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Biodynamics: Exploring Sufism in Coffee Farming

The overlap of #coffee and mysticism is where biodynamic agriculture exists.

To believe in biodynamic agriculture, one must either expand belief or suspend disbelief. The term may sound familiar to wine connoisseurs, but its farming approach is still largely unknown in the coffee world.

It has also been described as "organic surplus" or "alternative #farm management". This is where expanding belief or suspension of belief comes into play. But before we get into the details of filling a cow horn with silica, burial in the winter, and digging in the spring for spraying, let's take a step back. Controversial origins of biodynamics.

The biodynamic movement was started in 1924 by Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian with multidisciplinary interests. Steiner was an architect, philosopher, lecturer, and agriculturist who believed in a more mystical approach to farming. The system arose from a time when farming was industrialized and nutrients in the soil were depleted very quickly. Biodynamics has also been noted as the beginning of organic motion. As an aside, Steiner's philosophies in other fields have been criticized. Even if these teachings do not specifically overlap with biodynamics. Biodynamics is part of anthroposis and has some similarities in the spiritual/naturalistic sense, but the preparations for crop planting approved by Steiner (often called "preparation") and followed by biodynamic practitioners are harmless to anyone.

Examining Steiner's past through all kinds of lenses is fraught with a complex web of contradictions and arguments and strongly defended ideas.

In a biodynamic farm, instead of approaching it as a piece of land to be depleted of nutrients, "each farm or garden is viewed as an integrated whole, as a living organism in its own right," says Demeter International, the Federation of Biodynamics. Demeter is an international certification body that oversees biodynamic farming practices. The statement continues: “Like a human, a farm is made up of many different organs and systems. When these are dynamically managed and brought together, they interact positively with each other to support the health and well-being of the whole.”

To sum it up more briefly, it is a holistic-spiritual approach to farming where your goal is to create a closed, self-sustaining system. The manure you collect from the cows is put into preparations applied to the crops, and then some of these crops are used to feed the same cows. The preparations and certification process is what separates biodynamics from other farming methods such as permaculture and organic certification. While organic certification is issued for the final product, Demeter certification requires approval for the farm and the entire process.

"We have all the farm certification, we want to see where the farm is now," says Sarah Rhynalds, Demeter USA certification manager. Organic certification will "review an input based on testing a final product, and here we will actually examine in more detail all the ingredients and processing aids put into that product to make it." Demeter's certification process takes about three years if you are not already doing organic farming, and one year if you are.

Rhynalds points out right away that farmers choose biodynamics not to charge more for the product (price increase is not guaranteed), but because they believe it is. “You use the preparations, you make the preparations, you leave those preparations in a very meaningful, time-intensive way,” she says. "Our farmers are getting certified because they believe in it and want to support the movement."

Compost and spray preparations are a requirement to become biodynamic certified. If someone is unable to make the preparations or cannot find a particular ingredient, Demeter certified products can be purchased.

On antler compost (known as Preparation 500) and other preparations, the preparation guide is complete with details and photos. Cow horns should be filled with manure and then buried in a prepared pit. “The antlers should be placed two fingers apart with the muzzle facing down to prevent water from entering,” she says. After digging, rhythmic and timed mixing is needed. The guide explains that spraying the preparation "acts on soil and root growth, promotes microbial life and humus formation."

Yarrow, chamomile, nettle, oak bark, dandelion and valerian are used separately to create six compost preparations. It is said to have many benefits, including "making the fertilizer more resistant to nitrogen", promoting adaptation to the site, and "putting the forming forces exactly where plant diseases can thrive."

Rhynalds says he's met people who don't believe in biodynamics and think it's "nice." They did their own experiments comparing a biodynamically prepared garden to a garden without it and were surprised by the results.proceeds. “Maybe they don't understand, or even believe, but they saw the change in their land,” he says. "They saw the change in their crops and germination rates."

Positive results like this are available for both coffee producers I've spoken to and are biodynamic certified.

“There is a part of biodynamics that is very esoteric, very connected with spiritual beings. It's about energy,” says Henrique Leivas Sloper de Araujo, owner of Fazenda Camocim in Brazil. “So I try to put things together: technology and old farming style. Biodynamics is a way to save soil.”

Organic coffee cultivation began in 1996, and in 2008 the farm received Demeter biodynamic certification. Nine years later, his farm has produced the first biodynamic coffee to win any Cup of Excellence competition worldwide. “If you're maintaining soil quality, improving soil quality, then you have effects in all sorts and forms,” Sloper says. “For example, the water problem that has really affected Brazil in the last two years. Since we are an agroforestry system, I have no problem with water, so I don't need irrigation.”

Introducing biodynamics to the team was initially challenging. He says a few people left. Others wondered what had happened to him, especially when he started talking "about the moon and stars and dwarfs and dwarfs and things like that." But after sticking to it “they saw the impact on the quality of everything. And then everything changed.” He explained that he has seen positive effects on yield quality, soil conservation, water conservation, carbon emissions and oxidation. The last one is “a big plus for coffee, because green roasts last longer.”

In Macala, Honduras is another biodynamic coffee farm called 18 Conejo, which has been Demeter certified for six years. Owner Flhor de María Zelaya says his father was the first organic producer in Honduras, and they had been farming organic for two decades before switching to biodynamic methods. "It's like knowing the best of the best in organic farming," says Zelaya, through a translation from Spanish, why she decided to try biodynamic agriculture. “It is a farming style that loves all forms of life. This is the best sustainability model because you learn to keep all the organisms of a farm in harmony and balance.”

Coffee production in the region is small-scale and animal husbandry is very expensive to maintain. The ingenious solution was to connect several farms and use the largest farm to have each farm a function and then centralize the production of compost and preparations.

He says how a surprising result of biodynamic farming changed him as a farmer. “Your life changes, your thinking changes, your outlook on life changes, and then your farm changes,” he explains. According to Zelaya, the soil is enriched and nourished, offering a balance to production. "You improve your quality, you become more efficient and in the end you deliver highly nutritious, healthy and top quality food."

On the buying side of coffee, importer Cafe Imports received its own biodynamic certification in 2021. Long, who has a personal interest in biodynamics, says certification is pretty straightforward, as the company's system already tracks the details of organics and acquisitions. “I believe in regenerative agriculture,” he says. "I predict a biodynamic coffee will do less harm to the planet, your body, and better for everyone involved."

In terms of the future of biodynamic coffee, Long hopes more people will buy it and more importers will become certified. “My guess is it won't grow that much, but it will continue to grow,” he says. “I think when organic became institutional, those who left organic became rebels. It is either a protest against it or a moral, spiritual choice.”

Rhynalds, on the other hand, thinks that the biodynamic standard “will become more stringent as everything is irrigated with the organic industry.”

Both Sloper and Zelaya believe that biodynamic farming will become more popular for coffee. Sloper is already mentoring farms in the area to help them become biodynamic certified. And Zelaya predicts that the land and the market will demand it. “Producers will see that with this agricultural model you are independent, not dependent on external inputs,” he says. “You have real sustainability and you are nurturing people by making the world beautiful.”

Some of these emotions are supported by research into the impact of biodynamics. In a review of publications covering biodynamics, the researchers found that "with regard to soil health, eight out of 10 studies reported a positive systems effect of biodynamic management on soil organic matter levels and biological parameters." However, they also explain that this is "mainly driven by organic fertilization and the effect on soil properties may therefore not be relevant to biodynamic farming." Overall, the impact of farming practice on both food and the environment.They found that it had significant effects.

As someone who grew up in a home that uses both holistic and naturopathic treatments as well as non-holistic treatments, the concept of biodynamics is not too far away to grasp. Some of the basic principles, such as nurturing the soil, working on the lunar cycle, farming to enrich the environment, are concepts that have existed in local cultures for centuries. Steiner's special procedures and recipes cemented the name #biodynamics on him.


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