The Farm Organism, Biodiversity, & Environmental Accountability


A farm is true to its essential nature, in the best sense of the word, if it is conceived as a kind of individual entity in itself — a self-contained individuality. 

Rudolf Steiner – Lecture 2, The Agriculture Course

Introduction To The Concept Of A Farm Organism

(1.1) The concept of a farm organism views the farm to be “a kind of individual entity in itself.” The farm consists of different organs similar to the human body, each organ carries out its function, in harmony with all the other organs, to collectively form a living organism. The practice of composting may be compared to the digestive system, while the thinking /conscious faculties are conveyed through the people that have a relationship to the farm, and they serve a function within the whole farm organism.

The farmer must harmonise all the elements that make up the whole individuality of the farm, this includes animal life, biodiversity, composting/manure, biodynamic preparations, soil health, land-workers/students, and the life forces. Ideally, the farm organism would be self-sustaining [1] but this is very difficult to attain especially for smallholdings or educational farms. The farmer should aim for this ideal, but most importantly take great care in ensuring that nothing is brought into the farm that could cause discord within the organism of the farm.

Furthering the concept of the farm organism corresponding to the human being, we can observe the farm organism its threefoldness. The metabolic functions are carried out through composting which allows decaying matter to transform into a life force. This metabolic transformation may also be seen in the growing of crops, where a living organism is brought through the soil.

The nerve-sense function of the farm can be observed in the staff and students that work on the farm, they bring consciousness to the farm and make decisions that affect the farm organism. Thinking relates to the nerve-sense system, through communication, electronically or in-person decisions are made that help the farm to operate effectively.

What Makes An Organism?

  • Biological
  • Collection of organs
  • Interactive to its enviroment
  • Individuality
  • Harmony
  • Sybiotic
  • Reproductive
  • Life & Death
  • Form
  • Sum of parts
  • Boundary/Skin
  • Inner & Outer Experience

What Makes A Farm?

During the course weekend at Ruskin Mill, we assembled a picture of all the parts of a farm. We worked our way through the mineral kingdom, plant kingdom, animal kingdom, and into the human kingdom. Dan Powell from The Biodynamic Association Farm Services came to talk with us to understand all of the elements that make up a farm. I have collated what we covered below.

Biodiversity Within The Farm Organism

Biodiversity is a key indicator of the health of the farm. Most of the diverse varieties of fungi, animals, plants, and microorganisms have a symbiotic relationship with one another. A farm abundant in biodiversity can support a larger number of organisms, which in turn can support more organisms, which can support even more organisms, and many of these organisms help maintain healthy soils and other living organisms of the farm. The biodiversity of the farm, in my view, is comparable with the immune system of human beings.

(2.1) Walking from the Ruskin Mill Cafe to the Farm Shop, there is a constantly transforming landscape, consisting of ponds, woods, streams, meadows, stone walls, pasture, cultivated land, orchards, compost heaps, and hedgerows, which provide habitats for plants, animals, and microorganisms.

(2.2) The ponds in the valley provide a habitat for many species of birds. The Kingfishers, Grey Herons, and a couple of Swans enjoy feeding on the small Brown Trout, that escape from the fish farm, and out through the river. The fish farm team also release Brown Trout fry into the large lakes in the valley, this provides an important food source for the birds and other creatures. The Herons have Trout and Crayfish in abundance, meaning that they don’t have to leave the valley in search of food. Otters also frequent the ponds in the valley, I have seen three of them together late at night while walking my dog through the valley. I have also seen the footage that the fish farm team have captured with their night vision cameras. (2.3) The fish farm manager has explained that the otters used to gorge on trout from the farm ponds all night, it was initially assumed that people were stealing the fish, but cameras proved that it was Otters. The fish farm today has a high perimeter fence, and every pond has a ‘hat’ on the outflow drainage, this is to stop Otters entering the ponds through the drainage pipes that meet with the river. The Otter still have access to the trout living in the ponds outside the fish farm.

The ponds and the banks are home to a wide range of plant species, such as Water Mint Mentha Aquatica, Sedges Cyperaceae, Water Lillies Nymphaeaceae, Skunk Cabbage Lysichiton americanus, Arrow Head Sagittaria sagittifolia, Hornwort Ceratophyllum demersum, and Algae.

Supporting Habitats

In the valley, we generate a great quality of green waste throughout the year. This is due to the vastness of the valley, and the consistent upkeep that is needed such as pruning, trimming, mowing, pond cleaning, and hedge trimming. The material quickly builds up. The matter that can be composted is either added to compost piles, put in the Ridan, or added to long-term compost. Brambles and other hardy weeds are taken to the back of the fish farm to be burned.

(3.1) Some green waste that cannot be composted within a reasonable time needs to find another place. Large branches can be made into firewood. But the valley has a very small stove that is not frequently used, as it cannot provide much heat for such an open environment, it has the purpose of providing social warmth.

Anyway, the remaining green waste is often taken to be burned. This provides a good task for the students to take a wheelbarrow full of green waste over to the fish farm to be burned (as fires cannot be made near the houses in the valley) but there may be other ways of dealing with these materials that provide habitats for insects, and potentially food for other animals. Also, it would free up opportunities for other potentially more interesting, and meaningful tasks.

For example, this morning I was scything goldenrod from the bank. I decided that instead of it being taken to the fish farm to be burned, I would carry it 20 metres further up the bank, and start to create a habitat. Also, when pruning some Apple Trees last week, I did the same thing, I carried all of the branches up the bank. Now, all of these piles of matter are out of sight. They are also in areas that are unlikely to be disturbed. This ticks the box of creating a valley that looks well kept, and of dealing with large amounts of green waste. But it also saves energy, and time that could be used for other tasks. At the core of this though is providing natural habitat, and allowing nature to break down materials near to where they originally were growing.

(3.2) In the valley we will be more conscientious of building habitats from green waste. An apple branch will be of more service to nature if it is allowed to slowly decompose near the orchard as food for rabbits, roedeer, woodlice, worms, and micro-organisms.

(3.3) Throughout the year we can continue to add to these eco piles, to maintain habitats for small creatures, and insects.

Nancy and her son, David knew exactly how special their orchard was – for the creatures whom they permited to run it. The enormous dead stumps, beloved by woodpeckers, were not left through neglect but by design. The spiky piles of brash were left for hedgehogs: the surplus fallen fruit, to help thrushes throught the winter

Orchard: A Year in England’s Eden – Benedict Macdonald & Nicholas Gates

As horticulturalists, we are often guilty of taking away brash, and cuttings, to make our gardens appear ordered, and effortless. In public gardens across the country, many of the inner workings will be hidden, the compost for example will be far from public sight. From reading Ochard: A Year In England’s Eden [2] it was clear that orchards and gardens most abundant in wildlife (including species in decline) are those that give back to nature. Creating piles of brash is a great way to give back to nature, it often requires less effort from the gardener, and it can be placed in a location, and in a way that still gives the appearance of an ordered garden.

The master biodynamic gardener Alan Chadwick said: “There is one rule in the garden that is above all others. You must give to nature more than you take. Obey it, and the earth will provide you in glorious abundance.” As an organism, the farm/garden needs to retain or replace what it has. Burning garden waste sends it out into the ether, leaving you with a small amount of ash. We must regard the plants as the life forces within a farm if we extract too much then our forces will be depleted, and will no longer be able to support wildlife, and this will affect the health of the whole organism.

Efficient Use Of Natural Resources

(4.1) The different types of resources that we have in our gardens and farms at Ruskin Mill, include Soil, Water, Air, Energy & Plants/Trees.

Soils

(4.2) Our soils at Ruskin Mill are given a lot of attention before the start of the growing season. Depleted soils are given a boost of vitality with a generous addition of compost and manures. This method for preparing the soil of our market gardens does work, but often there is a period when our soils are left uncovered, and become like sand. (4.3) By planning more effectively and implementing green manures (such as Rye, or Broad Beans), we may be able to sustain vitality in our soils past the end of the growing season, we will then be adding compost to an already healthy, and abundant soil full of life. This would require less compost, provide us with more plant material, fix the nitrogen, keep the soil aerated, provide a blanket for the soil.

(4.4) When it comes to growing vegetables, I believe that we should always grow more than we would be able to sell, feed to our animals, or consume ourselves. This gives us an abundance of matter that we can put back into our soils through composting.

Water

Moving to the fish farm, water is the most important resource. The stream provides the fish farm with a constant supply of freshwater. Each week I collect Spring water from one of the sources that feed the river that runs down the valley through the fish farm. The water bubbles up through the limestone and tastes great. I have to come to an arrangement with the landowners, so I can assess this great resource.

The water finds its way to the fish farm, it is energised and oxygenated upon entry into the fish ponds through the use of flow forms that are tuned to pulse comparable to the heartbeat of a trout.

The fish farm team monitor the amount of water used regularly. Ultimately, the water from the stream enters the fish farm and returns into the stream via the exit pipes located at the centre of each pond.

The fish farm doesn’t use any chemicals, except small amounts of Iodine to clean fishing equipment, gloves, and waders after use. Iodine is effective and safe in small amounts and occurs naturally in water.

The fish food is donated by Cargill. “Our aquaculture feeds are made from a balanced mixture of fish- and plant-based raw materials, providing essential proteins, oils, vitamins and minerals while conserving finite marine resources.” – Cargill The feed comes from the other side of the world, and is not a sustainable practice. It would be difficult to replace this input with feeds grown within our farm. But even if we’re able to breed worms that could provide 10% of the trout feed then it would be a great achievement.

Beyond the issue of sustainability, global supply chains are looking very fragile, and it would be worth experimenting with ways to grow our feeds in case we are unable to bring in feeds.

On the fish farm, great care is taken when feeding the fish. Students feed the fish little by little, if too much is given, then it won’t be eaten, and will become waste at the bottom of the ponds. This will eventually find its way to the river and could pollute, or disturb the natural order of things.

Air & Noise Pollution

On-site there is a large number of cars, especially for an educational trust founded on ecology. There is a cycle to work scheme that has recently been implemented. I have had a car for less than a year, before this I would walk 20 minutes to work, run down at lunch to walk my dog, then run back up, then back down at the end of the day. Since having a car is something that I rarely do. I bring my dog with me and put her in the office to avoid making another journey trip at lunchtime, but I use it for getting to work. During the course, David made the point about climate vs convenience.

We could easily reduce needless car journeys into work, maybe walking or cycling more often, or carpooling.

Air pollution is also generated on-site through the use of petrol trimmers, that don’t have a catalytic converter. Mattias said that one hour strimming is equivalent to driving to the south of France, and back. Recently, Ruskin mill has purchased electric strimmers, which are just as effective as petrol ones. There is no air pollution generated on-site, but downstream where the power is generated to charge the trimmer.

When using power tools I try to use them away from students, as the noise is not conducive to creating a therapeutic setting where students can develop. Also, students should be encouraged to walk more often between the two sites. For some students, this may be too tiring, but for others, it may replenish their energies, or calm them so they are in a better state for engaging in learning. A gentle walk is also beneficial after eating lunch.

Walking helps us to understand where we are, which is an important piece of the Ruskin Mill philosophy. By travelling between sites by car or minibus too often without travelling on foot we may have a warped idea of place.

Traditional tools such as scythes, are often just as effective and come without the noise. It requires more human exertion.

My Plan To Improve My Enviromental Efficeincy

  • Minimise usage of motor tools. Only use a strimmer when nessasary, and when there are not students. I will need to ensure that we have all of the nessary equiptment in the valley to maintain the sycthe (such as a wet stone) Cutting with a sycthe leads to a large amount of brash that is collected, as opposed to strimming the breaks the grass, and vegetation into small pieces. Therefore, green waste generated could then be used for ecopiles
  • Create wildlife habitats from garden waste. These includes branches, brambles, and grasses. This can be done by having numerous ecopiles throughout the valley, in different areas away from public display. Each day we gernate green waste we could add it to the nearest pile. If piles get to big, then we would need to find new areas for piles of brash or revert back to buring
  • Walk more often to work. I walk to work most days as I live near the valley. But I could walk more to the top site when I go to horticulture or the farm. I would simply need to leave the house 20 minutes earlier

Reflections On The Whole Farm As An Organism

(5.1)This farm organism unit has a semblance of the first unit I wrote about: genius loci. To understand the farm organism, we have to look at all of its elements, in their own places across the farm. When we were brainstorming what makes a farm, it felt like a genius loci audit, I felt it was important to arrange everything that constitutes a farm with the four kingdoms.

It’s interesting to consider all of the possible formations of farm organisms. For example, you could view all of the Ruskin Mill Provisions as individual organs, that make the whole. I know that different sites have been exchanging goods, such as trout, piglets, and glassware, in an organic way, and reciprocal much like an organism. The four research centres of Ruskin Mill, which make up the golden triangle, each represent a different kingdom of nature, but also different parts of the body.

From a micro perspective organs within a farm could be seen as a whole organism within themselves. Take the compost area in the valley as an example: within a small area, there are many elements.

  • Food Waste Container
  • Carbon Pellets
  • Ridan (Compost Turning Tool)
  • Maturation Boxes
  • Compost Piles

    Each of these could be understood as organs within the organism of the compost area.

If the organism of the compost is unbalanced then it will smell. This will then attract pests such as rats. When the compost is ready it will then serve the macro organism of the farm by providing fertility, and vitality to the market garden. As the digestive organism of the farm, it is able to take kitchen wastes, and transform it into rich humus.

A Biodynamic Farm As A Reflection Of The Human Being

(5.2) A biodynamic farm could be seen as a reflection of a human being. Firstly, farms are unnatural and only come about through conscious thinking, feeling, and wiling. The farmer decides what animals to have, what plants to grow, and it is the farmer that has to work hard to sustain the elements which he has brought into his farm, and which are outside their natural environment. When we plant crops, we have to ensure that the soil is healthy, that there is enough water, that there are few weeds that would drain the nutrients. But in nature the reverse happens, the environment dictates what will grow, farmers choose what to grow then work hard to create an environment to sustain the crop.

Human brings ideas to the farm, they are the conductor or the nucleus of the farm organism. The different organs of the farm are created by the farmer, although often predetermined from the landscape or the past. The farmer chooses where to build new buildings, which animals? how many animals? how the farm will provide economic value? which farming methods to use? what tools are needed? where the elements of the farm are situated? to use chemicals or not?. Through all these questions that the farmer has to answer, the farm will eventually take a form similar to the farmers own character, and style. The farm becomes a reflection of the farmer. But there are outside forces, such as regulations, economics, stakeholders, and other factors that will prevent there being a true reflection.

Bibliography

[1] Whatever you need for agricultural production, you should try to possess it within the farm itself (Page 29, Lecture Two, The Agriculture Course)

[2] Orchard: A Year In England’s Eden – Benedict Macdonald & Nicholas Gates

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