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Biodanamic Visit

May 17, 2009

IMG_1489In Ontario and now in many other provinces of Canada there is a program called CRAFT (Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training).  We are one of the original group of farms that helped get the program started in Ontario, though it dates back to New York and Massachusetts farms that started the original CRAFT program in 1994.  The programs basic principal is to give learning opportunities to farm apprentices and to link the apprentice groups on participating CRAFT farms.  This allows us, the learners, to see a variety of operations, farm philosophies and practical realities as well as providing a social way of meeting their local apprentice peer group.  Every second Wednesday of the month is CRAFT day for us, and we travel to a different farm to help, learn and spend the day on a new farm.

This past Wednesday was our first CRAFT day, our destination: Whole Circle Farm in Acton, Ontario.  Johann and Maggie are best described as biodynamic farmers.  A full discussion of biodynamic farming is not in order here, though it is a topic that comes up often here and deserves a more thorough exploration that I plan to give here.  Rudolf Steiner, as I have mentioned before in the post on Compost, has had a number of influential ideas when it comes to agriculture, or at least for the small but growing population of farmers that believe in avoiding the arsenal of chemicals and bio-engineered weapons that are available to any farmer with a credit line.  Steiner believed, though could not always explain, that what goes on below the ground surface is the what makes the plants and animals healthy.  He is, of course, not talking about Justus von Liebig’s NPK plant nutrition theories, but rather the enormous, sub-surface work force that is soil microbes.  This work force is comprised of the many microorganisms, bacteria, fugi and others that inhabit soil and give it life.

Biodynamic farmers have taken Steiner’s philosophy of worldly connectedness and applied it to the soil and all those who depend on it, and there are many of us.  The use of compost, compost teas, fungal inoculates, and holistic management technical are the building blocks for any biodynamic farm and Whole Circle was no exception.

IMG_1458Whole Circle spans roughly two-hundred and fifty acres, and was once upon a time two separate farms.  They run a large CSA, sell at the Georgetown Farmers Market and have varied livestock with a herd of Brown Swiss dairy cows that Johann has bred with some Canadiene.  Most striking of all were the large horns on every dairy cow in his pasture.  The average dairy farmer de-horns the cows, or has them bred to be polled (no horns).  Johann however, believes that his cows horns are an integral part of the life force of the animal and should not be removed.  He explained that horns are important to the digestive system of the cow, and that the cow’s energy flows out to the tips of the horns and then back into the cow.  If this energy is disrupted by the absence of horns, the cow suffers.

IMG_1415Whole Circle also had what some of the apprentices called a chick sanctuary, and the rest just called the chicken bus.  Apparently, Johann has a deal with the local hatchery and he takes rejected chicks that they would normally kill; batches that are too old, breeds that have been mixed up..etc and they end up at the bus.  The bus provides a roost for most of the layers and a safe place for the chickens and their roosters to sleep at night.

IMG_1418Like many artifacts on Whole Circle farm the school bus as well as the chickens have found a second home.  To some this might give the farm an aura of chaos and disarray, but from a different perspective recycling and ingenuity seem to be more fitting adjectives.  In fact, it occurred to me that of the many farms that I have seen as we drive through southwestern Ontario it is the large, cash crop farms that appear “organized.”  These farms have, on occasion, reminded me of large public school cafeteria kitchens.  They have that genre of cleanliness and tidiness that can only be explained as industrial, the scale and impersonal design is representative of the fact that the owner puts little of his or her own character into what is done; just a collection of large equipment that gets the job done efficiently.  And yet of the select few small farms that I have had the privilege to visit I have always been struck by the individuality and character of each farm, and having gotten to know each farmer there is always a connection between who they are, what they believe, and the feeling you get when standing in some corner of the farm.

As I stood in a back corner admiring the personality of each horn on all of the many dairy cows a hand bell was rung to call us all to the large potluck lunch complete with fresh bread, countless entrees and a plethora of tantalizing, homemade deserts.  You can count on good food when it is a potluck of farmers.  Mingled among many plates, piled high with food, the seeds of small farms around North America and the world began to germinate.  Many CRAFT apprentices have aspirations, intentions or dreams of running their own farm.  That dream, which has lead many of us to take “jobs” that will not pay us more than a place to sleep and food, is not as acceptable as your typical childhood hope of being a doctor or a fireman.  Secure income?  Time off?  Slumping economy?  Enormous start up cost?  They will ask, and many of the baby-boom generation are not unfounded in their concerns, after all many of them went “back-to-the-land” with little or no experience their chances of success were little to none.  This time around however, we are a different generation of inspired and now educated youth.

Thirty years ago WOOFing did not exist, the idea of the family farm was fading, the farm bill had just been changed to encourage over production, and the whole point of getting back to the land was that you didn’t need anyone to teach you to do it, let alone try and run a successful business.  As the ice cream began to melt in the sectioned off corners of the remaining plates and conversation shifted to more serious matters, it was clear that many of us knew how much there was to learn, what running a business means and how we wanted to go about it all.  And there was comfort among those who share a dream.

IMG_1475What came next was arguably the highlight of the entire CRAFT day: Ken Laing of Orchard Hill Farm (check out their blog) and his excited crew of apprentices gave a puppet show of sorts, explaining the ins and outs of soil chemistry.  Ken started with a brief quiz to get us thinking about some of the basics of soil chemistry and then with the help of ions on sticks, plastic bag humus colloids and cardboard clay particles we learned how all the various trace elements and major nutrients move through the soil.  I for one, will never forget the ionic attraction of cations to a humus colloid, the video below captures the second and slightly less emphatic reenactment of the chemical process.

IMG_1429Small farmers are not like computer programmers or web designers.  There is no instant, universalized source of shared information, and they are not particularly good at exchanging ideas or problemsolving tactics.  This is not for lack of interest however, and each year the CRAFT group in southwestern Ontario grows with the addition of new farms that want to expand their ideas and learn from others.  One idea that I particularly liked was the use of this cement mixer pictured to the left.  They used it to wash their root vegetables for the winter CSA, a good deal cheaper than an industrial carrot washer from your local farm Co-Op.  There were infinite tricks, ideas, and solutions to learn from the way they did things, and yet none are perfectly applicable to anything but their own operations, which is probably why farmers are not big on Twitter. 😉

One Comment leave one →
  1. May 18, 2009 5:06 pm

    Awesome, dude. All that looks so much like the “Coke’s Clippings”* I told you about. Remember?, I read of them in the biography of William Smith.
    It’s good to know that the effort for improving (in the human, not economic, sense) agriculture has not changed since it started in the 18th century.



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