By Michael Parker
Photographed by Molly M. Peterson
It’s a healing force.” “An eye-opening view.” “Makes whole what has fragmented.”
Such phrases could be how adherents of the world’s religions describe their faith. Or how the jolliest among us think of the holiday season. Or, to the more cynical, words marketers use to sell us a new pill.
But none of those subjects aroused these particularly praiseworthy phrases. These are actually a few of the ways that farmers at a new agricultural initiative in Chestnut Ridge describe biodynamic agriculture.
One partner in the initiative, the Pfeiffer Center, practices and spreads awareness of biodynamics through agricultural production and training programs. The Center is a project of the Threefold Educational Foundation, home to a community of educational, artistic and cultural organizations based on the work of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner’s teachings of anthroposophy–in a sprawling, wooded property in Rockland County. Across the street from the Pfeiffer Center garden, Duryea Farm sits in the 80 acres of the Fellowship Community, an intergenerational care community and the other partner in this new agricultural initiative.
At the surface, most biodynamic farms do not look much different from small, diversified organic farms. Growing plots are typically a few acres or smaller, much fieldwork is done by hand, livestock are raised alongside vegetables and fruit—and indeed sometimes are interwoven into the seasonal or annual cycles of use for crop fields. Compost is essential, as are cover-cropping and other practices that focus on overall soil health. So, what sets apart biodynamic agriculture from organic? Bill Day, beekeeper and development coordinator at the Pfeiffer Center, explains, “The core concept in biodynamics is that the farm is an organism.”
Kimberly Pace, Farm Leadership Team member for the new initiative, describes it succinctly: “Biodynamic agriculture is a beautiful marriage of the spiritual and material elements of land and animal care.”
Balance of inputs and outputs is a core concept, which is why on-farm composting is a central feature of biodynamic farms: nothing goes to waste when all outputs are intentional inputs for another organ of the overall farm organism. This balance is supported by diversified production. For some farmers, a dairy mixed with vegetable production sounds like an inefficient hassle. But many biodynamic farms rely on dairy cattle for their valuable fertility and also for more abstract purposes. Dairy cattle embed several cycles into a farm’s pace of work: cycles of fertility, pregnancy, birth and death; cycles of seasonality around how they are fed and when hay is produced; and the daily cycle of milking. Synchronicity of these cycles with the plant, mineral, human and cosmic cycles around the farm organism is what creates a successful and healthy farm organism. Try writing that into USDA organic regulations.
Biodynamic agriculture has room to grow. The Demeter Association, a biodynamic-certification organization, certifies just over 20,000 acres in biodynamic production in the U.S.—about the size of an average Texas cattle ranch. But the total certified biodynamic acreage probably drastically underrepresents the amount of land managed biodynamically. Many farmers do not participate in formal certification programs. For instance, a 2017 survey of young farmers by the National Young Farmers Coalition found that while 63 percent of young farmers described their practices as organic, only 17 percent were certified organic. Noncertified organic and biodynamic farms are usually no less dedicated to these ideals and often avoid certifying due to reasonable disagreements with certification standards.
Biodynamics has a broad impact on farming culture, especially among new farmers. Kimberly Pace, who learned about biodynamics from a farm near her son’s school, discovered “what I always hoped farming could be.” Farm Leadership Team member Megan Durney asked herself, “Could farming become a path of inner development while also providing nourishment for humanity?” In biodynamic practice, she found the answer to be yes.
Bill Day notes that farmers and gardeners new to biodynamics “often react like, ‘This is what I’ve been looking for.’”
Mac Mead, mentor to the Farm Leadership Team, has been farming biodynamically for over 40 years. His perspective: “A love of nature and culture drew me to agriculture in general, and I feel biodynamics is the most effective form of agriculture in restoring and maintaining optimum health for nature and the earth, and thus for human beings.”
A New Agricultural Initiative
This year, the Farm Leadership Team is aligning the farm operations of the Pfeiffer Center and Fellowship Community into a new agricultural initiative. In biodynamics, diversity of production and land use can add to the farm organism’s health, and the new initiative will build diversity in multiple layers. Increased food production will supply the Fellowship’s kitchen, the Pfeiffer Center’s CSA program and farm stand, Threefold Café and the Hungry Hollow Co-op. The Pfeiffer Center’s educational programs will benefit from the complementary learning activities offered by a working dairy farm in an intentional community. Overall, the new initiative builds human relationships that contribute to a biodynamic farm’s purpose and health, as described by Kimberly Pace: “Being able to farm in a community that strives to meet the physical, social, nutritional and spiritual needs of its members is an amazing thing to be a part of, and I can’t think of a better reason to get up in the morning.”
Pace also thinks that merging the farming operations at the adjacent, likeminded properties “just makes sense.” Bill Day puts it this way: “We realized, well, you’re growing onions, we’re growing onions—let’s unify this a little bit.”
Mac Mead concludes, “For the two organizations to work together allows a beautiful blend of education, production and caring for the earth in the best possible way. To do this in a suburban area means all the more for so many people.”
Farming in Suburbia
Why should farming in the New York suburbs mean “all the more for so many people”? Members of the Farm Leadership Team routinely mention the farm’s presence in Chestnut Ridge, which lies in the crook of the New York State Thruway and the Garden State Parkway, a 25-mile drive away from Manhattan and a heavily developed residential and commercial region in its own right. Biodynamic agriculture has been practiced on the property since before any of this development and, thanks to its institutional ownership, is likely there to stay.
Farming in the ‘burbs can be a learning experience for the nonfarming public. Pace explains, “The people who live nearby are so intrigued by what we’re doing here. We’re a bit of an anomaly to people who’ve never seen a cow up close until they get loose and go roaming peoples’ backyards!” A cow escape is just the beginning of educational opportunities that also include workshops for adults and children; a one-year, part-time biodynamics training; and internships. Even a visit to the farm stand or a CSA membership offers an opportunity to learn more about the farming method that Megan Durney describes as “a service to the material world, that in a way recognizes the spirit within it, and heals, makes whole, what has fragmented.”
Fragmentation is indeed the leading trend of farmland use in America. Farms Under Threat, a 2018 study by American Farmland Trust, reports that 31 million acres of agricultural land were lost between 1992 and 2012, a loss equivalent to developing the entire state of New York. Of course, these losses of farmland were not concentrated in a single place but spread throughout all the urban and suburban sprawl of America, isolating any farms, like the Pfeiffer Center and Duryea Farm, that endured the development. Isolation makes farming harder. Essential suppliers (such as feed and equipment stores) and services (such as veterinarians, agricultural extension agents and bankers that understand farm businesses) disappear. Even customers are lost as supermarkets and quick-service restaurants become consumers’ primary sources of food.
The Pfeiffer Center and Duryea Farm’s new initiative is proving that agriculture can work in highly developed suburban spaces and especially that the qualities of biodynamic farms help them thrive in these situations. A biodynamic farm can be the shortest bridge for someone whose lived experience does not include farming to learn about agriculture, since biodynamics is much closer to nonfarmers’ expectations of farming than conventional agriculture. You can walk around a biodynamic farm; see cows, carrots and chickens at the same time; and the farmers actually have their hands in the soil. Most American farms have none of those qualities.
In the same 2017 survey mentioned above, the National Young Farmers Coalition found that 75 percent of young farmers did not grow up on a farm. These new farmers need a first introduction to agriculture, but fewer and fewer will find it without intention. Community-based examples like the Pfeiffer Center and Fellowship Community’s new agricultural initiative will ensure that more people, young and old, can experience a kind of agriculture that is based on healing.
See It for Yourself
The collaboration between the Pfeiffer Center and Duryea Farm is, as Bill Day puts it, “modeling something for the world” and “striving to be outward-facing.” There are many ways that you can experience biodynamic agriculture for yourself. Visit pfeiffercenter.org for a calendar of workshops and events. The year-long, part-time biodynamics course begins in September, and internships are offered to those seeking a more in-depth learning experience. If you are more inclined to eat than work, reserve a spot at their annual farm-to-table dinner in October, or stop by the Hand and Hoe café on a Friday for the weekly farm stand. █