2016 North American Biodynamic Conference, Nov. 16-20 in Santa Fe, NM
By Thea Maria Carlson
“The most remarkable feature of this historical moment on Earth is not that we are on the way to destroying the world — we’ve actually been on the way for quite a while. It is that we are beginning to wake up, as from a millennia-long sleep, to a whole new relationship to our world, to ourselves and each other.” — Joanna Macy
The understanding that the earth is alive was once widespread—and still exists in many indigenous cultures and spiritual traditions today. Yet for centuries the dominant Western culture has treated the earth as an inanimate object, a storehouse of resources for us to extract, and a sewer to absorb our wastes. Industrial agriculture arises from and perpetuates this mindset, reducing the soil to a dead substrate whose only value is in the number of pounds of grain that can be harvested from it each year.
One of the great gifts of biodynamic agriculture is that it helps modern humans to experience the earth as a living organism, one with which we can actively engage and collaborate. Biodynamic agriculture is a relational practice. Biodynamics gives us principles, philosophy, and concrete practices to work consciously with this living planet, and with each of our farms and gardens as their own living individualities within it. This November, hundreds of farmers, gardeners, entrepreneurs, and educators will gather in Santa Fe, New Mexico for the 2016 North American Biodynamic Conference, and this year’s theme speaks to this central principle of biodynamics—Tierra Viva: Farming the Living Earth.
The Biodynamic Conference is held in a different region of North America every two years and offers an unparalleled opportunity to delve into biodynamic and regenerative agriculture. Ten inspiring keynote speakers from within and beyond the biodynamic community will share their groundbreaking work from all over the globe. More than 50 workshops will explore topics like Biodynamic Permaculture, Collaborative Farming, Holistic Landscape Ecology, The Spirit of Healing Plants, and Water Resilience on the Farm. The conference programming also features a field day at two local farms; hands-on learning opportunities; a celebratory food, wine, and cider tasting; film screenings; a seed exchange; mixers and meetups; exhibits; artistic performances; festive music and dancing; and local, Biodynamic®, and organic foods.
Newcomers to biodynamics will find plenty of sessions to learn the fundamentals of biodynamic farming and gardening, and there will be many opportunities to learn about other regenerative approaches, including permaculture, traditional Native American and Aztec farming, holistic management, and more. Many workshops will also address the community, economic, and social justice aspects of growing a healthy food system. Families and children are welcome: there is a full schedule of workshops for children ages five to fifteen, including nature awareness, music, and art.
The Biodynamic Conference features three dynamic keynote sessions that explore different aspects of the “Tierra Viva” theme. On Friday, the diverse panelists for Regenerating Earth and Community will tell stories of sustainable development, biodynamic and regenerative farming, gardening, and ranching, and community engagement from New Mexico, New York, Egypt, Tanzania, Uganda, and across Latin America: Helmy Abouleish of SEKEM, organic and Biodynamic inspector Osiris Abrego Plata, Larry Littlebird of Hamaatsa and Tano Farm, Restoration Agriculture author Mark Shepard, Karen Washington of Rise and Root Farm, and Courtney White of A West That Works. On Saturday, biodynamic farmers Sally Fox of Viriditas Farm and Vreseis, Chris Tebbut of Filigreen Farm, and Hugh Williams of Threshold Farm will share how they build water resilience and grow fruit and fiber within diversified, living farm organisms. And to close the conference on Sunday, Dennis Klocek, founder of the Coros Institute and author of Climate: Soul of the Earth, will present on Living Earth, Living Climate.
All of us who will travel to Santa Fe from afar in November can look forward to an incredible and unique landscape, rich and diverse cultures with a long history of agriculture, and many innovations that can be applied to our home landscapes. And from the warm welcome that my Co-Director Robert Karp and I have received during pre-conference visits to Santa Fe, I get the sense that many locals are looking forward to welcoming and connecting with the hundreds of people in the biodynamic community who will bring their energy, wisdom, and curiosity to the Southwest from across North America and beyond.
Registration is now open at www.biodynamics.com/conference.
Thea Maria Carlson is Co-Director of the Biodynamic Association. She lives in the Mayacamas Mountains in Sonoma County, California, and frequently visits other parts of the world. Her diverse experience includes farming biodynamic and organic vegetables, fruit and flowers; teaching gardening, nutrition, and beekeeping; designing, building and managing urban community and educational gardens; and organizing strategic communications training programs for nonprofit leaders. Since 2011, she has played a key role in developing the Biodynamic Association’s educational offerings, planning and implementing the biennial North American Biodynamic Conference, and exploring new ways to manage and evolve the organization.
By Andrew Toothacker
Arriving within a week of one another, Victor Kubia and I came to study biodynamics at the Pfeiffer Center in September of 2015. It isn’t enough to say that we come from very contrasting life situations: Victor is a spry 57-year-old from Bamenda, Cameroon, and I am a 22-year-old from Portland, Oregon. Despite the gap of common experiences, however, Victor and I became comrades the instant we met.
It was a blue day with powerful clarity when Victor appeared in the doorway of the tiny Pfeiffer Center cabin. This man was perfectly jolly despite having just driven 27 hours straight from Oklahoma, where his six children were beginning their school year. Sitting alone in the cabin, I was the very first person he had met in New York.
Immediately he confessed two things to me. One was that he desperately needed a job, and the other was that he also needed a place to live. With one hand I pointed towards the food co-op, and with the other hand I pointed towards the dorm housing where I lived.
As he turned to leave, he confessed something else: that he is pursuing a genuine education in biodynamic agriculture for the sake of farmers oppressed by Western chemical/seed companies in Cameroon. With a face flooded by his characteristic smile, he told me a story about catching rats as a boy in Bamenda.
“When we saw the small rat enter the house, we would chase it up the wall where it had a hole to escape. Then we would grab it by the tail! Only the rat leaves the skin behind in your hand, and then you’ve got nothing.”
“When we saw the giant rat in the forest, we would eat it if we caught it. These animals dig holes underground. We would go to hunt, like a group of five boys; we would go into the forest and look for the hole. Then we have to look for the escape hole – sometimes there are two.”
“We would block the escape holes and light a fire to stuff the main hole, with smoke finally catching the rat in a net as it ran out for air!”
“We must learn how to catch biodynamics…not by the tail.”
Since then, Victor and I have shared a bathroom in the student dorms for nine months. He opened my eyes to the reality of farming in Cameroon, where 90% of farmers are women who live in great dependence on Western agricultural behemoths like Monsanto.
What is most distressing to Victor is the visible decline of the health in people, which mirrors the deterioration of their soils.
In April of 2015, Victor travelled to Cameroon armed with the DVD One Man, One Cow, One Planet, which features Peter Proctor. This movie tells the personal stories of farmers in India successfully transitioning from chemical agriculture into closed-system biodynamic farms. Peter Proctor himself had sent Victor the copy of this DVD. The response from farmers in Cameroon was monumental and telling.
Victor screened the movie to agricultural cooperatives ranging from a few hundred members to the 3,454-member organization NOWEFOR. He was asked to begin working immediately, but did not feel knowledgeable enough to lead such a movement.
Six months later, Victor began studying biodynamics through a year-long training offered by the Pfeiffer Center. Throughout the year, I watched Victor work tirelessly washing dishes to support his family in Oklahoma, often relying upon the kindness of new friends.
Fast forwarding to June of 2016, Victor has finished his studies and is now finalizing plans to move his entire family back to Cameroon in order to begin building a small education center that will teach garden-scale biodynamics through intensive handwork.
To assist this impulse for sustainable agriculture, my partner (and fellow biodynamic apprentice), Becky Sullivan, and I intend to relocate to Cameroon as well.
Currently the three of us are seeking support. We have reached out to the Section for Agriculture in Dornach, Switzerland, by applying to their Ambassadors program. They have accepted our applications and are processing them.
In addition, we have set up a modest gofundme page that shares Victor’s story in greater detail and asks for only $9,000 to support our practical needs in establishing a center for biodynamic education and food production. The money we are requesting will go towards building a small animal shelter and greenhouse. This money will allow us to buy invaluable handwork tools and small-scale irrigation hoses and will help us establish a reliable water source for our project.
If it is at all possible to provide assistance, please visit our gofundme page.
When I asked Victor how he would feel if we reached this financial goal, he responded with the following:
“I will just be too overwhelmed with joy if this happens. My thanks and appreciation will go out to anyone who is willing to help. I believe the law of sowing and reaping is a natural law that never fails. Things will begin to happen in your life too.”
Andrew Toothacker is an apprentice in the North American Biodynamic Apprenticeship Program (NABDAP).
By Sally Voris, White Rose Farm
In 1924, Rudolf Steiner gave a series of eight lectures to farmers in what is now Poland who wanted to understand why the quality of their food was declining. Those lectures form the basis of biodynamic agriculture. Steiner framed agriculture in the context of the cosmos. He said invisible spiritual forces, acting through the stars, the planets, the sun, and the moon, were vital to life on Earth. He asked farmers to imagine their farms as individual living organisms, and he gave specific practices to build farm vitality.
After some ten years of farming using biodynamic practices, I noticed that the produce nearly popped with energy and flavor. It was easier to farm. I felt like I was now dancing with a living partner—the farm. I realized that plants don’t just grow out of the soil; they lift themselves (or are they pulled?) heavenward. When we are fed by such plants, we get that lift. To come to full flowering; however, the farm needs a farmer to mediate and balance its life processes. As the weather gets more erratic and extreme, it takes more will and skill to keep life on the farm dancing and breathing together!
In other lectures, Steiner spoke about how the Earth exists for the spiritual evolution of human beings. He outlined epochs and cycles of development in humans. Steiner foresaw that forces focused on materialism would become very strong in our time. Those forces deny spirit. It is our challenge, Steiner said, to develop our ability to balance spirit and matter through our hearts. Nutrition is essential to our spiritual development, he asserted. We need food that feeds our souls, our wills, and our spirits.
Our current industrial food system completely ignores this aspect of nutrition. The system produces commodities for consumers. It separates us from nature—the source of our most intimate and immediate connection with creation. Plants are the hands of God, said world-class gardener Alan Chadwick. When we use our hands in the garden, we touch those hands. There is something in us that goes out to meet every living thing, said theologian Thomas Berry. The inner world of man and the outer world of nature go together, he asserted. We are meant to connect with Nature and be fed by her!
There are, however, tremendous forces seeking to hide this essential truth. Government subsidies and agricultural institutions now encourage farmers to move their operations into controlled environments: hoop houses, green houses, barns, and buildings. Plants and animals have less access to fresh air and sunlight. Farmers use well water to irrigate their crops. Well water has predominantly Earth energy, whereas rain water contains vital atmospheric energy. Our food is losing its connection with the cosmic, spiritual forces in sunlight, fresh air, rain, and natural rhythms. We become less able to meet the challenges we face—less able even to see the forces that are drawing us downward.
We are the essential players here. We can awaken to that truth. Our birthright is connection, and so is our calling. We are co-creators of our world: what we imagine becomes the future. Can we hold a vision of abundance and hope? Or do we carry the images of despair and devastation that are swirling around us? Can we engage in work to restore wholeness to our lives and to our Earth?
It is not just a matter of where we get our food and how it is grown; it is also vitally important where we give to Nature, how we give to Nature, and why we give to Nature. What we do to Nature, we do to ourselves. When we dance with Nature as our partner, we reweave the web of life. We restore health.
White Rose Farm and its Circle were born out of love for life! People will give to this work because they want to cultivate their own souls, they want to honor those who have come before, and/or they want to prepare a space of love for those who are coming after. Let’s make love the foundation of the new world! There is much to celebrate and much to do….
Photos by Ingrid Cowan Hass from a Chesapeake BioDynamic Network gathering at White Rose Farm.
By Megan Durney, Pfeiffer Center
There is a special quality about the mid-winter time of year, between January 15th and February 15th. Here on the East Coast, we try our best to imagine the next season’s beauty and bounty during the winter when we are more inside and inward. As winter shrouds us with snow and cold temperatures, a mid-winter festival where the mysteries and questions inspired by Rudolf Steiner’s Agriculture are gathered around and warmed by human hearts seems appropriate to light our way into the depths of the darkness and winter’s cold. For eight years the Pfeiffer Center has been hosting an annual mid-winter gathering with the Agriculture Course as the central theme, but each year stemming in a particular direction from the complex topic of earthly and cosmic nutrition to the horn manure and silica preparations.
During this year’s winter intensive, we chose to focus on the dandelion and yarrow as healing plants both agriculturally and medicinally. The classroom was surrounded with a sea of green dandelion and yarrow plants as well as artistic renderings, tinctures, and the biodynamic preparations. As a group of about 50 participants, led by our guides, we began our path of approaching the plant by asking, “Who are you?” Intimately, through small group facilitated plant observations, we gave our attention to first, yarrow, then dandelion, and lastly both plants. To truly witness a plant’s presence and allow it tell its story, we learned some helpful hints. First and foremost, approach the plant as if you have never seen it before; what do you notice? Perhaps you look at the plant with a soft gaze and allow images to appear. Maybe you recall the specifics of the first encounter you were aware of with this plant. In moving towards the plant’s uniqueness, how would you describe its physical properties as you move your eyes up from the ground to the tips of the leaves? After tasting and smelling a root, leaf, or blossom, what more speaks to you from the plant? Is it bitter, sweet? What is it like to just sit in a plant’s presence for 15 minutes? These questions and more were explored in the various small group observations leading us as a community closer to a truer meeting of both yarrow and dandelion.
Accompanying our observation journey was artistic work in drawing the leaves of the plant, first filling in the positive space from the inside of the leaf out to its edges with a soft, even tone. Then, from the outside in, we allowed the negative space to form the shape of the leaf. In this challenging artistic pursuit, many felt that the act of drawing the leaves of each the dandelion and yarrow created a further intimacy and space the plant could speak in to.
Continuing to inform our discoveries of these two plants, four individuals artistically weaved presentations about the dandelion and yarrow as healing plants and as compost preparations. How do the plants relate to the health of the human being and the health of our Earth? We couldn’t speak about the plant without bringing that which is behind the activity and manifestation of the plant: Life. There is something unseen that works on matter, a healing impulse that fills and moves the physical. The invisible world is threaded through the visible, yet how do we create personal relationships with such statements and clairvoyant discoveries gifted to us from beings like Rudolf Steiner? We are all on individual paths in life and in our experiences of nature; however, how do we come together and try to cultivate a relationship with the world of plants for the sake of our future? During this winter festival, it felt as if we were making such high statements more real. There was a strong sense of waking up to the secrets of plants and learning how to foster nature’s life while also knowing that we can look to nature for healing. It’s truly a reciprocal relationship.
At the fore of the conference planning team’s hopes were that participants would be called upon to be creative and active, that they would fully be engaged in the dandelion and yarrow’s becoming. This atmosphere was present and accompanying us deeper into the ethereal realm of the plants were various musical contributions and an evening eurythmy performance. Each day participants could chose between watercolor, clay work, or eurythmy to deepen our experiences of the forces that craft matter and live within the visible. The substance created between us and the artistic environment encouraged an ability to acknowledge the world of nature spirits and their influence within the elements of Earth, Water, Air, and Fire. In our pure attention towards plants and nature there lives the possibility of a relationship to these elemental beings.
This article is dedicated to Harald Hoven, Deb Soule, Jean-David Derreumaux, and Mac Mead for being our guides into deeper encounters with yarrow, dandelion, and the living realm of “the plant.” May we always give them our purest attention and in gratitude, look upon the plants of our Earth with awe and wonder.
Speaking on behalf of many, we are grateful for the generous financial support from the Biodynamic Association’s Scholarship Fund. This made it possible for many individuals to participate in this very special midwinter festival.
By Jeff Schreiber, Three Sisters Community Farm
Plenty of artists create works of art about farms, and there are surely many farmers who are also painters, poets or musicians. Many farms, even, offer artist-in-residency programs so that artists can create and be inspired in a beautiful and simple environment, away from the cares of the real world. But what about the act of farming as art, or the farm itself as an actual work of art?
We’re not accustomed to thinking of farming in this way. Farming is about the production of foodstuffs — it’s business (agribusiness), not art, right? A farmer/artist, like Wendell Berry, does his or her farming and then — after the work is done — sets about writing beautiful poems.
We’re also not accustomed to thinking of art like this. A work of art, to most, is something static — something fixed on a page or hung on a wall in a museum. Some contemporary art, however, points in different directions. Today, writes art historian Diether Rudloff, “Everything can be art. Everything is worthy of representation — to the extent that every form and every content is an adequate expression of the individual creative power of an artist.” Still, some principles have arisen. Rudloff continues:
The material result, the finished artifact as such, is no longer the goal. The essential factor is increasingly the path that leads to it, the creative act. The emphasis then shifts from the stationary work to the active process. But the final result of this is the end of art in the traditional sense.
If we shift our focus from the foodstuffs of agribusiness — the carrots, the cuts of meat— to the process or the activity of farming, we can begin to glimpse just how farming can be art — and the farmer, artist— in this emerging, contemporary sense.
Like the poet who confines herself to the form and structure of the sonnet, the farmer creates within the physical boundaries of the farm itself, to be sure. But more generally, the creative act of farming plays out largely between the laws of the natural world, on the one hand (things like soil type and hail storms and animal breeds), and the results of human interactions and relationships on the other (social things like property boundaries and taxes and farm labor). The farmer brings their own unique individual capacities and creativity to the realm between these two poles, the realm of the economy. By economy, I mean something a bit different from typical usage. As fellow biodynamic farmer Henning Sehmsdorf reminds us, the term economy comes from the Greek work oikonomos, meaning “household steward.” To be economic, then, comes closer to the modern notion of building natural or social capital, as opposed to the pursuit of profit or money for their own sake (chrematistica).
On the economic canvas, the household of the farm, the farmer stewards and orchestrates the complex and dynamic forces at work in the fields and trees, in the crops and livestock. In the compost pile, for instance, the farmer might sense a subtle shift in the dance of materials within— it’s becoming too cold and wet, perhaps. The farmer intervenes, turning the pile to bring in the forces of air and warmth, these tones heightened, maybe, by the addition of a little hot, nitrogenous manure from his chickens.
A farmer’s day is filled with countless such artistic moments and happenings, processes within processes, each one different than the last, changing with each passing season and year. There are many failures, many flops, which — thankfully — often the farmer alone witnesses. As she hones her art, the farm becomes more and more a model of economy, more economic. Often, then, the farmer is the only witness to the masterpieces, the triumphs of her art: the sheen of a healthy animal’s flank, the seamless crop rotation, the perfect taste of a carrot pulled fresh from the soil.
Such things are satisfying, to be sure, and the material end result of the creative process is of course important — we do need, after all, to eat! Perhaps, though, we are really sustained, at a deeper level, by just how much art goes into the production of our food.
Farmers Kelly and Jeff met while working at Outpost Natural Foods in Milwaukee, WI. Not long after they began working together at Wellspring, a Milwaukee-area farm-based educational organization. In 2011 they started Three Sisters Community Farm on Kelly’s family’s land in Campbellsport, Wisconsin. They currently grow six acres of vegetables, raise chickens and ducks, and keep honey bees.
Originally printed in the Three Sisters CSA newsletter.
The Biodynamic Winter Intensives were held at the Nature Institute and Hawthorne Valley Farm during the weeks of February 8-12 and 15-19. Jonathan Code from Crossfields Institute International, based in Stroud in England, joined the faculty for the second of the two weeks. Jonathan co-directs a distance-learning, postgraduate course called Researching Holistic Approaches to Agroecology, which supports research and inquiry into a variety of approaches to land stewardship and social development related to agroecological initiatives. The course currently supports students in Canada, the US, England, Malawi, and Denmark and is enrolling now for the autumn 2016. Biodynamics features as one of the strands of the course.
By Jonathan Code
I landed back in the UK from the recent Hawthorne Valley winter intensives to find a real buzz in the UK biodynamic world sparked by a royal endorsement for biodynamics. HRH Prince Charles recorded a ten-minute video that was shown at an Italian biodynamic conference in mid-February, and links to that video were landing in my inbox from all directions. It is clearly significant when a public figure of this standing speaks openly for biodynamics and acknowledges the importance of Rudolf Steiner’s impetus for a new agriculture and also the current developments in this realm. This is good news.
It will, however, also be interesting to see what follows from this short video. It has clearly given great encouragement for those working with biodynamics, at least from what I can see here in the UK. It will, of course – due to the speaker’s public profile – also stimulate questions for many people unfamiliar with biodynamics, who may be hearing about it for the first time from this prominent public figure.
What is this thing called biodynamics? Is it a method? A movement? A worldview?
Questions such as these – and many others – arose during the winter intensive from a very dynamic and diverse group of participants, some new to biodynamics and some deeply steeped in its study and practice. Our approach to these questions in the brief week we had together was to allow them to be distilled through facilitated social process, where they were cultivated and nurtured in dialogue and in silent reflection. We pondered the realm of the stars, soils, and plants and their mutual interactions through presentations. We also explored experiential approaches to engaging these subjects through “trying on” different lenses, or ways of knowing, as availed by the alchemical worldview and contemporary holistic perspectives on science.
I hope we were able to cultivate these questions, to allow them to grow further, and I know that I came back with deeper ones myself.
A really precious gift for me from this week at Hawthorne Valley, alongside the meetings and new connections made, was to experience deeply something that I just don’t get here in the UK. Bitter cold, wind chill, crunch of snow underfoot, deep blue sky, and sunlight amplified by the crystalline carpet underfoot. An experience that went deeply into my bones. Though this was followed promptly by a spike in temperature, which dissolved everything in the space of a day – what better way to engage the polarities inherent in the agriculture course then this?
Jonathan Code is a lecturer with Crossfields Institute International. He helps run the MA Researching Holistic Approaches to Agroecology and the BA Philosophy, Arts, and Social Entrepreneurship. Jonathan has a deep interest in consciousness studies, western esotericism, the natural sciences, and education. These interests informed both his bachelor’s degree (Intregral Studies, CIIS, California) and his M. Ed (Social and Environmental Education, RSUC Oslo). Jonathan has taught practical chemistry, phenomenology, and nature study to learners of all ages for many years, and he continues to contribute to adult and higher education initiatives both in the UK and abroad. Jonathan teaches in biodynamic education programs in the UK and abroad. Jonathan’s book Muck and Mind: Encountering Biodynamic Agriculture is published by Lindisfarne Press.
Originally published by RSF Social Finance in the Winter 2016 RSF Quarterly
Abbot Hill in Wilton, New Hampshire, is home to High Mowing School, a Waldorf boarding high school, and Temple-Wilton Community Farm, one of the first biodynamic community supported agriculture (CSA) programs in the U.S. Also nearby is the Yggdrasil Land Foundation, an agricultural land trust committed to protecting biodynamic farmland. The result of such close proximity has been an extraordinarily collaborative project between High Mowing, which purchased farmland adjacent to its campus, and Yggdrasil, which purchased the conservation easement rights. The protected land is now used by the school, and is also leased to Temple-Wilton to support its grazing and feed needs.
In the midst of all this activity, Brad Miller, a biodynamic farmer turned teacher at High Mowing, developed an innovative horticulture program that engages students in the many facets of stewarding land while learning life lessons from it. Katrina Steffek, RSF’s chief operating officer, spoke with Mr. Miller about what his students gained in their study of diversified and balanced farm ecosystems.
Katrina Steffek: Tell us a little bit about High Mowing School.
Brad Miller: We’re in our 73rd year since the founder, Beulah Emmet, started this school. She chose this place, which was originally her summer farm home, to provide young people with something she realized was needed: fresh air, trees and granite. A fire here in 1970 destroyed the majority of the old school building. All of Mrs. Emmet’s personal possessions were destroyed; however, nothing of the students or the new school was damaged. There’s an interesting metaphor in there: that this is really a place for students.
How did you first get involved?
Miller: I have been involved with the school since 2009. I was running a CSA program on the property and renting land, and I started volunteering with students. In 2010, I offered two horticulture classes. Within two years, I was full time at the school, and we had integrated horticulture and garden work across the science curriculum and more. Now the program is a signature one for the school.
How has the horticulture program affected students?
Miller: For those freshmen who went through it four years ago, when we broke ground together and erected the greenhouses, they have a sense of accomplishment. The students that arrive now often can’t tell that the garden hasn’t always been there, so it’s different. Now they are maintaining or nurturing something that’s not for them but for the future, which is very hard for an adolescent to grasp. When that happens, it becomes more than just taking care of the carrots or the beets. It’s about soil microbiology. It’s about resource management. It’s about fair and equitable distribution of resources. That’s what they are actually more concerned about.
So it’s eliciting additional lines of though around resource allocation and environmental stewardship?
Miller: You just hit on it there, Katrina. That’s what I hear from them: environmental stewardship. How do I participate in that? How can I be an advocate for that?
But I sense a real difference in your program, where it’s not so much a lesson plan just outlining best practices. It’s more of a conversation that starts with the ground and soil, and then spurs students to deeper learnings.
Miller: A colleague and I have researched and discussed how so many land grant universities and alternative farming programs teach the mechanics of farming, and so few teach about one’s heart connection to the land. That’s conversation and language that I have with the sophomores, juniors, and especially the seniors. As they mature, we go from direct planting, seeding, compost management, and the alchemy of that to conversations about how we know whether a practice is right. How can I assess what’s best for this place? How would I know in my own life if this is the right choice? It becomes a metaphor for how these students are going to ground themselves and move on in their lives.
Other than the connection to Rudolf Steiner’s philosophy, why is the biodynamic aspect important to the horticulture program?
Miller: It’s necessary to know the science and the basis for how to grow food. But if one doesn’t meditate and have a self-development practice, one is going to miss the very subtle influences that farming, weather, and nature unfold. It isn’t a linear exercise. So often when I was first farming, 16 or 17 years ago, I would say, “I grew that.” If something was in the way, I took it out. It was very self-centered. As I became more exposed to people practicing biodynamics for 10, 20 or 30 years, I would hear, “I don’t know, let’s wait and see.” This was a completely different approach.
With the kids, rather than say, “I’m the expert,” I now say, “I’m learning, too.” And when we look at a situation closely, we sometimes see it in a different light. A pest may not be a problem because it ate four plants; we still have 600. If we wait, is it going to be a problem next year? My experience is now that things come and go. And so with biodynamic prep, it seems to be less of the application of the physical and more of the time spent preparing, thinking about it, and being in the right space to apply it—those quiet moments when you step out of the doing and you start being in your garden.
What’s changed in the garden since transitioning to biodynamics?
Miller: It’s now a place for living things. There is a multitude of species that are in balance with each other. I haven’t had disease pressure. I haven’t had pest pressure or predation where it harms the garden. Things are in check. Our bird life is up. Our insect life is healthy. It isn’t wilderness, but there is wildness. On this property, we’ve had bear, coyotes, owls, foxes, weasels, groundhogs, a mountain lion, wild turkeys, deer, and a whole range of arthropods and insects.
We’re now looking at the microbial life underneath, and the kids are starting to realize that the soil is alive. Where before, one of the most common things out of their mouths was, “Oh, that’s dirt, and you just put a seed in dirt and it’ll grow.” Just like their own thoughts and their own dreams, not every seed grows. It takes some nurturing. It takes some maintenance to get it to grow and to bear fruit.
How do these lessons translate into your conversations with students?
Miller: They are less conversations than observations of what students are experiencing in the garden. I have students who would never want to farm or garden—and yet the garden has provided them a platform for place. They now understand that you have to care for something and that it goes through cycles. In a very subtle but profound way, I think it plays very well to the adolescents’ own sense of time.
Teenagers are known for having an inward-looking lens. Does the horticulture program aim to bring them out of this mode?
Miller: We don’t want to take that away from them because it is their time to be inward. One of my past mentors told me it was more important that the young people see that I care for the garden deeply as a teacher here. They’re not going to remember the lessons. They’re going to remember me and the effect of how I treat the land or vegetables or even a tool.
Miller: That’s been probably the biggest lesson: whether I pick the tool up and put it away even though it’s wet, we’re tired, and the bell rang. Do we take the time to finish what we started or do we walk away? I had to point out to students that when you leave, you also leave the chickens, pigs and plants that still need your help. You can’t just walk away. Rarely do teenagers, young people—and we should even say adults now—recognize or sense where they’re needed. As soon as somebody is needed, their life is validated. So then it’s not just a rake, but our rake and the next year’s students’ rake. It’s not disposable.
What do you see as the future of the horticulture program?
Miller: It’s really an exciting time because the program has more to give. If we look back to Mrs. Emmet’s original impulse to provide adolescents and young adults with an opportunity to be educated in and amongst nature, we are perfectly positioned at High Mowing. We allow young people a rapidly disappearing opportunity to cultivate their education while immersed in nature. We’re now looking at starting a fifth-year program for people out of high school who want to do a semester or a year here. We have people in their 20s, 30s and 40s who want to come here to work. So we’re trying to create a program that can enriched their lives as well.