Crucible       

Communications

 

Cuppa Karma:

Biodynamics and the science of estate rejuvenation

By Aparna Datta

 

 

In the quiet morning, the lowing of cattle harmonizes with the chirping of birds and the buzz of bees to herald a new dawn.  The ‘moo’ is essential: it signals that God’s in his heaven, and all’s right with the world.  On a few coffee estates in the Western Ghats, and some tea estates in the Eastern Himalayas of India, the cow has become a pivotal element in estate operations, and symbolizes a whole new ethos in organic farming.

 

Biodynamic Agriculture has been making waves over the past decade in India, with the system slowly, but surely, winning converts as an ethical alternative to conventional farming methods.  Its charm lies in the way it resonates with traditional Indian agricultural systems, and yet has strong scientific foundations, with proven results, widely acknowledged by a devoted band of practitioners all over the world.

 

The origins of Biodynamic Agriculture date back to a series of lectures delivered in 1924, by Austrian scientist and philosopher Dr. Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), on the initiative of German farmers.  In the early years of the 20th century, Europe was already witnessing degeneration in grain and other crops, and farmers sought to deal with the difficult issues of the production-oriented approach to agriculture that required constant and ever increasing chemical inputs to sustain output.

 

The series of eight lectures, known as “The Agriculture Course”, became the basis of a holistic approach that is now recognized as a variant of organic farming, yet, in evolutionary terms, light years ahead.  Key to the method is the fusion of the concepts in Anthroposophy – Steiner’s spiritual doctrine that focuses on the nature of mankind and human development – with agricultural practice, elevating farming from the material level, and giving it a mystical dimension.

 

Steiner had acknowledged his influences from the Vedas, had studied Indian scriptures, and had written a treatise on the Bhagvad Gita.  Indeed, many of the essential principles of Biodynamic Agriculture mesh seamlessly with Vedic agricultural practices:  Indian farmers respond instinctively to the concept of the ‘Planting Calendar”, following the almanac, and knowledge of planetary and cosmic rhythms and their influence on plants is used to plan agricultural activities.  And of course, there’s the cow, integral to the farm and revered as such.

 

“Biodynamic agriculture is based on the knowledge that the soil, plants, animals and man work together in one agricultural cycle.  In practice, the method is not only to farm organically, but also to include the use of the preparations he described, and to take into account cosmic influences.  One of Steiner’s basic ideas is that the farm can be viewed as an organism in its own right.  In practical terms, this means that all the parts of the enterprise and the activities on it such as plant production and animal husbandry are interconnected,” says Peter Schaumberger, Executive Director of Demeter-Germany.  An ideal biodynamic farm is a self-sufficient unit, a closed ecosystem that produces its own compost, seeds and livestock.  It operates within the larger context of thelocal community and the rhythms and relationship of nature and the cosmos.

 

When Sanjay Bansal’s family took over the 966-hectare Ambootia Tea Estate in Darjeeling, India in the 1980’s, the soil was found to be exhausted, and yields were alarmingly low.  In 1994, Ambootia became the pioneer in biodynamic agriculture in India, with the assistance of Tadeu Caldas, a biodynamic consultant from the U.K., the estate was revitalized.

 

Today, Ambootia, with a history of tea cultivation since 1861, is a signature label found in many exclusive stores all over the world, and has become a case study in organic farming circles.  A Greenpeace publication titled The Real Green Revolution – Organic and Agroecological farming in the South, by Nicholas Parrot and Terry Marsden of Cardiff University, features Ambootia – a testimony to the achievements.  Marketed with panache, Ambootia teas are sipped by celebrities in the world of cinema, arts and entertainment, and by royalty!  Much of the penetration in the highly competitive markets of the US, Europe and Japan may be attributed to the organic/biodynamic certificates that provide assurance to buyers, besides registration with the Fair Trade Labelling Organization (FLO) in various countries.

 

Steiner called the soil an organ of the agricultural body.  Maintaining soil fertility and vitality requires compost, made from farmyard manure and plant material, as fertilizer.  The ideal approach is to produce the compost on site, which is why the estate at Seethargundu in the Nelliyampathy area of Kerala state, now with the family of Thomas Jacob and a unit of the Poabs Group, chose to go in for fully integrated systems to support biodynamic agriculture.

 

The 500-hectare Poabs estate grows tea and coffee, with inter-crops of pepper and cardamom.  Poabs took to biodynamic agriculture from the year 2000; now into the third year, the estate is a veritable experimental station and demonstration farm for biodynamic processes.  Intrinsic to the system is the infrastructure for the arcane “preparations”, which in the lexicon of biodynamic agriculture are coded BD 500 through BD 507, comprising cow manure and herbal formulations.

 

Poabs maintains 350 cows on the estate that supply the essential ingredient for what is known as cow horn manure.  In this fascinating procedure, the dung of a lactating cow is stuffed into the hollow of cow horns, which are then buried in a pit in early autumn, and then taken out in the spring.  In September of 2002, the Poabs estate conducted an operation that saw the burial of 5,000 horns, which were removed in March 2003, by which time the contents had matured into manure rich in humus, resembling forest soil in the high ranges.  The Poabs estate also maintains a nursery to grow the various herbs such as yarrow, chamomile, stinging nettle, dandelion and valerian, which are used in homeopathic doses as soil conditioners.

 

The end result is that in a span of three years, the estate is thriving.  First opened in 1889, the estate when through several ups and downs over the years and before the Jacob family took over in 1989, it had even been lying abandoned for a period of 16 years.  “We now consider Poabs as a model project,” says Dr. A. Thimmaiah, of New Delhi-based Natura Agrotechnologies, the biodynamic consultants who have supervised the processes.  Adds Thomas Jacob, “We have seen a significant drop in the incidence of pest and disease attacks ever since we converted our farm to biodynamic processes.”

 

At Nandanvan Estate, situated in the Palani Hills near Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu state, small is beautiful.  Here the farm concept is that of a boutique – in an area of 28 acres, coffee is planted at an elevation of 4,500 feet along a steep hillside, picked, processed, roasted, ground and packed – entirely on-farm.  A unit of Mumbai-based Marson Holdings, Nandanvan Estate practices biodynamic agriculture under the personal supervision of resident manager David Hogg, a walking-talking biodynamic expert.  Contrary to the apprehensions of a drop in yields when switching over to organic farming, Hogg claims instead a significant increase in yields since 1997 when the farm went organic.  Biodynamic activities such as the preparation of BD 500 and CPP manure are done on-farm; these complement other estate routines such as coffee processing, utilizing innovative racks for coffee drying, and serious attention is give to cup quality.  Limited Edition Nandanvan organic coffees have no trouble finding buyers – be they in Norway or Chennai, where up-scale coffee bars serve this high-grown Arabica coffee, or at Foodworld stores in southern India that retail the consumer packs.

 

The adherence to standards and the approach to certification, treated as a badge of honour, is a key aspect of these biodynamic farms.  The estates conform to Demeter standards, though certification is also obtained from other organic certifiers such as IMO and Skal.  The Demeter trademark was introduced for biodynamic products in 1927 and is the oldest organic certification label.  Currently in India there are about seven tea estates and five coffee estates that adhere to the prescribed on-farm processes and are ‘certified biodynamic’, although some of the biodynamic preparations are used in varying degrees on organic farms across India.

 

Since all biodynamic farms may not be able to develop the preparations on-site, a commercial source for BD preps is Kurinji Organic Foods Pvt. Ltd., also located in the hills near Kodaikanal, who market formulations under the ‘Purple Hills” mark.  Spread over 600 hectares, Kurinji maintains fruit orchards and herbal gardens alongside the facilities for the range of biodynamic preparations, ensuring a steady supply to organic farms in India and abroad.

 

“The call now all over the world is for organic agriculture because people are increasingly aware of the impact of chemicals on the soil, water and air, and of course, our food.  The role of biodynamic preparations is to act as catalysts to improve the soil.  In a nutshell, the biodynamic management system actually makes organic farming work.  In India these processes work very well because of the warmth of India soils, with results and improvement in soil structure and plant growth seen in four to five months, as compared to temperate zones where the change takes somewhat longer due to the climate,” says Peter Proctor, an internationally know biodynamic expert from New Zealand, who has worked on several projects across India over the past ten years.

 

Significantly, biodynamic agriculture has marked a fresh trajectory at every estate where these techniques have been adopted, much like a reincarnation.  The effects are visible in the richer soil and vegetation, increased bird-life and the better health of farm-workers: arguably, biodynamic estates epitomize sustainable agriculture in the most pristine form.

 

Biodynamic agriculture is yielding some of the most distinctive single origin specialty coffees and teas from India – a unique cup, a unique story.  Perhaps it’s the good karma of these heritage estates, or perhaps, appropriately, it’s Dr. Rudolf Steiner’s biodynamic mantra coming home.

 

 

Aparna Datta is a consultant and writer based in Bangalore, India.

E-mail: aparnad@vsnl.com