Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Alex Podolinsky & Demeter Bio-dynamics

Modern Australia has produced two systems of organic agriculture that are now well-known the world over. 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 1920s. 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. Steiner's ideas to the realities of modern farming, in the first instance as they are encountered in the challenging environment of rain-starved poor-soiled broad-acre Australia. 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 1925 - 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 1930s 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.

He also realised that Australian conditions, far more than the conditions prevailing in Europe, required special emphasis upon the "cow horn preparation" - enumerated 'Preparation 500" - that Steiner had sketched in his lectures. 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. Steiner's sketch as gospel, went about making the preparations in a slap-dash way and supposed them to be either some form of pagan ritual or else a magic potion. Podolinsky understood them to be adjuncts to the inner processes of nature and approached them in that way. The Preparation 500 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. This, he realised, was exactly what was so lacking in Australia's mineralized, depleted soils, a land devoid of large ruminants for aeons. 

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 500, 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. This is at the centre of Steiner's agricultural vision, a vision that Alex Podolinsky made real: the farm as a living, breathing cornucopia drawing on the vital forces of the wider cosmos.


Corn horns. These are filled with cow manure, laid in pits (as shown) and buried over winter to make "Preparation 500". 

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. Even more, his disgressions from Steiner purism and claims to know better won him a wealth of detractors among Anthroposophists, members of Steiner's Anthroposophical Society. A certain Steinerite of the present author's acquaintance once described Mr. 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." 

Wisely, Podolinsky went his own way and refrained from engaging with his critics; instead he let his success speak for itself. 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. 

Some might say that Podolinsky's methods would work just as well without the "magic potions". If so, well and good. He has, however, conducted extensive research and has built up a considerable body of evidence to show that his "500" - 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. The "cow horn preparation' is said to assist in this important process. 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. Steiner's enterprises, bio-dynamic agriculture is based in the scientific tradition of Goethe and a practical application of Goethe's approach to the study of nature. 

The present author has heard Mr. Podolinsky lecture several times, the first occasion in the 1980s. 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. At one lecture this author attended a hairy hippie tried to make much of a coming documentary on the bestselling permaculture favorite 'One-Straw Revolution' by Fukuoka. Podolinsky was unimpressed and, putting the interjector in his place, dismissed Fukuoka as "unimportant" much to the shock and horror of many in the audience. The great Fukuoka unimportant?! The gentleman sitting next to the author muttered something like "What an arrogant bastard!" And so it may have seemed. But the interjection was a distraction and it was imperative, for Podolinsky, that no one confuse the serious farming of bio-dynamics with the "do nothing" Zen agriculture so beloved by the "do nothing" malcontents of the counter-culture. Arrogant? Forthright, at least. 

Even so, he was also charming, engaging, persuasive, intense, and since his physical stature is slight, almost fragile, unthreatening. He walks with a limp and a walking cane. During the war he fell asleep on guard duty one night and badly burnt his foot on a kerosene heater. This infirmity, matched with his zeal, almost reminds one of the maniacal Captain Ahab. Like Ahab, he wants 110% commitment from those prepared to follow him. This is what the present author found both fascinating and unsettling about Alex Podolinsky in his heyday. He was not merely trying to inform or even impress an audience: a man on a mission, he was looking for those who would nail their coin to the mast and join him on his quest.

This quest, moreover, entailed something far beyond just farming. The invitation to join him is an invitation to embrace an entire package. As his grandfather understood, agriculture cannot be separated from economy, and nor can economy be separated from questions about the value of human labour and the whole premise of human endeavour. Alex Podolinsky, that is to say, is more than a farmer: he is a philosopher. It just so happens that farming is at the centre of his philosophical outlook because he regards it, not unreasonably, as the foundation of human civilization. His lectures would often stray from agricultural matters into areas of art and aesthetics. To illustrate a point about the root growth of clover or rye he might deviate into a long disgression about a certain piece of music by Bach. Many of his lectures are informed by architectural and sculptural analogies. It is wonderful to relate that on several occasions he has taken cohorts of rough, rugged Australian farmers - beef farmers! - and insisted on giving them classes in clay modelling so that they might better grasp his teachings about form, shape and volume. It is also wonderful to relate that his teachings on social organisation mean that he is, as he says, "totally anti-bureaucratic" to the point that the Demeter corporation, though it handles millions of dollars of produce, does not even have an accountant. There is no "middle management", no "human resources department", no "committees", nor any of the usual parasites that clutter up modern organisations and make people's lives a misery. Not only is Demeter bio-dynamics an unorthodox mode of farming, the Demeter organisation is a profoundly unorthodox organisation, run according to Mr. Podolinsky's economic and social philosophy. Just as he regards bio-dynamics as the farming of the future, so he has built Demeter to be a model of how corporations should operate in a better and future world. 

All of this is an extremely ambitious undertaking in any one man's life, and yet Mr. Podolinsky's accomplishments are concrete and undeniable. He has written several books, or rather collected and published several volumes of transcripts of lectures and public talks, and he has been subject of a short documentary made by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. See here. But one does not need to believe anything he has written or said. Instead, one need only visit one of the hundreds of farms and gardens that operate according to his methods and with his personal oversight to see the tangible applications of his philosophy. This is where Demeter bio-dynamics is so dramatically distinct to permaculture and this is why the present author is inclined to praise one and decry the other. The latter functions more like a pyramid scheme of expensive courses selling certificates to people who in turn set up expensive courses selling certificates, and yet very rarely does all of this certification translate into real results. Permaculturalists think of themselves as somehow alternative, but in fact the entire permaculture show is very conventional in its epistemology (which is crudely quantitative), its view of human labour (as quantitative "units"), its view of nature (utilitarian and materialistic) and its mode of promotion which is really just an extension of a landscape and planning course from a two-bit university in Tasmania. Alex Podolinsky has never charged anyone a cent for his advice. He lives by farming. The contrast between the trajectory and results of permaculture and those of Demeter bio-dynamics over the past three decades cannot be more stark. The sad fact is, though, that the pioneers of permculture win popular acclaim and are hailed as among Australia's gift to the world while an eccentric genius like Alex Podolinsky will most likely die an unsung hero even though he has made the preparations and planted the seeds for the renovation of a viable agriculture, post-industrial, worldwide and is, by any measure, one of the outstanding figures of our time. 


Harper McAlpine Black


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