The overlap of coffee and mysticism is where biodynamic farming exists.
To believe in biodynamic farming, one has to either extend belief or suspend disbelief. The term might be familiar to wine connoisseurs but the farming approach is still largely unknown in the coffee world.
The best descriptor for biodynamic farming given to me came from Jason Long, Head of Sourcing and Partner at Cafe Imports, who called it “organic plus mysticism.” It’s also been described as “organic plus” or “alternative farm management.” This is where extending belief or suspending belief comes in. But before we dive into the details of filling a cow horn with silica, burying it in the winter, and digging it up in the spring to be sprayed, let’s take a step back to the controversial origins of biodynamics.
The biodynamic movement was started in 1924 by Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian with a multi-disciplinary set of interests (and that’s putting it mildly). Steiner was an architect, philosopher, lecturer, and agriculturalist who believed in a more mystical approach to farming. The system was borne out of a time when farming was industrializing and soil nutrients were being depleted too quickly. Biodynamics has also been noted as the beginning of the organic movement. As an aside, Steiner’s philosophies in other fields have been criticized, and I do believe that acknowledgment of this is necessary, even if those teachings don’t particularly overlap with biodynamics. Here’s my take in brief: biodynamics is part of anthroposophy, and has some similarities in the spiritual/naturalistic sense, but the preparations for crop cultivation endorsed by Steiner (often called “preps”) and followed by practitioners of biodynamics are not harmful to anyone. Whereas, anthroposophy and Waldorf education have been criticized as having racist teachings, Nazi support (sources disagree as to exactly how much), and pseudoscience.
Parsing Steiner’s past is fraught through any lens, a tangled web of contradictions and claims and strongly held opinions. I am not here to unravel the riddle of Steiner’s legacy, but rather, to understand how biodynamics is being employed at the farm level by coffee producers here in 2022. Let’s look closer.
On a biodynamic farm, instead of approaching it as a parcel of land to be drained of nutrients, “each farm or garden is viewed as an integrated whole, as a living organism in its own right,” says the Biodynamic Federation Demeter International on its website. Demeter is the international certification organization that oversees biodynamic farming practices. The description continues: “Like a human being, a farm is made up of many different organs and systems. When these are managed and brought together in a dynamic way, they interact positively with one another to support the health and well-being of the whole.”
To summarize this more succinctly, it’s 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 that are applied to the crops, and then some of those crops are used to feed those same cows. The preparations and certification process are what sets biodynamics apart from other farming methods like permaculture and organic certification. While organic certification is issued for the end product, Demeter certification requires approval for the farm and the entire process.
“We are a whole-farm certification, we like to see where the farm is now,” Sarah Rhynalds, certification manager at Demeter USA, tells me. Organic certification “will review an input based on the testing of a final product where actually we will dig further into all of the ingredients and processing aids that were put into that product to make it.” The certification process for Demeter takes about three years if you’re not already organic farming and one year if you are.
Rhynalds is quick to note that farmers choose biodynamics not to charge more for the product (a price increase is not guaranteed) but because they believe in it. “You’re using the preps, you’re making the preps, you’re putting those preparations down in a very meaningful, time-intensive way,” she says. “Our farmers get certified because they believe in it and they want to support the movement.”
Compost and spray preparations are a requirement for becoming biodynamic certified. If someone isn’t able to make the preparations or find a certain ingredient, Demeter-certified products are available to purchase.
On making horn manure (known as Preparation 500) and other preparations, the prep manual is thorough in its detail and photographs. Cow horns need to be filled with manure and then buried in a prepared pit. It says, “The horns should be placed two fingers apart, with the opening facing downwards, in order to prevent water from penetrating.” After being dug up, rhythmic and timed stirring is needed. The manual explains that spraying the preparation “acts on soil and root growth, promotes microbial life and the formation of humus.”
Yarrow, camomile, nettle, oak bark, dandelion, and valerian are separately used to create the six compost preparations. They’re said to have many benefits, including making the “fertilizer more nitrogen-resistant,” promoting adaptability to the site, and putting “the shaping forces exactly where plant diseases might otherwise develop.”
Rhynalds says that she’s encountered people who didn’t believe in biodynamics, thinking that it was “hooey”. They did their own trials–comparing a biodynamic prepped garden next to one that wasn’t–and were surprised by the results. “Maybe they don’t understand or maybe even believe, but they saw the change in their soil,” she says. “They saw the change in their crops and their germination rates.”
Positive results like these are present for both coffee producers I spoke to who are biodynamic certified.
“There’s a part of biodynamics that is very esoteric, very connected to spiritual beings. It’s about energy,” Henrique Leivas Sloper de Araujo, owner of Fazenda Camocim in Brazil, tells me. “So I try to blend these things together: technology and the old style of agriculture. Biodynamics is a way to save the soil.”
In 1996, organic coffee cultivation began and in 2008, the farm received Demeter biodynamic certification. Nine years later, his farm produced the first biodynamic coffee to win any Cup of Excellence competition globally. “If you are preserving the soil quality, increasing the soil quality, then you have effects of all different kinds and shapes,” says Sloper. “For example, the water problem that really affected Brazil the past two years. As we are an agroforestry system, I have no problem with water at all, so I don’t need irrigation.”
Introducing biodynamics to his staff was challenging in the beginning. He says some people just left. Others wondered what was going on with him, especially when he started talking “about the moon and the stars and the dwarves and the gnomes and stuff like that.” But after sticking with it, “they saw the effect on the quality of everything. And then everything changed.” He explained that he saw positive effects in yield quality, soil preservation, water preservation, carbon emissions, and oxidation. The last one is “a major plus for coffee because the green lasts longer, the roasted lasts longer.”
Over 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 her father was the first organic producer in Honduras and that they were organic farming for two decades already before transitioning into biodynamic methods. “It is like knowing the best of the best of organic agriculture,” says Zelaya, via a translation from Spanish, on why she decided to try biodynamic farming. “It is a style of agriculture that loves life in all its forms. This is the best model of sustainability because you learn to have in harmony and balance all the organisms of a farm.”
In her area, coffee production is small scale and animal husbandry is quite expensive to upkeep. The ingenious solution was to link several farms together with each farm having a function and then using the largest farm to centralize the production of compost and preparations.
She says that a surprising result from biodynamic farming was how it changed her as a farmer. “Your life changes, your thinking changes, your way of seeing life changes, then your farm also changes,” she explains. According to Zelaya, the soil becomes enriched and nourished, offering a balance to production. “You improve your quality, you are more efficient, and in the end, you offer highly nutritious, healthy, and top quality food.”
On the purchasing side of coffee, importer Cafe Imports received its own biodynamic certification in 2021. Because the company’s system already tracks the details of organics and purchases, certification was fairly straightforward, says Long, who has taken a personal interest in biodynamics. “I believe in restorative agriculture,” he says. “I would guess that a biodynamic coffee is going to be less damaging for the planet, for your body, and better for everybody involved.”
In terms of the future of biodynamic coffee, Long hopes that more people will purchase it and that more importers will be certified. “My guess is it won’t get that large, but it’ll continue to grow,” he says. “I think it’s the rebels that left organic when organic became corporate. It’s either a protest against it or it’s a moral, spiritual choice.”
Rhynalds, on the other hand, thinks that the biodynamic standard will be “getting more strict as everything gets watered down with the organic industry.”
Both Sloper and Zelaya believe that biodynamic farming will become more popular for coffee. Sloper is already consulting with farms in the area to help them become biodynamic certified. And Zelaya predicts that the land and market will demand it. “Producers will see that with this agricultural model you have independence, you do not depend on external inputs,” she says. “You have true sustainability and you nurture man by beautifying the earth.”
Some of these sentiments are backed up by research into the impact of biodynamics. In one paper that reviewed publications covering biodynamics, researchers found that “with regard to soil health, eight out of 10 studies report a positive system effect of biodynamic management on soil organic matter levels and biological parameters.” However, they also explain that it is “mainly driven by organic fertilization, and it could be argued that the effect on soil properties may therefore not be related to biodynamic farming.” Generally, they found the farming practice to have positive effects on both food and the environment.
As someone who grew up in a household that utilized both holistic, naturopathic remedies alongside non-holistic ones, the concept of biodynamics is not too far to grasp. Some of the basic principles—nourishing the soil, working on a lunar cycle, farming to enrich the environment—are concepts that have been around for centuries in native cultures. Steiner’s specific procedures and recipes just happened to stick the biodynamics name onto it. If you’re interested in seeing what a biodynamic coffee tastes like, Sloper’s coffee is currently available at Linea Caffe, as well as Wasatch Roasting Company and Eclipse Coffee Roasters.
Jenn Chen (@thejennchen) is an Editor At Large at Sprudge Media Network. Read more Jenn Chen on Sprudge.
Photos by Fazenda Camocim, courtesy of Cafe Imports.