By John Bloom
Biodynamic farming, a “beyond organic” approach to agriculture long respected in Europe, may finally be poised for a breakthrough in the U.S. It has growing cachet in the wine industry, where biodynamic wines earn both high scores and high price points. Prince Charles speaks of its ecological, spiritual, and cultural importance. And the unimpeachably mainstream Today show recently aired a segment by Maria Shriver touting biodynamic produce’s flavor and benefits to health and soil quality.
With its emphasis on approaching the farm as an integrated living organism and the farmer as a deeply knowledgeable orchestrator, biodynamics is a natural path to regenerative agriculture—a real corrective to the negative effects of our dominant food system. Realizing the potential of biodynamics, however, will require an investment strategy that is also regenerative.
The industrialized agriculture system we have today—including industrialized organic agriculture—grew out of a particular capital approach: extractive, impatient, and designed to maximize profit rather than value for the community. We’re not going to create a different kind of agriculture with the same kind of capital.
Now, while the biodynamic market is where the organic movement was about 20 years ago, is the perfect time to look at how we can build a biodynamic farming movement with long-term integrity in mind. The central question is, can we grow the biodynamics market with capital that is consistent with the farming philosophy?
Building a balanced farm ecosystem
Similar to organic farming, biodynamic agriculture eschews synthetic pesticides and herbicides, GMOs, and hormones and other pharmaceutical growth promoters for livestock. But biodynamic farming goes well beyond that. It stands out for its system-level approach. Farmers strive to create a diversified, balanced farm ecosystem that generates health and fertility from within the farm as much as possible. Accordingly, the biodynamic certifier, Demeter, certifies whole farms rather than individual crops, ingredients, or parcels of land.
Biodynamic farmers build rich soil using integrated livestock, cover crops, farm-generated compost, and crop rotation. Biologically diverse habitat controls pests and disease. At least half of livestock feed must be grown on the farm. (Many organic farmers also follow these practices, but the USDA’s organic certification does not require them to.) Biodynamics also recognizes farmers and farm workers as vital actors whose health is essential to the health of the system, rather than seeing them as simply managers or processors. Biodynamics is more than a method—it’s a coherent philosophy.
Moving toward regenerative agriculture
The biodynamics philosophy speaks to a number of rising concerns. Industrial agricultural has seriously depleted our soils, reducing both the vitality of their produce and their ability to store carbon—just when we need that ability most. Recent research shows organic farms have significantly better potential to store carbon because they have ample humus, a nutrient-rich soil component. Biodynamic farming creates humus in spades (doing so is a crucial part of the practice), leading to optimal soil health.
Wider adoption of biodynamics could also help solve an emerging crisis: the lack of young farmers to replace the generation that’s nearing retirement. Industrialization has drastically reduced the human element in farming and turned the land into a factory with inputs and outputs. That approach lacks appeal for younger generations, but biodynamics seems to be bringing millennials back to the land. (Availability of land to come back to is also an issue, but that’s another story.) Biodynamics restores the primacy of human and ecosystem health, and fosters a spiritual connection to the land. This is important if we want a sustainable food system that makes healthy food accessible to everyone: the farmer is the key transformative agent in agriculture.
Biodynamics recognizes and honors that. It raises the expectation bar and level of knowledge for farmers, requiring them to develop a refined understanding of earth science, economics, animal husbandry, and astronomy. That makes farming more engaging as a profession and increases the possibility that it can again be a real livelihood for small-to-midscale practitioners.
The benefits extend beyond individual farms and farmers. The biodynamic philosophy views farming as a social practice. Biodynamic farmers pioneered community-supported agriculture, and many partner with other farms, schools, medical and wellness facilities, restaurants, and other organizations to bring healthy food to the whole community. This orientation makes biodynamic farms a natural starting point for restructuring the food system in a way that improves community resilience, preserves local foodsheds, and shares benefits broadly.
Assessing the challenges
Biodynamic farming currently represents a small fraction of U.S. farming. Expanding from that base even to the level of organic farming is a familiar chicken-and-egg problem, layered with challenges particular to the demands of biodynamic practice. Access to enough product, both fresh and value-added, is the key here.
Until fairly recently the vast majority of biodynamic produce grown in the U.S. was consumed within CSAs. That is an excellent distribution approach in many ways, but it has had two limiting consequences. In talking with biodynamic farmers, we’ve found there are a fair number who do not see the social or economic need for certification. At the same time, people who have signed up to be part of a farm community are operating outside the general marketplace, so their purchases do not drive market demand or recognition of the Demeter certification.
Clearly, there is a great need for farmer and consumer education, and core organizations promoting biodynamics are beginning to respond. The Biodynamic Association has developed a curriculum to train farmers in biodynamic methods, and Demeter is working to help retailers introduce customers to biodynamics.
Regenerative capital is the path to scale
The other huge need is for capital to help biodynamic enterprises scale and to bridge the fragmented biodynamics system. Meeting these two needs is where I see the opportunity to prove out a new approach to building a marketplace.
I believe we can scale biodynamics faster through regenerative investments that follow the integrated capital approach: the coordinated use of diverse financing tools—including loans, loan guarantees, investments, and grants—along with network connections and advisory support. This approach aligns well with biodynamics’ emphasis on systemic work and relationships. To test that alignment, RSF recently launched the Biodynamics Capital Collaborative, an integrated capital fund launched with gift money and designed to support ventures that have the potential to both build consumer demand and demonstrate the value of certification.
The first funding from the Collaborative was part of a $1.56 million loan to Whitethorne LLC, a new for-profit subsidiary of the nonprofit Hawthorne Valley Association in New York’s Hudson Valley. Whitethorne will expand production and distribution of the HVA farm’s in-demand line of biodynamic and organic sauerkraut products. The financing includes a $900,000 mortgage on a new production facility in Hudson, New York; a $300,000 term loan for facility upgrades; and a $360,000 equipment loan.
The Biodynamics Capital Collaborative portion was key to providing the full financing Whitethorne needed; because the Collaborative was seeded with philanthropic dollars, we can take a more nuanced approach to risk with the loans it funds than we can with our typical investor-financed social enterprise loans. We also want and need to fund alternative business models that enable biodynamics to scale while honoring its spirit.
Values-aligned capital support is essential to giving those kinds of solutions a fair trial, and if supporters of food system change can provide enough of it, we have a chance to create a thriving model of regenerative agriculture that is economically sustainable on its own terms.
John Bloom is vice president, organizational culture, at RSF Social Finance, an innovative lending, giving, and investing organization based in San Francisco. He has been deeply involved with biodynamics and CSAs since 1988.