An Agricultural Odyssey into the Future
Studying Biodynamics at Evergreen State College – Part 1
By Karen Davis-Brown
In Olympia, Washington, amazing things are happening by and for the students of Evergreen State College. With a student body of slightly over 4,000 and a commitment to sustainability and the development of every student’s maximum potential, it is no wonder that is where Sarah Williams is able to offer the course “Student-Originated Studies: Seeds, Beads, Bees and other Biodynamical Processes.”
“Seeds, Beads, Bees and other Biodynamical Processes”
Sarah Williams, the developer and instructor of this course, is no stranger to the ups and downs of North American agriculture. Raised on what is now a fifth-generation family farm in southern Minnesota, she reminisced about her childhood:
My fondest memories are of gardening with a great uncle, who was always competing with a neighbor for the biggest melons, earliest sweet corn, and best coon fencing techniques…. I spent many hours shucking peas while listening to stories. Family, friends, and neighbors often gathered to do things like make pickles and sauerkraut, fill silos, and stack bales to fill haymows.
Sarah also identifies childhood experiences as the root of her future interest in biodynamic agriculture:
My grandfather used to smell the air and tell me whether it was going to rain. He could walk across fields and know what the soil needed. A junior high school science project on biorhythms took me to the state competition.
She also watched it all change:
During my middle school years, all the family farms in my area either sold out or became chemical farms. Farmers took their lives with shotguns: they had worked their whole lives and mostly grown debt. Now small caterpillar-like tractors are used to work those perfect Midwestern rows of corn and soybeans. The University of Minnesota Agricultural Technical College at Waseca (near my home) was converted to a prison.
These childhood experiences stuck with her, as she grew up and went out into the world:
Since it was always understood that my brothers would inherit the farm, academia was my ticket to the future. I traveled the world studying anthropology, and then anthropologists themselves, in a PhD program called the History of Consciousness at UC-Santa Cruz.
During her graduate fieldwork, she “saw the devastating effects of book only learning and so-called development through capitalism” in Kenya, Mexico, Australia, and India. Her observation was that so-called “higher” education seemed to correlate with increased environmental devastation, and the treatment of women seemed to correlate with the treatment of the land. At the same time, she noted that “the Turkana, pastoral nomads with whom I did fieldwork in northwest Kenya could read weather and grazing patterns based on their reading of animal intestines. They could only count to three, but knew if even one cow was missing from their large herds.”
It was when she was teaching at Evergreen and her sons began to attend the Waldorf School in Olympia that “in my mind, conversations began to develop between Gregory Bateson, Susan Griffin, Luce Irigaray, and Donna Haraway (my intellectual gurus), and Rudolf Steiner and Goethe. During my yoga teacher training, I began to sense the pre-history of BD [biodynamics] in the indigenous traditions of Vedanta and Zoroastrianism.” Then, she discovered Dennis Klocek’s work.
She went on to say:
This all came full circle in my 2013-14 “Student-Originated-Study Program: Seeds, Beads, Bees and other Biodynamical Processes.” The Evergreen State College is a place where issues of social justice, ecology, art, and the politics as well as poetics of education, can be taught in interdisciplinary, year-long learning communities that include field studies. We began the year with a community-service based field trip to Moe Momtazi’s Maysara Vineyard. It was such a delight to have students read Katherine Cole’s Voodoo Vintners: Oregon’s Astonishing Biodynamic Winegrowers (which begins with a story about Moe and a pregnant Flora fleeing Iran on a motorcycle) while working in the Maysara Vineyards alongside crews of Hispanic and Latino professional pickers. Then, the Biodynamic Association made it possible for many Evergreen students to attend the biodynamic pre-conference during our field trip to EcoFarm [a large organic agriculture conference held every January on the central California coast].
The class’s itinerary for their journey to EcoFarm and back seems like an idyllic pilgrimage in West Coast alternative agriculture. Perhaps it was, but like all pilgrimages, it was also strenuous, challenging, and not for the rigid of mind or heart.
Tuesday, Jan. 21
- John Jeavons’ Ecology Action GROW BIOINTENSIVE Sustainable Mini-Farm, Willits, CA
- Frey Vineyards, Redwood Valley, CA
These Evergreen road warriors arrived at Asilomar Conference Center in Pacific Grove, California, late Tuesday for the biodynamic pre-conference event. The pre-conference was titled “The Farm as a Living Organism” and included in-depth workshops on “Integrating Livestock and Vegetables for Sustained Fertility, Food, and Community” with Paula and Adam Gaska; “The Biodynamic Preparations and Farm-Scale Composting” with Lloyd Nelson and Colum Riley; “Biodynamic Viticulture and Winemaking” with Paul Dolan, Barbara Steele, and Matt Taylor; and “Biodynamic Principles and the Inner Path of the Farmer” with Jim Barausky and Cheryl Mulholland.
Afternoon breakout sessions addressing Demeter Biodynamic® certification and the economics of small-scale, self-sufficient farming rounded out the day. Class members were able to take part in the day-long workshops, the plenary sessions, and the World Café discussions.
Thursday, Jan. 23 – Saturday, Jan. 25
The main conference featured follow-up workshops by pre-conference presenters on the use of the preparations, integrating livestock, and the emerging Biodynamic marketplace. There was also a presentation by Biodynamic Association (BDA) Executive Director Robert Karp on cooperative models for farming as a business.
On Friday night, the BDA and Frey Vineyards sponsored a mixer with wonderful Biodynamic wines donated by the folks at Frey. Saturday morning there were more presentations and an afternoon closing circle and rain dance.
Sunday morning the Evergreen crew began the trek home. Along the way, they made stops at more farms and programs committed to agricultural health and sustainability:
Saturday, Jan. 26
Monday, Jan 27
- Rudolf Steiner College and Sacramento Waldorf School, Fair Oaks, CA (with Harold Hoven, Dennis Klocek, Keith Gelber, and Farmer Steve)
Tuesday, Jan. 28
- Chickadee Farm, Ashland, OR (with Sebastian Aquilar)
- Ruby and Amber’s Farm, Dorena, OR (with Walt Bernard and Kris Woolhouse)
Wednesday, Jan. 29
- Winter Green Farm, Noti, OR (with Wali Via)
Throughout the year, the students read texts chosen to provide complementary perspectives on various themes. For example, Dennis Klocek’s Sacred Agriculture was read along with Neil Shubin’s The Universe Within; Craig Holdrege’s Thinking Like a Plant was paired with Vandana Shiva’s Making Peace with the Earth, which students were encouraged to compare and contrast with Ruth Ozeki’s All Over Creation.
What a lot to take in, discuss, reflect on, and discern how to use in the future! Part 2 of this series will offer the insights of the students regarding this “incredible journey” into their thoughts, feelings, and decisions resulting from their inner and outward travels.