Editor’s Note: “Burning Questions” is a new Our Site blog that takes an in-depth look at the hot-button issues facing today’s farmers. As beginning farmers start to work the land again—often being the first in generations to do so—new ideas about agriculture and sustainable farming are emerging. This blog is meant to give a voice to those new and diverse concepts. The ideas expressed here are not the opinions of Hobby Farms, but of individual farmers and food advocates rooted in the local-food movement. You may agree with what is spoken here, or you may not—that’s OK. We want this blog to be the birthplace of discussion. If you have thoughts or opinions about what is expressed here, please contribute them in the comments below. We want to hear from you, too! Remember, no matter your beliefs and ideas about tending to the land, we’re all in this together to grow food.
I think it’s safe to say the USDA Certified Organic label doesn’t quite hold the same cachet it once did. It used to represent quality and health, but now it’s hard to say what it represents. Although there are decidedly well-meaning farmers who are Certified Organic, there are also a lot of big companies trying to get in on the attractive price tag the label brings. These big players have stretched the practice to its absolute limits through overprocessing and a dizzying array of “bio-pesticides.” So unfortunately, organic has started to represent that instead.
But unlike the label, the customer who wants organic food has not really changed beyond perhaps becoming slightly more label-wary. They still want healthy food that’s free of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and they still want to support small-scale farmers. So is there a label out there for that customer? One they can rely on? What about biodynamic?
The answer is … well, complicated.
For the uninitiated, biodynamic agriculture is a style of organic farming that not only takes into account what the plants need to grow, but the effects of the moon and stars on plant growth. In the early 1920s—notably, a couple decades before the modern organic movement—Rudolf Steiner gave a series of lectures that originally outlined biodynamic agriculture. In Steiner’s design, the farm was to be viewed as a living organism and treated as such, suggesting different types of minerals and fermented composts to encourage health and productivity. (This works similarly, perhaps, to the way we might use yogurt or kimchi to improve our bodies’ gut flora.)
Some people take this practice to Steiner’s near-spiritual level, while others see the positive effects of biodynamic agriculture in their vineyards or farms and employ it for that reason. Either way, to be certified, the farmer must follow all of these principles, ensuring that the consumer can trust that the biodynamic label means the product they are buying is indeed organic and then some. (In fact, because biodynamic certification through Demeter USA follows the National Organic Program guidelines for organic certification, practitioners can register under a sister label called Stellar Certification for no extra cost and legally call themselves “organic.”)
So does that make the biodynamic label trustworthy enough that consumers can look to it with confidence?
In my opinion, sure. For the most part, consumers can trust the biodynamic label: It is, by its very nature, an organic practice, and it promotes healthy soil and sustainability. But keep in mind that, like the organic label, there are still massive farms, vineyards and ranches who carry the biodynamic certification. ”Biodynamic” doesn’t mean it it didn’t cross the country or an ocean; it doesn’t mean it’s not still processed in some fashion; and it doesn’t mean that a small-scale farmer had anything to do with it.
Labels are definitely useful when we’re somewhere we normally don’t shop, and in that case, few are more trustworthy and up-and-coming than “Certified Biodynamic.” But labels will always just be labels: inherently vague. Biodynamic, organic, or otherwise, the reality remains that the best way to know if you can trust a product is by talking directly to the farmer who produced it. Farmers will always be the best food labels. And if that farmer is biodynamic, all the better.
We asked you on social media if you thought biodynamic was the new organic. This is what you said:
Kerry Kafafian: It is organic plus. It’s more than the absence of chemicals it’s also looking for ways to increased he life forces in food. I think it tastes better and has more nutrients.
Michelle Follett: Sounds to me like organic as it’s meant to be. New name to very old methods?
Emily Shifflken: Warning: It gets pretty hokey at times. The actual farming part is really fascinating, and I love how it stresses using microbes, as well as organic practices, but you will not find me burying a horn of herbs and manure in a field on the solstice like their protocols call for.
Join the conversation below!
About the Author: Jesse Frost is a Kentucky farmer, blogger and author. He and his wife run a small, off-the-grid farm in southern Kentucky called Rough Draft Farmstead, where they raise vegetables and livestock naturally.