Compost piles get hot from all the microbial activity. (image from Wikipedia)
Biodynamic agriculture is most tangibly distinguished from other beyond-organic farming methodologies by the use of the Preparations developed by Rudolph Steiner. It didn’t used to be true that you had to use the preps in order to be certified biodynamic*, but that changed around 2012. So the preps, which may or may not confer advantages to the farm, have become central in ways they weren’t before.
My personal favorite aspects of biodynamics are the consideration of the farm as a whole organism, the attention to detail, and the attention given to fertility via making the best doggone compost possible. There are 9 preps, 5 of which are to be added to the compost, 2 of which are to be applied in the field (one on the soil, on as a foliar spray) and a final one that can be used in either setting. Intriguingly, this last one is left out of most of the research trials I’ve seen. No clue why.
The initial scan of research projects focused on biodynamic compost indicates increased microbial activity and a higher retained soil carbon level. Good! Good composting habits are crucial to creating ACTUAL fertility (applying plant soluble nitrogens to the soil is FAKE fertility). The rub: nobody quite knows why. Yes, this is applying a mechanistic world view to a holistic farming practice, but hang with me here.
When you do an experiment, you have the thing you are trying to figure out (the variable) and the thing that is a known entity (the constant). If the results of the plot with the variable differs from those of the plot with the constant, then there is something in there that is making a difference. Scientists get all picayune with the details because they are trying to prove that the only thing that was consistent different across all the times they did it this way versus that way was in fact the variable being researched.
If all the shrubs with more leaves are also all the shrubs that are downhill and therefore have moister soil, then you can’t say that adding X to the soil around the shrubs is what’s making the difference because the moister soil is probably also a factor. The research has to “isolate the variable”.
Which is what I’m still looking for in this research. So pretend you are looking at a row of compost piles. They are all horse poop and wood shavings from cleaning out the horse barn. They are all on level ground, all get the same amount of sunlight, all the same size, all have the same wind exposure… after a year of decay, they should all have all the same properties. So we tested nothing.
Now pretend we starting over and this time we are going to add the biodynamic preparations to all but two of the piles. Now we have variables (the preps) and two constants (the “plain” piles). So any differences between the piles after a year ought to mean the preps did something, right? But what if the difference is just the adding of ANYTHING at all?
We know that biodiversity matters. It matters deeply, intricately, vibrantly. Horse poop and woodshavings is not very biodiverse, so maybe only a few types of composting critters (microbes, fungi, earthworms, etc) are needed, but if you add anything at all (a loaf of bread), then the whatevers that breakdown bread suddenly have to show up, et voila, the pile with the bread has different results.
There are ways to control for this in an experiment. The “we’re not adding anything” piles are known as “negative controls”, but we could have a “we’re adding something, just not the thing we are testing” pile and that would be a “positive control”. So far, I haven’t found anybody testing with a positive control.
Prep 500, pre fermentation. It’s not added to compost, but who can resist a proof-you’ve-been-playing-with-poop photo? (shot by Stefano Wines)
What would that look like anyway? To really get it right and test for whether or not these biodynamic preparations positively impact the composting process, we’d have to make up a fake formula. Luckily, they basically follow a pattern: animal bit + plant bit + fermentation process. One of them has powdered quartz rock in place of the plant bit, and another is basically tea, and there are other variables, but if there’s a pattern, it’s that.
So a fake preparation (509, as it were, since the others are known as 500-508) would follow that pattern but not use the ingredients specified. Horse hoof (the preps use no horse bits) and basil flowers (the preps use no other herbs from the Lamiaceae [mint] family), fermented underground for a season would be a “fake prep” or a “fake 509″.
Now if we add our official preps to all the piles except two, and add 509 to one, and nothing to the other, we’re closer to really finding out what those preps do, right? Almost. We’ve added increased biodiversity to our “positive control” pile, but the biodiversity of adding the 5 preps to the other piles is, obviously, higher than adding the one to the control pile. And that’s where science becomes a pain in the ass. To really do this right, you have to add one prep to each pile, plus a do-nothing control pile, plus a fake prep pile, plus a pile that is all the official preps together, and one with all the official preps plus the fake prep, and then maybe even some piles with various combinations of official and fake preps.
See? That’s a lot of piles of horsepoop and woodshavings, and we’re still trying to keep them all the same, which gets trickier and trickier… BUT! I have good news. They do not have these same European plants and animals in Brazil (at least, not natively) but they do have a Brazilian biodynamic association. So the next question is, what do the Brazilian preps look like? What does the research on the Brazilian biodynamic preparations reveal? ooooo. I’m like a geek in a new library.