Biodynamic Farming Methods Lead to Bigger Harvests

Learn how the French/biodynamic method of intensive farming leads to bigger yields with less need for water, chemicals and energy.
By the MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors
May/June 1976
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Some harvests actually doubled from year to year with the biodynamic farming method.
MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
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The world's population is off and running and crying, "Feed me if you can!"   

"OK. But give us more ," answer the spokesmen of agribiz. "More money and more machinery and more fossil fuels and more chemicals." "Wait a minute," interject a few thoughtful souls. "There isn't any more. Not for long, anyway. We're going to have to do the job with less."   

And that's just what John Jeavons and the folks at Palo Alto's Ecology Action of the Midpeninsula in California are doing.   

Who We Are

Ecology Action of the Midpeninsula is a non-profit, tax-exempt, California-based organization that was formed in the early 70's to promote and carry on environmental research and education. In 1972, we began experimenting with biodynamic/French intensive food production techniques on a 3-3/4-acre community garden called "Common Ground".

Our findings thus far indicate that the method may soon make it possible to grow an entirely balanced human diet on 1/4 to 1/20 of the area presently required by conventional means . . . and that such yields can be accomplished using as little as 1/2 to 1/16 the nitrogen fertilizer, 1/2 to 1/16 the water, and 1/100 the energy expended today by mechanized agriculture.

Considering the current state of the world (overpopulation, widespread malnutrition, diminishing availability of land, dwindling fossil fuel supplies, and all the rest) we feel that such findings are vitally important. We also suspect that many of MOTHER's readers will be interested in sharing our discoveries. Who knows? Maybe some of you will even want to start similar experiments of your own!

The Basics of Biodynamic Farming

The biodynamic/French intensive method is really a synthesis of a number of techniques developed by European schools of agriculture during the past century. It was all brought together into one system by Alan Chadwick, an inspired English horticulturist who now lives in Covelo, California. Mastery of the concept requires a good bit of acquired skill and knowledge, but—generally speaking—here is what's involved:

[1] DOUBLE-DUG, RAISED BEDS. Plots three to five feet wide and of varying length are laid out, and a temporary wooden form (see photos) is staked around each one's perimeter. The soil is thoroughly dug up to a depth of one foot, and then loosened an additional 12 inches manually with a shovel. This preparation enables plant roots to penetrate easily and deeply, and promotes a steady flow of nutrients to their stems and leaves. Such beds retain moisture well, erode hardly at all, and are very easy to weed (there's no need for two-handed, heave-ho pulling here!).

[2] INTENSIVE PLANTING. Seeds or seedlings are placed so that each is the same distance from those nearest to it, and close enough so that—when the plants mature—their leaves will just barely touch those of their neighbors and form a kind of continuous green "roof". (Two-inch spacing is about right for most vegetables.)

Some folks simply broadcast seed and then thin the resulting shoots to the desired distance. When we plant, however, we lay a guide—made by stretching 2" hexagonal-pattern chicken wire over a frame—across the bed, and center a seed through each opening in the grid as shown in one of the accompanying photos. The technique creates a shaded environment under the leaves (some call it a "living mulch") that helps retain moisture, protects the soil's valuable microscopic life, retards weed growth, and—therefore—helps to produce higher yields.

[3] COMPANION PLANTING. Many kinds of vegetables and fruits grow better when near other varieties (green beans and strawberries, for instance, make a particularly compatible—and productive—pair). Some plants repel harmful insects, while others attract beneficial ones. (Borage does both: It wards off tomato worms, and produces blue flowers that attract pollinating bees.)

In addition, many species (including weeds) grow exceptionally long roots that loosen the subsoil and bring up previously unavailable trace minerals and nutrients. So, the biodynamic/French intensive gardener or farmer plans carefully, places mutually beneficial species together, and—in so doing—encourages high-quality crops and helps create (and maintain) healthy, vibrant soil.

[4] COMPOST. All organic gardens, of course, thrive when treated to lavish amounts of well-decayed manure or vegetable matter . . . but beds that have been planted intensively require even more of the material to feed their more heavily concentrated crops. Compost improves soil texture, creates better aeration and water retention, and supports the microorganisms that fix atmospheric nitrogen and produce disease-preventing antibiotics in the soil. Conventional farming tends to destroy such life forms.

It's important to note that the above "components" of the biodynamic/French intensive method constitute a whole system. The well-prepared soil, the closely spaced plantings, the companion planting, and the liberal use of compost intermesh to create a complex living environment for growing fruits and vegetables . . . but no single one (or just two, or three) of those techniques can effectively stand alone. (Farmers in Europe who experimented by using only the intensive spacing factor in combination with conventional agricultural practices have learned that lesson well: They soon found themselves beset with deteriorating soil, nitrate toxicity, poor-quality produce, diminishing populations of beneficial insects, and lowered plant resistance to disease and pests!)

Enormous Yields Possible

According to our experience, a simple 24-inch-deep soil preparation allows four times as many plants as usual to be sown in a given space, because the roots have sufficient room to develop downward. That factor alone, combined with the growth-promoting effects of compost treatments and companion planting, allows anyone adhering to the techniques to quadruple his or her vegetable production! Such harvests can be (and have been) obtained even in the first year of planting.

Furthermore, research performed at the University of California at Berkeley indicates that the overall root health level of produce grown in agricultural soil has declined : . . and that even a 2% to 4% increase in such health could result in a two-to four-fold increase in field crop harvests. The method we've been experimenting with makes such an improvement possible by texturizing, aerating, fertilizing, and watering the soil as a matter of standard practice.

So . . . if you combine the arithmetic spacing and root health factors, it's easy to see that biodynamic/French intensive techniques can, ideally, produce sixteen times more food than is produced by currently accepted farming and gardening methods here in the United States. Other factors, of course—such as climate, soil condition, and type of vegetable, grain or fruit, and the degree of skill of the farmer or gardener—can (and do) reduce that optimal figure.

Our Yields So Far

When we began experimenting with b/F intensive techniques in 1972, our soil was in relatively poor condition (would you believe a pH of 8.0? ) . . . and our own skills, of course, required considerable enrichment also. Since that time, however, both factors have been improved and our annual harvests—measured under reasonably controlled test conditions—have shown a corresponding increase. They have, in fact, varied between two and sixteen times the national, California, or Santa Clara County averages.

The table in the Image Gallery will give you some idea of how we fared as compared to the U.S. averages for each year and crop cited:

As you can see, some harvests have actually doubled from year to year as the soil in our test area has improved . . . which indicates still another major advantage of the b/F intensive method: Yields are apparently sustainable in an environmentally balanced way.

Mechanized agriculture relies on chemical fertilizers which—because they gradually deplete the earth's capacity to produce—must be applied in increasingly large doses in order to keep annual harvests from declining. Biodynamic/French intensive techniques, on the other hand, build the soil and thus encourage better and better yearly production.

To date, 62 different crops—including rice, wheat, and fruits—have been test-grown at "Common Ground" with varying degrees of thoroughness and success judging from our experience and that of others, it appears that the biodynamic/ French intensive method will produce four to six times the U.S. national per-acre average of protein source beans, grains, and rice, 8 times the average soft fruit and vegetable yield, and 4 to 8 times as much seed.

As staggering as those statistics may seem, they're absolutely mind-blowing when compared to world averages, which are much lower than those of the U.S. In fact, the worldwide figure in the bean, grain, and rice category is 203 times less than the yield which can be expected with b/F techniques!

Minimal Resource Use

Obviously, high crop yields alone do not a viable agricultural system make . . . not—that is—in today's world, where virtually every natural resource is at a premium. So it's especially significant that biodynamic/French intensive farming uses water, land, fertilizer, and energy in a very miserly way.

For instance, our experiments in vegetable production required only 1 /2 to 1 /8 as much water per pound of food produced as that consumed by commercial agribiz . . . and we were working with relatively out-of-shape soil! The Community Environmental Council in Santa Barbara, which is conducting similar tests on better ground, boasts a water-use record of 1/10 the "normal" amount required. And once again, the major "components" of the technique, intermeshed as a whole system, are together responsible for the figures.

Research has shown that soil containing 2% active organic matter (such as the compost used in our beds) needs only 1/4 the rainfall or irrigation required by poor land . . . that shaded areas (such as those formed by intensive planting) decrease moisture evaporation by 13%—16% . . . and that earth which contains large quantities of nutrients (encouraged, in our case, by adding decayed vegetable matter to deeply dug beds) can reduce transpiration of water through leaves and stems by as much as 10% to 75%.

Put all those factors together and it's easy to see why biodynamic/French intensive techniques may someday help countries grow at least four times as much food as they do currently, under natural rainfall conditions . . . with no expensive irrigation required in most cases at all! Even arid lands such as the African Sahel could conceivably become productive!

Fertilizer, of course, is used in vast quantities these days, and—worse yet—requires great amounts of energy (and materials) to manufacture, distribute, and apply to the land. The primary fuel used to make such substances is natural gas . . . of which the U.S. has only a nine-year reserve. And it's estimated that—by the year 2000—20% of all the energy consumed in the world will be needed just to produce nitrogen fertilizer!

Obviously, any reduction of the use of such materials would be significant . . . and, in our experiments with raising vegetables, we found that we needed only 1/2 to 1/16 as much added nitrogen per pound of food as do commercial farmers. And because the b/F intensive method is manual rather than mechanized, a further reduction in energy consumption is apparent. Such savings should be particularly important in countries which cannot afford today's high fuel and fertilizer costs.

A New Kind of Farming

Consider the implications of what we've observed so far: The biodynamic/French intensive method can produce very high yields on little land almost anywhere in the world, using few resources and only simple low-capital-investment manual tools. Together, those factors have fostered a new concept that may well change the face of agriculture on Planet Earth: super-productive mini-farming!

Current estimates based on test results indicate that widespread use of b/F intensive techniques could conceivably allow 3%—6% of a population to grow all of a country's food. A family of four, working a total of 56 hours per week (that's two hours a day for each individual) on a little less than two acres, should be able to raise—within a six-month growing season—enough food (grains, vegetables, fruits, and fodder for dairy animals) to supply a complete 2,379-calories-per-day annual diet for 32 people!

Wholesale market value (50% of retail) of such a harvest, based on current U.S. food prices, would be around $9,600 . . . and, if inexpensive mini-greenhouses were used to extend the growing season year round, that output (and the resulting cash income) could be doubled!

On a smaller scale, a family of the same size working toward food self-sufficiency alone could use b/F intensive techniques to raise their entire annual food needs on just 10,000 square feet of soil—less than a quarter of an acre—by working just one or two hours a day during a six-month season!

Such stunning efficiencies, of course, cannot be accomplished overnight. Most soils require considerable improvement (a gradual process that can take up to five years), and would be mini-farmers must give themselves enough time to develop both an intimate understanding of the concepts involved and a familiarity with the skills required to produce successful harvests.

Nevertheless, the potential value of biodynamic/French intensive agriculture—for individuals, homesteading families, communities, and (perhaps most important) Third World countries now struggling desperately to feed their citizens—clearly overrides the relatively insignificant investment of time and effort that's initially required.

A FInal Note

Ecology Action of the Midpeninsula is now eagerly entering its fifth year of exploration into the wonders of biodynamic/ French intensive agriculture. We hope that many of you, too, will recognize the importance and possible worldwide impact of the system, and begin similar experiments of your own. With a little patience and work, you'll soon see for yourself what the method can produce: high yields for you and your family . . . and even higher hopes for Planet Earth and its people!


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