Agriculture

Bringing biodynamic farming to the mainstream market

Despite its divisive principles, biodynamic farming could be a solution to the heavy price of industrial agriculture

Photos by RG Medestomas

Food security and sustainable agriculture are among the defining issues of our time, greatly affecting our individual diets, consumer habits, and farming practices. While the movement to go organic continues to gain popularity, it is important to return to the reasons why we pay so much attention to the providence of our food.

THINKING TWICE
Gil Carandang (middle) with volunteer farmers

Gil Carandang of Herbana Farms is a proud follower of the laws of nature and dismisses any suggestion that man can ever be master over the natural elements. He cites how the toll of catastrophic typhoons in the past few years has forced many people to question how land is used and to pay closer attention to the environment. Biodynamic farming sprouts from that same sense of awareness and humility before nature.

In the 1920s, at a time when industrial farming methods were disseminating, the multi-talented Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner founded the biodynamic approach that reconciles spiritual and scientific understandings of the relationship between man and nature. His holistic innovation long predates modern narratives of environmentalism and sustainable agriculture. Biodynamic farming takes into consideration all aspects of the ecosystem constituting the farm to optimize fertility and productivity of the soil and to enhance the quality and nutrition of the food grown. There is also a strong emphasis on cooperating with other members of society such as consumers.

Herbana Farms encourages everyone to take part in experiencing the farm life through activities such as organic gardening and farming, mudhouse building, and feeding livestock

Following this philosophy, Carandang’s advocacy shows a working alternative system that empowers farmers and protects the environment. He shares how a farmer once asked him how to make organic fungicide for his crops. Rather than teaching him the formula, he examined how the farmer made use of his land. He noticed that the wind blew perpendicular to the direction in which the crops were grown, impeding air flow. Re-orienting the farm led to the fungal problem resolving itself without any future dependence on fungicide. Carandang points out that most organic farming practices focus heavily on production technology and not on how to account for the natural features that play a big part in a farm’s productivity.

Situated just outside Calamba in Laguna, Herbana Farms attracts volunteers internationally who come to learn about holistic farming methods. One common-sense innovation is the herb spiral, which resembles a mini stepped-pyramid. Carandang explains that rosemary goes on top since it dislikes water. At the bottom are herbs like gotu kola and perennial coriander, which love damp soil. His farm also grows a wide variety of produce such as holy basil (or tulsi), kale, cabbage, galangal, katmon, and pea eggplants. Biodynamic farming also advocates the use of probiotics in the production of its own fertilizers and pesticides while enzymes and growth hormones are extracted from plant tips through cold pressing in order to avoid denaturing them.

One common-sense innovation is the herb spiral, which resembles a mini stepped-pyramid. Carandang explains that rosemary goes on top since it dislikes water. At the bottom are herbs like gotu kola and perennial coriander, which love damp soil. His farm also grows a wide variety of produce such as holy basil (or tulsi), kale, cabbage, galangal, katmon, and pea eggplants.

Beyond the farm in Laguna, Carandang has trained hundreds of farmers from the Cordilleras to Leyte and even El Nido where he was able to teach fishermen to grow lettuce and other vegetables to supply the resorts a second source of income. “Every Filipino should learn how to grow their own food. It’s universal,” says Carandang, who believes that sustainability is achieved through education and reconnecting with nature. He also sees it as an important step towards poverty alleviation and economic development. Through his intensive training programs where he aims to get farmers earning P30,000 for every thousand square meter, Carandang is making the tools for holistic farming more accessible in order to counter the image of organic as an expensive and difficult option.

HUMAN CONNECTION
Hindy Weber-Tantoco and Melanie Go of Holy Carabao Farms

Hindy Weber-Tantoco and Melanie Go of Holy Carabao Farms point to their intention to heal as the foundation of the farm and business. Both got into biodynamic farming as mothers carrying the intention to feed their children properly rather than seeking to maximize yields for profit. The pair gives credit to the mentors who guided and helped them over the years, including Nicanor Perlas, a pioneer of biodynamic farming in the Philippines.

Its application to the country was not straightforward, with the model encountering a lot of initial resistance to the foreign concept. However, Weber-Tantoco points out that it is more akin to how our ancestors farmed and approached the land. She also shares that Steiner explicitly warned against any dogmatism in his teachings, calling for flexibility. For example, certain mixtures in biodynamic agriculture use plants that may not be readily available in the Philippines, such as stinging nettle and valerian. It was imperative for the biodynamic farmers in the Philippines to adapt and cooperate.

An assortment of produce from Holy Carabao Farm such as beets, cherry tomatoes, carrots, potatoes, and cucumbers

After the initial hurdle, the success of the model speaks for itself. Weber-Tantoco and Go proudly share how many of the staff of their farm have been with them for years. Holy Carabao Farms also maintains its own delivery service despite prodding for them to get a third party to do it. “There is something special about having someone connected to the farm hand over fresh produce to customers,” explains Weber-Tantoco. Maintaining this close relationship with individual customers is a factor in the farm’s success. Similar to Carandang, the two women are also trying to bring organic food to the everyday Filipino. They continue to justify the price and why it is better while shaking off the reputation that it is only for the elite. “If we lower our prices, it would only be a temporary benefit to the consumer, and at the long-term expense to the farmer and the future quality of the produce,” says Go. Weber-Tantoco and Go also work with partner farms that adhere to the same holistic model. They commit to buying the harvests of small farmers who themselves set the price, a departure from the downward price pressure applied by some retailers.

The numerous patches in Holy Carabao Farms in Santa Rosa yield healthy carrots, beets, lettuce, tomatoes, and more. Instead of using insecticides, they stay true to the biodynamic philosophy and preserve 10 to 15 percent of their land as untouched forest, which acts as an insectarium to maintain the natural balance of organisms. The farm also features happy pigs, chickens, and cows. A Waldorf school, which also follows the teaching methods of Steiner, can be found next to the farm and the children enrolled here pay visits to learn where their food comes from.

THE END JUSTIFIES THE MEANS

One criticism of biodynamic agriculture is the accusation of being a pseudoscience, a type of horticultural feng shui incorporating esoteric beliefs and practices. Perhaps the most curious is the practice of stuffing a cow horn with manure and burying it underground in order to harness “cosmic energy.” However, there is scientific basis for the practice and the high regard for cows. Anatomically, cows have four stomachs teeming with symbiotic microbes that break down hard-to-digest cellulose from plant fibers. The cow horn provides minerals to the microbial fauna in the manure, which gives the resulting fertilizer added nourishment. Whether you choose to approach biodynamic farming through the scientific or esoteric paths, the results speak volumes.

If you think about it, biodynamic agriculture is not unusual or a departure from traditional farming methods. It is the industrial agriculture that developed in the 20th century that is the real aberration.

If you think about it, biodynamic agriculture is not unusual or a departure from traditional farming methods. It is the industrial agriculture that developed in the 20th century that is the real aberration.

Biodynamic farming is a way for us to reconnect with nature, to use ecology to our benefit, and to return to how farming once was. Rather than controlling nature with an assortment of chemicals and heartless industrial methods, we ought to be working with it.

The movement also recognizes that economic sustainability underpins environmental sustainability, hence the strong focus on technique and training in order to achieve greater results without compromising their values. Biodynamic agriculture makes organic farming more sustainable and efficient, allowing organic produce to be grown by smaller farmers that may not have the same access to capital. We consumers should reflect on our own intentions the next time we buy produce. Buying organic should no longer be seen as a status symbol or a fad, but as a way to support farmers and to preserve the environment.

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