Farming in Harmony with the Cosmos
By Francesca Colombo
With no chemical fertilizers and commanded by the stars above, biodynamic crops are flourishing in Italy. Some 400 small companies are dedicated to this type of farming, with annual revenues of 27 million dollars.
MILAN, (Tierramérica).- Sweeter apples, greener lettuce and purer milk; honey without sugar and wine that doesn't cause inebriation or stomach acidity; carrots that stay fresh for more than two weeks.
These are just some of the products of what is known as biodynamic agriculture, crops that grow without degrading the soil, without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, adapting to the natural cycles of the cosmos.
In Italy there are some 400 companies dedicated to this activity, with 5,000 hectares among them and revenues of around 27 million dollars a year -- a modest portion of the market compared to conventional farming. Their output represents just five percent of Italy's total, in part because biodynamic farming entails higher production costs.
Those who practice biodynamic farming use humus -- partially decomposed organic material -- to fertilize the soil, and are inspired by age-old agricultural techniques. ''One works in a closed cycle, because plants are self-sufficient and healthy organisms. This helps to recover soil fertility. The biodynamic farmer lives in harmony with nature,'' Marcelo Lo Sterzo, agronomist, consultant and professor of forestry sciences, told Tierramérica.
This technique was developed in Germany beginning in 1924, based on ''anthroposophy'', the holistic philosophy of Austrian Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), which encompasses the influence of the cosmos on plant and animal life, as well as guidelines for the relationship of humans with the rest of nature.
One of the basics is crop rotation in regards to use of soil, and organizing and planning cultivation and harvests in accordance with the lunar and planetary calendars.
''It yields clean products'' and prepares its own fertilizers with natural substances, which are ''more nutritious for the plants,'' and favors both root absorption and photosynthesis, Mario Bavio, representative of the Biodynamic Association for the northern Italian region of Lombardia, said in a Tierramérica interview.
The agricultural firm Cascine Orsine, based in Pavia, Lombardia, cultivates 350 hectares under this method. It produces milk, beef, cheeses, cereals, rice and flour, with special machinery and involving five times more human labor than comparable conventional farming operations.
''Our main product is milk. We take care of the soil and the cows. We don't saw off their horns, we give them special feed, and if they become ill we treat them with homeopathic medicines. They sleep on straw, because that is what is natural,'' Cascine Orsine owner Aldo Paravini told Tierramérica.
Biodynamic farmers maintain that if one respects the land, the quality of the seeds and certain natural cycles, the cosmos have a positive influence on their crops.
For example, they believe that cultivation has better results if it is done when the moon is at its farthest point in orbit from the Earth.
''Fifteen years ago we began working with this technique, which is in keeping with our philosophy of life,'' says Marco Rossi, owner of Verdealloggio, a small biodynamic beekeeping business on six hectares of land in Giove, central Italy, where they produce honey and honey-based cosmetics.
''Our bees do not feed on sugar and they are not forced to over-produce. The hive is located in a special place, far away from noise and from people. We even use non-toxic paint for the hive walls,'' he explained to Tierramérica.
The proponents of biodynamic farming argue that it is the most advanced form of an environmentally sustainable development model, and the highest level of attention to product quality and that it goes beyond organic farming practices -- also referred to as biological or ecological agriculture.
Ninety-five percent of biodynamic products are sold fresh, and the rest are cosmetics, cotton fiber, or hemp.
Biodynamic farming undergoes three quality control assurances, conducted by the Demeter Association, an ecological group that encompasses 3,000 farmers from 40 countries, the Swiss biotechnology association Swissbio, and the European Union, in the context of the bloc's regulation 2092/91 on biological agriculture.
Two-thirds of Italy's biodynamic farm output is sold to northern Europe, United States, Canada and Japan. The prices are, on average, 50 percent higher than conventional agricultural goods.
This is due to the fact that start-up costs are three to four times greater, but biodynamic farmers say that after two or three years of work, the ratio changes dramatically. Because they don't use synthetic products -- like chemical fertilizers and pesticides -- their costs are ultimately 40 percent less.
* Francesca Colombo is a Tierramérica contributor.