This is article represents the personal opinion of the author based on personal experiences. It in no way presents itself as a "technical article". All persons quoted in this article have agreed to being quoted and agree with the inferences made by this article. While the examples quoted here are BioGro properties, the management practices are similar enough to Demeter properties, that the premise and underlying message of this article is relevant to most present and potential Biodynamic members.
For many years there have been stories in the agricultural industry about the inevitable losses a grower must sustain when they changeover to Organic/Biodynamic production. This problem has become the main excuse why many growers can not take the risk of changing over. This story has been perpetrated as much by the organic industry itself as others. Many research projects support this premise. Our own Bio-Dynamic Association advisers have made this a part of their presentations to new growers for years. Indeed articles outlining the inevitability of these losses published in "Harvests" have been the catalyst for this article to be written. ( eg. the Kiwifruit article of the winter 1996 Harvests. )
One British research project ( seen on a TV program several years ago ) and commercial examples in New Zealand have shown me this belief may indeed be an unnecessary myth for most agricultural and horticultural situations. Production on some Organic/Biodynamic changeover farms is not only NOT decreasing, they have increased as much as a 30% in the second year.
The general experience of Watties organic growers, according to Mark Levick, the Bio Gro chief inspector, is that only the farms who where producing at the top of their limit due to high levels of artificial fertiliser imputs experience substantial drops in production during changeover. His experience and the expectations of the Watties Bio Gro growers is that a 10% reduction is experienced in the first year before returning to normal production levels. The premiums for the produce which regularly exceed 15% above the market price balance this out in most cases. This leads to large advantages from year two onwards.
Even these losses are being shown to be unnecessary. The July 1996 issue of the NZ Kiwifruit Journal carried a report of Cherryle Melton and Dave Glasgow's property Kilkerran in Te Puke, which boasts a changeover increase in production from 22,000 trays to 32,000 trays in their third year of organic production. Increases in production started showing up from their first organic season. For their 4.2 canopy hectare property this represents a 7000 + trays / hectare production level of 35 count fruit size. In the editors words " tray numbers well above both organic and conventional fruit." Given there is at least a $1.80 premium per tray on the Kilkerran fruit, and that the conventional growers are struggling to survive, who made the right decision three years ago? This has been achieved by growers who until five years ago were 'townies' from Auckland. ( Productions details include 10 tonne \ ha. of Attwoods BioGro compost for the first two years, 5t\ha for the following years. Approximately 6 sprays of Garuda Biodynamic preparations, Etherics 500 and 501 Compound pa., Fish and Seaweed applications along with recommended sprays of BT and oil according to monitoring results. )
[Regarding the use and effectiveness of potentised Biodynamic preparations (Garuda products ) refer to "Agriculture of Tomorrow" by E & L Kolisko, and "Laws of Life in Agriculture" by N Remer.]
This example has been repeated to varying degrees by several other Bay of Plenty Kiwifruit growers. The soils consultant for these properties, John Perham reports that none of the dozen or so Bay of Plenty changeover orchards which recently received the BioGro trademark, suffered any production loss through changeover. On the strength of the Kilkerran success and that of these other Bay of Plenty kiwifruit growers, there is now around 200 ha. more Kiwifruit being converted to organic production this season.
A recent experience with a Dairy farm client in the Bay of Plenty, managed by Grant Paton, has shown similar increases. While this property was not 'strictly' organic ( Production details: 40kg\ha of Urea was used instead of fish fert. and 60kg\ha of Muriate of Potash was applied in 2 lots, in addition to an application of Burnt Lime, a composted RPR product and 2 Garuda biodynamic sprays. Animals were drenched with organic nutrients and feed 1 kg of 'hard' supplement each milking ), the overall results are impressive and act as an indication of what is possible from purely addressing the nutritional needs of both the soil and stock. In this first year of changeover this properties production has lifted from 17,000 kgs of milk fat to 22,000kgs from this 43 ha. property. This milk fat came from 38,000 kgs of milk solids. In dollar terms this translates to a minimum of $150,000 increase in land value and $30,000 more in milk checks. Further savings of up to $10,000 pa. are calculated from savings on replacements. The animal health, pasture development and conception rate of this property have been amongst the best in the district. The vet bill was negligible as was the use of any homeopathic remedies. ( Conception rate - of 1 empty out of 125 with no Ceders. The Zone average was 10% -12% ). This example has been repeated this season on several other East Coast properties.
So what stands these properties above the rest?
Essentially I believe it is proper soil management. The common factors in all the examples cited have been comprehensive soil testing of macro and micro nutrients. The organic matter, biological activity and soil development have been monitored and encouraged using compost and acceptable minerals along with the inclusion of Garuda Biodynamic Sprays. The resulting management programs aim to balance the nutrient levels and ratios of the soil, rather than push a few specific elements. Micro-organism production has been a special focus of consideration. Successful organic farmers become micro-organism farmers as much as produce farmers.
We hear and read much about the need for developing a good humus percentage and soil structure. Here I wish to emphasis the importance the above consultants place on creating a balance of soil nutrients as well. This initially can only be achieved through adequate and reliable soil testing. A 'good soil' is not only one with good 'structure' and active Biosphere. Its nutrients need to be in balance for the plant to grow completely stress free. Left to itself an 'Organic\Biodynamic' soil will move towards a nutrient balance however as experience shows, it will take five years or so. Regardless of being organic, soil has a natural tendency towards becoming acidic and to using specific nutrients. These nutrients need to be monitored and maintained. Soil testing provides the doorway to begin this process. I realise within our Association there are members who do not agree with my "belief" in the value of soil testing or that changeover losses are unnecessary. So let the commercial examples speak for themselves.
In contrast to the above examples we have found some soil tests from registered farms are showing many of the nutrients to be completely out of balance.
In this regard I wish to call into question the practice I personally heard being promoted at a Paeroa Biodynamic field day. That the annual application of 500kg of Lime and 500kg of Rock Phosphate \ ha. along with a fish fertiliser regime, acts as the basis of the fertiliser program for dairy farms. I do not remember soil testing being suggested in any discussion.
Our experience is showing some soils are becoming 'filled up' with these two elements, which in turn leads to imbalances in their relationships to Potash, Copper, Zinc, Boron, Magnesium and Manganese. Not only are these elements unbalanced and in some cases suppressed, we are then faced with the problem of reducing the Calcium and Phosphate, through leaching so these other elements can become active.
In my opinion a common mistake when using a soil test is to assume because an element is low in the test, then it should just be added to make up the deficiency. Research by John Perhman of Eco Soils in the Bay of Plenty has shown examples where Potassium has been routinely applied to the soil, with the test levels reducing every year. Once Potassium imputs were stopped the Potassium levels in the test shot up. Similar examples for Phosphorus and Manganese can also be provided. It is through gaining an appreciation of past fertiliser applications and the reaction between the elements, that only what is needed to create a balance can be provided. Often if one element is applied another may need to be increased also just to maintain their creative balance.
Similarly compost can create its own drama. Very few composts have a balance of elements. Often when compost is applied there are other nutrients needing to be applied to maintain balance in the soil. Again only through testing the compost can you know what is in it, and therefore what adjustments need to be made to it to make it 'safe' for your soil.
Creating a balanced soil nutrition before conversion is often essential to longer term sustainability. Maintaining it goes without saying. Often it is to a growers advantage to address large deficiencies of nutrients with an application of an 'unacceptable' form of an element before conversion. This helps bridge the gap until the acceptable yet slower solutions are in place and active.
Once your nutrient balance is achieved all other efforts for humus development, environmental harmony and sustainability will work more effectively. Ultimately all problems on a farm are problems with nutrition. Surviving using even homeopathic remedies is a symptom that imbalance still exists. So start with your soil.
The Biodynamic preparations go some way towards bringing balance into converting soils, however as production results show they do not completely cover up bad soil and nutrient management. If a soil is unbalanced, either minerally or within the Biosphere, then the Biodynamic preparations act as balancing influences, which are continually being pulled at by the 'bad soil'. In short their effects are continually being challenged. It is like driving a car with unbalanced front wheels. You will be lucky to get over 100kph. Balance them and you can effortlessly speed along at 140kph. Correctly balance your soils nutrition, followed by the Biosphere and the majority of your pest and disease problems will disappear, while your production will increase.
Another drawback from just adding BD preps - often all that separates an organic and Biodynamic farmer - is they appear to speed up the activation of previously locked up elements. This is O.K. initially however it can lull one into a false sense of security. Down the track these elements run out again and your trademark becomes threatened when trace elements in particular are needed in larger quantities. It is better to achieve a relative balance first and then maintain it working slowly with composted elements.
All the nutrients you need are obtainable in most districts, in organically acceptable forms and can be applied using existing spreaders. Where restricted substances need to be applied, these can be incorporated into a composting program , thus bringing them, and the compost to the soil in a stabilised form.
As a practising Astrologer of some twenty years, I have an acute appreciation of the influence of the Planets and Stars on Earthly life. This awareness has led me to see how we live within a multi layered existence. To date I have identified twelve basic layers which we as Biodynamic practioners can consciously worked with. ( See this diagram. ) The mineral soil is at the bottom of it all and the starting place upon which life begins. From here we can work with soil biology in the Biosphere, then the environment through our efforts with landscape, and onto weather prediction and finally planting by the moon. All the levels are important. The more levels one can balance and harmonise the greater the 'magic' that can be produced.
Soil science is a complex subject and as in all things, using experienced consultants till you are up to speed yourself is essential. Consultants often bring in different perspectives you may overlook in your production methods.
Our experience with the Kiwifruit and Dairy industries are showing that when conversion can be shown to be easy and without production losses, many growers will take the plunge and succeed. The Dairy industry is presently on this same vital edge of conversion the Kiwifruit industry was three years ago, given markets can be provided for their produce. Before this can be achieved though we as an Organic \ Biodynamic industry must develop beyond the 'conversion blues' mentality of organic production.