Saturday, December 6, 2014

Reflections on the Biodynamic and Sustainable Agriculture Conferences

I have an amazing staff composed of Margaret Bloomquist, Luping Qu, Lijing Zhou, Reuben Travis, Kelly Gaskill, and Cameron Farlow. Nowadays my time is mostly filled with writing grants, managing grants, and other administrative duties, so the really good work in my program is done by these six people and my graduate students, Jennifer Crumley and Adam Johnson. Starting today, I am going to highlight more of their activities by having them write some of the blog posts from time to time. The first one here is a report from Margaret, Kelly, and Reuben on two recent conferences they attended. We welcome your feedback on this.

November with Alternative Crops and Organics Team
Winter has arrived here in Western North Carolina, and our team is busy in our hive at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center analyzing data, writing reports from this past season’s fieldwork, and working towards new and continuing projects for the seasons ahead. November was ripe with end-of-harvest energy across the region. We had the pleasure of attending two conferences back to back mid-month: The Carolina Farm Stewardship’s 29th Annual Sustainable Agriculture Conference in Greenville, SC, and the 2014 Biodynamic Conference in Louisville, KY.  Generous support from North Carolina Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (NCSARE), and from the Biodynamic Association provided scholarships for two of our Research Assistants at each conference – much thanks!
Read on for more on each conference and a review of this year’s SAC from our own Kelly Gaskill.

Biodynamic Conference 2014, Louisville KY
Biodynamic Research: At this year’s Biodynamic Conference, we met with Sara Weber, Director of Research for the Biodynamic Association, Walter Goldstein of the Mandaavin Institute, Hugh Lovell, author of Quantum Agriculture, and Steve Divers from the Horticulture Department of University of Kentucky. We exchanged updates on national and regional research efforts, and discussed potential collaboration. How wonderful for our program to connect with these other passionate researchers and to hear the exciting specifics of their efforts! Here are links to some of the collaborative projects that Dr. Goldstein and Sara Weber discussed:,
Workshops and Networking: This year’s Biodynamic Conference theme was called “Farming for Health: Exploring the Intimate Connections between the Health of Soil, Plants, Animals, and People.”  We connected with friends and colleagues from up and down the eastern seaboard, and attended a variety of keynote lectures and educational workshops including engaging topics such as Connection of Soil Health and Human Health, Biodynamic Solutions to Pest Problems, Biodynamic control of Wooly Adelgid for Eastern Hemlock trees, Health from the Ground Up, Farm-based Education, Healing Plants / Healing Gardens, Soil /Food /Health Connection, No-till Permaculture Solutions for Staple Crop Production, The Emerging Biodynamic Marketplace, and more!
Farmers, Doctors, and Academics: Speakers and conference participants included doctors, farmers, soil scientists, educators, herbalists, business owners, students, professors, gardeners, ecologists, beekeepers, nutritionists, entrepreneurs, researchers, winemakers, and academics. It was a wonderfully diverse and inspired group of people. There is growing recognition of the important connection between farming practices and human health, expressed in the growing demand for organic and biodynamic foods in the marketplace.  Dr. Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian scientist, philosopher, and founder of Biodynamic Agriculture, was among the first westerners to see that the inevitable loss of soil vitality that would follow the post-war reductionist agricultural practices dominating the American agricultural landscape would lead to significant imbalances. He was also among the first to elaborate on the effects this would have on the vitality of the human organism.
Ecological awareness is common rhetoric among many graduating university students from a variety of disciplines. Scientific understanding of the interconnectedness that we see echoed and expressed through Biodynamic practices is well-established through research in the fields of Ecology and Quantum Physics. “Sustainability” is one of the latest buzzwords in contemporary mainstream American culture, and the global organic foods market is expected to grow to $104.7 billion in 2015.
This growing interest and awareness was certainly evident in this year’s conference turn-out! There were several hundred attendees of all different ages, with a substantial showing of young people, some of whom were both students and farm apprentices.  
Where from here? In response to this growing demand, and to establish practical and regionally applicable information regarding biodynamic agricultural practices, our program continues to seek funding to do Biodynamic research, and we seek to provide farmers of the southeast with the information needed to meet the growing consumer demand for biodynamic food.  
For more information about this year’s conference and the Biodynamic Association visit
-By Reuben Travis and Margaret Bloomquist 2014

29th Annual Sustainable Agriculture Conference in Greenville, SC   
A big thanks goes out to Carolina Farm Stewardship Association for putting on a wonderful conference!  Jeanine Davis and Research Assistants, Kelly Gaskill and Margaret Bloomquist, traveled to Greenville for three days of research networking, regional meetings, and fantastic workshops. We began with Hugh Lovell’s Introduction to Biodynamics Intensive. If you haven’t checked out Hugh’s book Quantum Agriculture – its good holiday time reading. Quantum agriculture presents the interplay of soil, water, plant nutrition, biochemistry, physics, and more in a unique perspective. His book provides an engaging way for the left-brained scientist types to delve into deeper topics and arenas such as biodynamic agriculture.
Regional and National Collaborations. The Sustainable Agriculture Conference is an opportunity to connect with our regional and national partners from CFSA, Organic Seed Alliance, Cornell University, and of course all of our regions farmers and policy influencers that make our work possible and meaningful. Meetings and discussions relating to the multi-state Organic Cucurbit Breeding Project (USDA-NIFA Sponsored), Western North Carolina Participatory Organic Broccoli Project (Funded by Organic Farming Research Foundation), and the Organic Participatory Tomato Breeding Project (Funded by USDA-OREI) were highlights as well.
Memorable Sessions at SAC. Practical workshops we attended included: Farm Mechanization for Increased Efficiency, for medium sized vegetable and grain farms, Organic Soil Fertility with Oxford University’s Daniel Parson, and an informative workshop on Post-Harvest Handling by CFSA’s Patricia Tripp – very relevant to our research and regional farmers in light of GAPs and pending FSMA regulations.
Check out the CFSA’s website for more information on this year’s conference and opportunities to download material you may have missed:
A memorable keynote jumpstarted this year’s conference, Mark Sheppard – the king of Restoration Agriculture - his experience and practical management to infuse permaculture into a financially viable farm and lifestyle within a framework for healthy local economies brought enthusiasm to the conference attendees (see more on Mark Sheppard below in Kelly Gaskill’s reflections).
-By Margaret Bloomquist 2014
Personal review of the SAC from Research Assistant Kelly Gaskill:
Carolina Farm Stewardship Association’s annual Sustainable Agriculture Conference is always a favorite of mine. One of those great events where you are reminded that hard working dedicated farmers have support through an abundance of networks. Here we get to gather with a part of the population that wants to invest in the well-being and success of small scale farmers in any way we know how. Here we share similar values around healthy choices for our bodies and our planet. This is where people come together to honor, support, learn, and educate. We share stories, triumphs and heartaches, disasters and accomplishments felt in a single growing season or a life time of doing what we love. An event like this offers a common bond, a wealth of opportunity, a networking system to any person interested in food growing and consuming in a wholesome way.
Excitement for me came in the form of the keynote speaker- Mark Sheppard of New Forest Farm- a permaculturist with a large voice, witty sense of humor and the ability to seemingly offend and inspire everyone in the room within a single evening. He called us out- telling us to act on our ideas and stop merely talking about how to change the world. He’s right, we don’t need to agree with everyone all the time but we sure do need to get along with one another to make things happen. He is one of the many at this event doing amazing things.
I’m also pleased to report the frequency in which I heard presenters emphasize the importance of healing the earth with agriculture. To me, this is the way. Considering that industrialized agriculture has inflicted great damage to our earth, why not grow food in a healing, nurturing way that helps maintain a healthy balance for all life on the planet? Examples of where I saw this theory in action included Chuck Marsh’s Innovative Horticultural Strategies for a New Permaculture Century, Daniel Parson’s Ecological Pest Management: Encouraging Beneficial Insects to Control Your Pests and Hugh Lovel’s Introduction to Biodynamics.
So how will I be a doer? For starters, the fence I just built to keep my dog from the neighbor’s ever tempting compost pile was built from found objects and inspiration by Chuck Marsh. Old twine, discarded bamboo and lots of downed limbs worked well, so well that she became a doer, too- by finding a new path to the goods. Some dogs will keep you on your toes!
Planting flowers to encourage a diversity of insects is so fun and rewarding- Daniel Parson encouraged this practice to the fullest. Getting to know which insects I’m dealing with and which flowers to plant encourages me to get to know both of these life forms even better.  In the past few years I have been planting farmscaping around our hop yard to increase biodiversity, attract beneficial insects, feed pollinators, create habitat, experiment with varying seeding strategies, and display beautiful bouquets in my home. Taking time to get to know my surroundings is so rewarding.
In sum, I am excited to be a part of the growing network of support for our local farmers and food systems. The momentum is growing and events like the SAC are good examples of creating and strengthening connection, collaboration and expansion of the local foods movement while caring for the earth.
-By Kelly Gaskill 2014

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Red Root Natives Nursery-A Local Source for Native Woodland Botanical Plants

I have been receiving many inquiries lately about where to buy native medicinal herb seeds and plants. So over the next few months I will tell you about some of the nurseries that I am familiar with. Please know there are many out there and I can tell you about all of them! If I miss one of your favorites, please tell me so I can get to know them, too.

I like to promote our local agricultural businesses and this one gives me particular pleasure to do so. Jean Harrison runs Red Root Natives Nursery in Asheville, NC. Jean is a long-time friend who was also my employee for a time. I have enjoyed watching her life journey from researcher to extension agent to nurserywoman. What I find very special about her nursery is that she offers so many of the plants that my staff and I work with on a daily basis, grow in our woodland demonstration gardens, provide information on through our website, and that I cover in my book 'Growing and Marketing Ginseng Goldenseal and Other Woodland Medicinals'.

Jean has done an incredible job growing these plants; some of which are quite challenging to germinate and grow in a nursery setting. Her training as a plant pathologist, extensive experience working with other plant growers, and love of native plants give her an edge over many other nurseries. The picture above of goldenseal is from her website. I encourage you to stop by and see what she has to offer. Also, check out her events tab and find out where she will be next spring so you can select your plants and talk with her personally.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Why is Jeanine Davis at NC State University Interested in Biodynamic Agriculture?

Photo courtesy of Susan Bryson

As I prepare a proposal to train extension agents and other agricultural educators/professionals about Biodynamic farming, I am getting questions about why I am spending my precious time on this "mysterious" form of farming. Here is a short piece I wrote to address this question last year:

There is a rising demand for biodynamic food in the United States. Much of this demand is being led by Whole Foods (Brady, 2013) who has asked some of the manufacturers of the brands they carry to create Biodynamic lines of their products. In April 2013, Demeter, the organic and Biodynamic certifying organization, met with the Whole Foods Grocery Team and Marketing staff in Austin, TX to update the Biodynamic Business Development Initiative. Large organic processing companies, such as Brad’s Raw Foods and Amy’s Kitchen, that have close relationships with Whole Foods are responding by seeking Biodynamic farmers to grow their ingredients. Both of these processors have approached us about conducting research on Biodynamic agriculture and working with local farmers to produce Biodynamic vegetables.

Biodynamic agriculture is popular in many other countries, most notably Germany, Italy, India, and the United Kingdom (Paull, 2011; Phillips and Rodriguez, 2006). Demeter certifies thousands of Biodynamic farms around the world including 1,431 farms (168,508 acres) in Germany, 325 farms (22,246 acres) in Italy, 131 farms (17,766 acres) in Egypt, and 111 farms (2,759 acres) in the United States (Demeter, 2013).  Biodynamics in the United States is really in its infancy. The only main stream Biodynamic products widely available to consumers here are wines.  In August 2013, Jeanine Davis and representatives from Demeter, Brad’s Raw Foods, and Rodale Institute held a Biodynamic conference at the NC State University facility in western North Carolina. Over 100 farmers, agricultural educators, and university administrators attended the conference. A follow up survey indicated a high level of interest among the farming community in producing Biodynamic crops on a wholesale level.

Biodynamic agriculture is based on the teachings of the Austrian writer, educator, and philosopher, Rudolf Steiner. He introduced the concept to the public in the 1920’s. “Steiner came to the conclusion that western civilization would increasingly bring destruction to itself and the earth if it did not begin to incorporate an objective understanding of the spiritual world and its interrelationship with the physical world.” (Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association, 2013b). “Biodynamic farmers strive to create a diversified, balanced farm ecosystem that generates health and fertility as much as possible from within the farm itself. Preparations made from fermented manure, minerals and herbs are used to help restore and harmonize the vital life forces of the farm and to enhance the nutrition, quality and flavor of the food being raised. Biodynamic practitioners also recognize and strive to work in cooperation with the subtle influences of the wider cosmos on soil, plant and animal health. Most Biodynamic initiatives seek to embody triple bottom line approaches (ecological, social and economic sustainability), taking inspiration from Steiner’s insights into social and economic life as well as agriculture.” (Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association, 2013a).

Although there has been a fair amount of research on Biodynamic agriculture starting in the 1920’s, much of it does not meet the current standards for rigorous, scientifically valid, refereed research. Much of it is also focused on compost and soil factors, with less on plant yield, quality, and disease and insect resistance (Turinek et al., 2009). Because much of the research was conducted in countries outside of North America, there is also skepticism about its validity here. A very recent review of Biodynamic agriculture concludes with the following statements, “Scientific testing of biodynamic preparations is limited and the evidence that addition of these preparations improves plant or soil quality in an organically managed landscape is still in debate, but many organic practices, commonly used in organic and biodynamic farming systems, are scientifically testable and can result in improved soil and plant health parameters. The academic world needs to address the explosion of pseudoscientific beliefs and help non-academicians become more discerning learners, but at the same time it must be open to a more holistic approach in the study of agricultural systems.” (Ponzio et al., 2013).

With the rising demand for Biodynamic products in the United States, this is the appropriate time to scientifically test Biodynamic practices, compare Biodynamic production with organic production, and determine if farmers can make a profit growing Biodynamic produce. Currently, Brad’s Raw Foods purchases about 35,000 pounds of organic kale each week. With Whole Foods Market putting a consumer spotlight on products containing Biodynamic ingredients, Brad’s has agreed to make a Biodynamic line, with the intent to transition the entire product line as soon as supply can meet demand. Realizing the challenges facing growers trying to make the transition, they are willing to purchase kale from our cooperating farmers and eventually from a large number of organic growers transitioning to Biodynamic production.

Many certified organic growers in western NC are interested in Biodynamic production because it appears to be a much lower-input systems approach than organic agriculture. It is also supposed to be more economical and make better use of on-farm wastes. Biodynamic farming is a form of organic farming that is often looked at as “going another step further” in producing an environmentally sound production system. The wider adoption of Biodynamic practices in agricultural systems in the United States could potentially provide expanded high-value market opportunities for farmers; reduce the use of manufactured fertilizers and pesticides, both organic and conventional; and have a positive social impact because of the community engagement aspects of making preparations and sharing equipment and manures.

Jim Fullmer from Demeter wrote “As a Biodynamic farmer, and Director of Demeter in the USA, it is clear that there are wonderful opportunities for Biodynamic products in the US. National retailers, such as Whole Foods, now seek Demeter certified Biodynamic products and the current domestic supply of produce and ingredients does not meet the current demand. The concept of a Biodynamic farming system is not a new and, in fact, is over 90 years old and practiced worldwide. In addition to the tenants of certified organic agriculture core to the Biodynamic method is the idea of a farm being a self-sustaining system that generates its inputs out of the life of the farming system itself rather than being dependent on importing such inputs from outside. Such a concept not only avoids dependence on extracting natural resource, it also generates new natural resource on a local level. Such a system not only generates high value in the marketplace for the farmer it also has strong social value due to its efficiency in producing food and its focus on more than just maintaining natural resource but also creating it. Over the past 90 years there has been research done on Biodynamic farming systems all over the globe. Much of it in different languages and decades old. There has been a small amount of peer reviewed research done in the US but much more is needed in order to better understand and to educate on this historic and international approach to agricultural production.”

Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association. 2013a. What is biodynamics? Accessed on November 10, 2013. .

Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association. 2013b. Who was Rudolf Steiner? Accessed on November 10, 2013. .

Brady, P. 2013. Biodynamic FAQ. Whole Foods Blog. Accessed on November 10, 2013.
Demeter International. 2013. Statistics. Accessed on November 10, 2013. .

Paull, J. 2011. Organics Olympiad 2011: Global Indices of Leadership in Organic Agriculture. J.Social and Development Sciences 1(4):144-150. Accessed November 10, 2013. .

Phillips, J.C. and L.P. Rodriguez. 2006. Beyond Organic: An Overview of Biodynamic Agriculture with Case Examples. Selected paper prepared for presentation at the American Agricultural Economics Association Annual Meeting, Long Beach, California, July 23– 26, 2006. Accessed November 10, 2013.

Ponzio, C., R. Gangatharan, and D. Neri. 2013. Organic and biodynamic agriculture: A review in relation to sustainability. Int. J. Plant Soil Science 2(1):95-110.

Reeve, J., L. Carpenter-Boggs, J.P. Reganold, A.L. York, and W.F. Brinton. 2010. Influence of biodynamic preparations on compost development and resultant compost extracts on wheat seedling growth. Bioresource Tech 101(13):5658-5666.

Reganold, J. 1995. Soil quality and profitability of biodynamic and conventional farming systems: A review. Am. J. Alt. Ag. 10(01):36-45.

Turinek, M., S. Grobelnik-Mlaka, M. Bavec, and F. Bavec. 2009. Biodynamic agriculture research progress and priorities. Renewable Ag. and Food Systems 24(02):146-154.