Sorcery or science? How can a concoction made from manure buried in cow horns in the dead of winter and sprayed on tired dirt under a new moon reinvigorate soil? Not even the founding father of Australian biodynamics Alex Podolinsky knew the answer. But 50 years later, farmers who follow this practice are paid top dollar for their dairy products, beef, rice and almonds. A controversial pioneer Mr Podolinsky inspired an unlikely army of loyal troops, who every autumn across Australia scoop up fresh cow manure from their fields. Photo: Mr Podolinsky has pioneered biodynamic farming in Australia since the s.
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One of them is profound and shows the way ahead for natural farming; the other is rubbish and is a retrograde throw-back to hunter-gatherer methods.
One is populated by serious farmers, men of the soil, who are producing high quality chemical-free food on an industrial scale for a hungry world; the other is populated by greenies, scavengers, ferals, hobby farmers, retired sociologists and a wide assortment of hippies with dubious standards of personal hygiene, all of whom make a lot of noise but produce very little. The profound system is Demeter bio-dynamics. The hunter-gatherer throwback goes by the name of permaculture. The present author has vented his objections to the second of these in an unpopular post to this journal some time ago and makes no secret of them.
See the post here. After nearly thirty years of dealing with permaculturists in southern Australia, he is confirmed in his low opinion of permaculture, its results and its clientelle.
On the other hand, he has been actively involved in and also loitered on the fringes of the biodynamic movement for the same length of time, and has recently become reacquainted with long-time bio-dynamic farmers, and his positive experience of that system and high regard for it is undiminished.
This endorsement requires qualification, though. There is a generic form of bio-dynamics, and then there is Demeter bio-dynamics. It is the latter of these two that deserves every praise. Both have their origin in a series of lectures on agriculture by the Austrian mystic and polymath, Rudolf Steiner, in the early s. These lectures spawned a movement that has since taken many forms. What we will call "Demeter bio-dynamics" is one such form, and is a specific adaptation of Dr.
We will call it Demeter bio-dynamics because it operates and sells produce under the Demeter trademark, thus: This trademark distinguishes this particular system of bio-dynamics from others. Practitioners of the system found it necessary to set up appropriate legal definitions and commercial safeguards in order to avoid unneccesary confusions. To be frank, many expressions of generic bio-dynamics are rubbish too and attract a similar cohort to permaculture with much the same outcomes.
Demeter bio-dynamics, on the other hand, is a first-class professional affair with a long track record of solid results backed up with a coherent body of theory and a tradition of independent research.
It goes about its mission quietly and without fanfare. It is, without exaggeration, the premiere mode of organic farming in the world today. There are hundreds of successful, profitable farms and millions of acres of Australian farmland under Demeter bio-dynamic cultivation, along with smaller operations all around the world. Demeter is, in fact, the biggest producer of organic food on the planet today. Although many fine people have contributed to the development and refinement of Demeter bio-dynamics, it is finally the child of one man, a post-war European immigrant to Australia, Alex Podolinsky.
This post concerns him. Although a versatile genius with many accomplishments to his name - he is an architect, amongst other things - he will go down in history as the man who saved bio-dynamics from half-witted hippies and converted it into a viable system of practical farming for real farmers as Dr.
Steiner always intended. Born in - and so over ninety years old as of this posting - he is the grandson of the pioneering Ukranian eco-economist Sergie Podolinsky. He was himself instructed in the theory and methods of bio-dynamics by direct students of Dr.
Steiner in Switzerland in the late s and studied it thereafter, deciding at an early age that farming was his calling. Nothing in his early experiences of European farming, though, prepared him for the vastly different conditions under which farming is conducted in Australia.
After immigrating to the great south land he bought a dairy farm near the mountain hamlet of Powelltown in the state of Victoria and from there set about completely rethinking the bio-dynamic system for Australian conditions. In particular, he realised that Steiner had said nothing relevant to the broad-acre dryland farming that was the norm in Australia; the whole matter would need to be reconsidered.
For decades he worked closely with Australian farmers - real farmers - and honed his methods into a successful system. The turning point in this development was perfecting a mechanical means of stirring the "preparations" that Steiner had outlined in his lectures. Steiner had insisted they be stirred by hand. Podolinsky knew that this was utterly unfeasible in Australian conditions.
He defied the purists and, assisted by a farmer named Trevor Twigg, designed a stirring machine that matched hand-stirring as nearly as possible.
It was a breakthrough. With such machines it was possible to apply the bio-dynamic "preparations" to Australian-sized farms. Steiner had indicated that much experimentation would be required before this preparation, like the others, could be perfected.
Having learnt the basic technique of making the "preps" in Switzerland, Mr. Podolinsky set about refining the method through careful observation and application. Others, taking Dr. Podolinsky understood them to be adjuncts to the inner processes of nature and approached them in that way.
The Preparation he produced on his farm in Poweltown was vastly superior to that being made and used by others. He called it a "humus preperation", the purpose of which was to increase the consolidation of organic matter into stable humus in the living processes of soil. The cornerstone of his farming method became judicious applications of the "cow horn preparation" - a sort of potentized dilution of cow manure - stirred in his stirring machines and sprayed upon pastures using carefully adapted farm equipment.
Using Preparation , without superphosphate and the other chemicals which are standard in Australian agriculture, he was able to revitalize tired and depleted soils, renovate soil structure and increase the humus content to depth. Combined with other bio-dynamic farm management techniques, in many cases the results were nothing short of miraculous.
His own farm in Powelltown was the model. While surrounding farms withered and waned during droughts, his remained green and productive using no chemicals or brought-in fertilizers, artificial or natural. The ideal farm in bio-dynamics is a self-contained organism. It can produce a surplus year after year without any imputs from outside. Corn horns. These are filled with cow manure, laid in pits as shown and buried over winter to make "Preparation ".
No great pioneer is without his detractors, however, and Mr. Podolinsky, it must be admitted, found an unusual number of enemies over the years. To achieve the success he did required upsetting many people along the way. As all who have encountered him over the years will testify, by temperament he is a "my-way-or-the-highway" sort of man, unbending, convinced of his own methods, and not inclined to suffer fools or dilettantes. In character he is more like a temperamental and authoritarian European orchestral conductor or violinist with personal traits that often clash with the more casual and egalitarian side of Australians.
His involvement in the Steiner education movement ended in schism and lasting resentment. The monopoly he created of bio-dynamic methods was unwelcome in many quarters. He happily alienated the aforementioned hippie contingent and other useless types who have tended to populate the alternative agriculture scene.
Podolinsky to him as "evil". Others have not hesitated to call him an "egoist", a "Nazi", a "fascist", or worse. This is to say nothing of the fact that the mainstream farming establishment were always ready to dismiss him as a crank or a charlatan and to call his methods "muck and magic.
As opposed to his army of detractors, there is a legion of dedicated followers and enthusiasts who regard him as the herald of a coming good. This includes many very sober, down-to-earth, salt-of-the-land, no-nonsense, hardworking Australian farmers, a good many of whom Podolinsky saved from bankruptcy and ruin. Desperate, at their wits end, drowning in debt, facing divorce, living on farms destroyed by artificial fertilizers and pesticides, these men would ring him at Powelltown in the middle of the night, purely on a rumor that he had saved other farms with his unorthodox methods.
After hearing their plight, Mr. Podolinsky would inform them that, yes, he could save their farm - and possibly their marriage too - but only on the condition that they do things his way and follow his advice to the letter.
Bio-dynamics is a delicate and subtle thing. Some of it might seem strange, but it works if it is done correctly, and, if they complied with the rules, he could offer them the prospect of selling their produce under the Demeter label at good prices in Europe, Japan and elsewhere. In an age when more and more family farms are going to the wall, and agriculture in general is unprofitable, Demeter bio-dynamics has an expanding market.
And better still, it rehabilitates the land so that farms are a worthy legacy for future generations. If it is easy to find people who have clashed at some time with Alex Podolinsky, it is also easy to find people who regard him as an agricultural messiah, a man who has done more for honest farmers than almost anyone else.
If so, well and good. He has, however, conducted extensive research and has built up a considerable body of evidence to show that his "" - if applied correctly and in the right conditions - has a marked impact upon root growth and soil structure.
One of the keys to Demeter bio-dynamics is the distinction between water roots and feed roots in plants.
Conventional wisdom says that plants take their nutrients through soil water and that nutirients must be water soluble to be effective. This is only partly true. Rather, it is the case that, ideally, nutrients are held in suspension - that is, in a colloidal form - in humus, and plants draw upon this reserve in proportion to sunlight and other factors. This is the area of greatest difference between bio-dynamic farming and what ordinarily passes for so-called organic farming.
Bio-dynamics has a different understanding of plant nutrients and place of those nutrients in well-structured soil. What appears to be "muck and magic" is underpinned by a solid body of sophisticated, if unconventional, plant science.
Like all of Dr. The present author has heard Mr. Podolinsky lecture several times, the first occasion in the s. There is no question that he is a charismatic man with an extraordinary knowledge of Australian farming and, more than that, a truly deep acquaintance with the processes of the natural world. No doubt he has very fixed opinions on a wide range of topics and is very ready to share them.
What it usually amounts to, though, is simply that he is old school, as they say, and finds much that has come to pass in popular culture to be degenerate and abominable. His hatred of pop music is prodigous, for example.
Also his contempt for television and the popular media. As a father, it is said, he was strongly authoritarian and forbade his children even the slightest exposure to the music and manners of their peers. There are stories that as teenagers his children would have to sneak off to the toilet to listen to a transistor radio in secret for a taste of rock n roll.
People who worked for him or with him described him as a slave-driver and an uncompromising task-master. Many people could not tolerate his manner and demands, threw up their hands and stormed away. He could scandalize audiences with seemingly old fashioned generalisations about race. He could also slap down interjectors or fools with vicious effectiveness.
Alex Podolinsky’s life celebrated
Biodynamic farming pioneer Alex Podolinsky had sceptics, but farmers still follow his methods