year’s Eve, the anthropopper will be joining colleagues at Plaw Hatch Community Farm in Sussex to prepare a very special biodynamic preparation. The Three Kings Preparation is one of a whole group of preparations created by Hugo Erbe (1885-1965) as a result of his lifelong work as a biodynamic farmer in Germany. He experienced a very close connection to the elemental world and sought ways of encouraging their beneficial influences.

Erbe considera.org

Hugo Erbe, who devised the Three Kings biodynamic preparation (photo courtesy of Considera.org)

Following the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, Hugo Erbe observed a massive disruption and flight of beneficial elemental beings from his farmland. He experienced this deep wound to the living sheath of the earth as a process whereby the elementals were being demonised. To help heal the damage done to the earth’s organism and bring the elementals back into equilibrium he developed a preparation made from the gifts of the Three Kings, or Magi.

The Three Kings brought offerings of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh to the Jesus child. These three offerings are full of meaning, as you might expect of gifts chosen by initiates. Gold is the symbol of wisdom and of intelligence. Frankincense is a universal symbol for spiritual intuition and sacramental offering. And Myrrh is the symbol of dying, of death, the sacrifice of the earthly in order that the higher may come to life.

Avena Botanicals

Myrrh, gold and frankincense, the three active ingredients of the Three Kings preparation (photo courtesy of Avena Botanicals)

Rudolf Steiner gave significant insights about these substances from his own spiritual research. He pointed out that the gifts of the three Magi were meant to strengthen the development of the Jesus child in three ways. The first help was from gold for the growth of the physical body, connected to the sun forces. The second, frankincense, was for the development of a harmonious soul life. For this, the incense form was supposed to be paramount. Thirdly, myrrh was to enhance the spiritual development. Myrrh oil was used by the Egyptians, for example, for embalming and for those processes that have to do directly with the passage of consciousness into a higher spiritual world.

Pestle Avena Botanicals

The three ingredients have to be pounded with mortar and pestle before being mixed and stirred with warm rainwater (photo courtesy of Avena Botanicals)

Most significantly, Rudolf Steiner pointed out that the resin of the frankincense tree not only protects the plant, but also enables the plant to reconnect itself to the world of the stars from which its growing impulses come. When introduced into the human body, it strengthens milk production in the mother and when passing from the mother’s milk into the infant, it then helps to optimise the development of the young brain. In adults it optimises mental functioning.

The three kings might be said to represent the three higher forces of man: Wisdom, Beauty and Strength. As long as man lives in his lower nature, these three forces are in him disordered and chaotic. But when man has so purified himself that the three forces work together in perfect harmony, and he can freely use them, then the way into the realm of the spiritual lies open before him.

3 Kings Ravenna telegraph

Balthasar, Melchior and Caspar (the Three Kings or Magi) from a Roman mosaic in Ravenna (photo courtesy of the Daily Telegraph)

Ancient mystery wisdom has always held these three substances as symbols of awareness for the spiritual events taking place behind the outer physical phenomena. When prepared in the right way these three holy substances can also serve as gifts to the earth and to the elemental world. The preparation is always prepared on New Year’s Eve and then spread on 6th January, the Festival of the Three Kings.

I will join the Plaw Hatch farm team on 6th January to spread the preparation around the boundaries of the farm. The idea is to walk the boundaries with a bucket in one hand and a brush in the other, dipping the brush and every few steps flicking the preparation in an outward direction, away from the farm boundary, where it falls in a fine spray. This is done so as to invite elemental life forces to manifest within the farm for the coming year and to help and guide us for the coming growing season. It is a kind of offering to the earth and the elemental kingdom and a way of giving thanks for what the universe provides.  Some may scoff and call it nonsensical. All I can say is that it seems to me a natural extension of the old farming adage that believed: “the best fertiliser is the farmer’s boot”. I have always understood this to mean that, by walking the land with consciousness and intent, the farmer is somehow aligning himself with all the forces that work together to ensure good outcomes for the farm, the crops and the animals.

Finally, there’s a quotation from Rudolf Steiner that I would like to share with you, because during dark times, when it is so easy to despair, we should remind ourselves of what people of good will working together can achieve:

“Human communities are the mysterious locations that higher spiritual entities move and sink into so as to work through individual human beings, just as the human soul works by means of the limbs in the body…This is the secret of the advancement of future humanity – to work out of communities.”

(GA 54, Berlin, 23rd November 1905 – Brotherhood and the Fight for Survival)


Filed under Anthroposophy, Biodynamic farming, Biodynamics, Rudolf Steiner

The Milk of Human Kindness

When the anthropopper was a boy growing up in north London, milk was delivered in pint bottles to our doorstep by the milkman from either the London Co-operative Society or the rival United Dairies. You had a choice of Gold Top, ie milk from Jersey cows with an inch or two of cream at the top of the bottle, ideal for pouring out onto desserts or fruit salads; Silver Top, which was whole milk with less cream than Jersey milk; Red Top, which was homogenised milk. By special request, you could occasionally get Green Top, which was raw (unpasteurised) milk. There was also sterilised milk, a kind of precursor of UHT milk, which came in a different pint bottle with a metal crown cap instead of a foil top and you needed a beer bottle opener to get at it.

UD milkman

A United Dairies milkman in the 1950s. (photo via 1900s.org.uk)

It was considered anti-social not to wash out the bottles before returning them. I can remember being outraged by the snobbishness of a comment, from the romantic novelist Barbara Cartland, that when she was out canvassing for the Conservatives, she could always tell if a household voted Labour because those were the houses where the people didn’t wash their milk bottles before putting them out on the step.

Following legislation from the Attlee–led Labour government after the Second World War, each child at school was entitled to one-third of a pint of milk (one bottle per pupil), which you either drank with a straw from a big box of Sweetheart brand straws, or if you were a boy and wanted to show off, you drank straight from the bottle. School milk was stopped by Margaret Thatcher in the 1970s, and she was promptly dubbed “Margaret Thatcher, Milk Snatcher” for this mean-spirited edict.

Autre temps, autre moeurs. Decades later there are few, if any daily doorstep deliveries and instead people get their milk once or twice a week in cartons or plastic bottles from the supermarkets. All milk is pasteurised and most of it is heavily processed, homogenised and either semi-skimmed or skimmed. Raw milk is unavailable in shops. As milk has become more and more processed to ensure longer shelf life, milk allergies are becoming more frequent and many doctors are having to advise their patients to avoid milk products altogether. What is more, supermarkets which use milk as a ‘loss leader’ are said to be placing intolerable pricing pressures on dairy farmers to provide cheaper and cheaper milk. These farmers are warning that the price of milk, which has fallen to just 22p a pint in the likes of Asda, Aldi and Iceland, and is now cheaper than some bottled water, could force many of them out of business unless drastic action is taken. The number of dairy farms in Britain has halved since 2002, to fewer than 10,000, and a further reduction is expected, according to the National Farmers’ Union.

The results of all this on animal welfare can be imagined. When more and more cattle are penned together, they are likely to become stressed and consequently to do one another and the cowman harm. In such a situation, horns are seen as an impediment to easy management and even as a danger, so the cows are routinely de-horned. Horns, however, are far more than just two things that sit on top of the cow’s head. To quote from a leaflet issued by my local biodynamic farm:

Horns are sense organs and have a very real function within the whole metabolism of the organism. This function is often difficult to describe because it concerns organic processes which go beyond what is immediately sense-perceptible. Cattle with horns are more awake and discerning of their fodder. Horns are made of hard siliceous substances and through their unique form have the capacity to prevent the dissipation of vital forces released through the animal’s metabolism. They are instead reflected back, ‘digested’ once again and incorporated within the animal’s excretion products. It is this function of the horn within the organism of the cow which is later made use of in the preparation of biodynamic horn manure. It is, however, not only the quality of manure which is affected, but also that of …the milk.

I don’t understand why it is that animal welfare groups, who campaign for humane conditions for farm animals and the right of these animals to express their true nature, have not taken up the issue of de-horning cattle. De-horned cattle are animals which have been deprived of a vital part of their anatomy mainly for economic reasons.

The herd of beautiful MRI cows, all with their horns, at Old Plaw Hatch Farm.

The herd of beautiful MRI cows, all with their horns, at Old Plaw Hatch Farm.

The anthropopper is fortunate enough to live near a biodynamic farm, where he can buy raw milk in glass bottles, at a cost of 90p per pint plus 50p returnable deposit on the bottle. The milk comes from the farm’s own herd of beautiful Meuse Rhine Issel (MRI) cattle, each of which has its horns. You can read more about them here.

Bottles of raw milk and other dairy products at the Old Plaw Hatch Farm Shop in Sussex.

Bottles of raw milk and other dairy products at the Old Plaw Hatch Farm Shop in Sussex.

The farm also has its own dairy, which produces cream, yoghurt, kefir and wonderful cheeses, all made from raw milk. Raw milk has more nutrients than its pasteurised equivalent, tastes better and it’s said that many people with milk allergies can drink it without ill effects. All I know is that the dairy products are excellent, the cows are happy and so are the customers.

Is raw milk safe? Pasteurisation, after all, was introduced to protect people from the danger of catching tuberculosis, listeria and brucellosis via milk – and milk is an excellent medium for microbial growth. There is a useful discussion of the issues here:

At my local biodynamic farm, the milk is tested routinely by the Food Standards Agency (as is standard procedure for all dairy farms) for different bacterial types, TB and brucellosis and other harmful organisms. The farm also undergoes a programme of voluntary testing for all dairy produce. The dairy is an ‘assured premises’ which means that it has been passed by the Environmental Health Office and to show this carries the health mark We005UK. I’m convinced that not only is the milk safe to drink, it’s actually an outstanding source of nutrients including beneficial bacteria such as lactobacillus acidophilus, vitamins, enzymes and calcium.

I realise that most people are not able to buy raw milk because they are nowhere near an outlet. But here’s a very useful map of all those farms in the UK that provide raw milk.


Please support these farms, because they are making a stand against the bullying of producers by supermarkets. They are also farms where you will find higher animal welfare standards and more sustainable agricultural methods. Bear in mind, though, that in most cases it’s only the biodynamic farms that will produce their raw milk from cattle with horns – and it’s these biodynamic practices that lead to the highest animal welfare and the very best raw milk and dairy products available anywhere.

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Filed under Agriculture, Biodynamic farming, De-horning cattle, Raw Milk