Bio-dynamics is about bringing vitality back to the soil – the humus, the microbes and the life.
Sheryl I recently attended a meeting of the Suncoast Organic Growers Group (no longer active) to hear Terry give a talk on how he farms bio-dynamically. Les Nicholls is the President of this group and meetings are held at his place on the 1st Thursday evening of every month at 5.30pm. There are also field trips every second month usually on a Sunday starting at noon in Feb. Address: Sandy Creek Organic Farm, 2471 Old Gympie Road, Beerwah Ph: 5496 9501. Les buys his seed from Fairbanks Seed Co. 542 Footscray Rd West Melbourne & Greenpatch Seed Co. The Club visited Terry in May 1994 when he lived at Mt. Mee and took us on a tour of his Custard Apple farm.
Terry I went to Gatton Agricultural College in the late 60’s on a DPI scholarship to study poultry but because I was the only one doing this, I was put in with the Agriculture, Horticulture, the Food Manufacture. I reckon I should have come out of there with four certificates as I attended all these lectures as well as the poultry ones but what I did learn from Gatton Ag College was that it wasn’t affected by the American multinational chemical companies so they were actually teaching you knowledge that wasn’t biased and they actually warned us back then about the antibiotic resistance that was developing in America through these intensive farming practices feeding antibiotics to livestock and the lecturers were warning us then that this would follow through to humans so I got a good grounding in the do’s and dont’s of animal husbandry but I have always questioned the so-called intensive philosophy of drugs and when I left there, the DPI offered me a job as an Extension Officer at Murgon to go into pigs. I had spent two years doing poultry but I didn’t take up their job offer for various reasons and ended up working for a large chicken company but soon discovered that these new multinationals didn’t want anyone with any brains because it was the start of the quality product as they called it and they just wanted people to follow the manual and it was virtually the demise of the thinking farmer and the thinking Extensive Officer eg. today you did this and tomorrow you did that so I felt I was wasting my time and all your college graduates are virtually taught by the same principle. I just didn’t believe in using chemicals for no reason at all. eg with an American company in an American university, your way of thinking would be influenced by what chemical company was supporting that agricultural college because whatever research they were doing, the outcome is more or less pre-determined – it’s a bit like holding an enquiry into politics – you know the outcome at the start! They were feeding them antibiotics all the time and while they were doing this, the American companies were behind all this push on Australia’s poultry industry and wanted to treat the farm as a business and how they use to operate was they would have a batch of chickens, clean out the shed completely, lime it, take all the equipment outside and solarize it probably put kerosene around the building then start another batch of chickens.
Sheryl How long would the solarising process take?
Terry About a week – it was about 2½ week turnaround to clean up and they worked out that it was costing them approximately 2 batches of chickens per year so they decided to just put sawdust straight on top of the old sawdust. Well, everything went alright for the first batch then they started getting disease outbreaks so they started feeding them antibiotics and that worked OK for a little while then they noticed that their feed to weight ratio on their conversion charts – the chooks were eating all this food but not putting on weight and they realised that the antibiotics were upsetting the microflora in the guts of the chickens so to counteract the effects of the antibiotics, they started giving them growth hormones and this is how the cycle started by intensive industry so basically it’s a hygiene problem that they’ve got. I have an intensive chicken farm across the road from me and I believe they’ve now gone the full circle and back to doing one batch. They’ve gone away from antibiotics as there was resistance. It got that bad in America that the residue levels of hormones of people who ate chicken 4-5 times a week, the men were developing breasts.
That was my interest in organics and what led me into bio-dynamics was I bought a farm at Mt. Mee with custard apples and I did alright for the first 12 months then one night we had 20” of rain and of the 200 trees I put in, there were 198 dead and after questioning why, it was a combination of poor rootstock selection from the nursery but the best the DPI could say was they were dying of phytophera and to use Ridomil. I questioned the chemical fix then looked at organics then got into bio-dynamics because back then there were only 3 organisations NASA (National Association of Sustainable Agriculture), BFA (Bio-dynamic Federation of Australia) and BDAA (Bio-dynamic Agricultural Association of Australia) that Alec Podilinski runs. I went to them all and asked what the conditions were. What struck me about BDAA was that they didn’t have any licensing fees for your product and they set no mandatory guidelines on when you obtained A grade accreditation for the farm – you’d only get that rating when Alex Podilinski decided that your soil was up to that sustainable level so that’s what convinced me to join BDAA. If you approach him, he will appoint a mentor in your area and then he’ll insist that you go away and read his books and there are four videos as well and these are on farming practices, cultivation, one on stirring machines and another on other farms. His books are quite involved and I found that I could only read a couple of pages then had to put it down as they were taken off lectures so his whole books are transcripts of lectures he has given so it takes a bit of following so I read all his books and a bit about the man and was quite impressed. I was warned he didn’t tolerate fools easily; he went through all the rigmarole and if you were prepared to make the commitment to bio-dynamics, he would help you. I went to visit my mentor who was growing bananas but he was growing them totally different to what I was planning to do on my orchard Paul Sykes and my mentor guided me through the best part of my introduction to bio-dynamics. When I first went back to them, they asked how I was going with the books. “Pretty good” I said “I’m just about up to the part of the virgin sacrifice!” Paul didn’t have a sense of humour and that’s how heavy it gets! They were starting to lose me on the zodiac influence but I certainly related to the effects of the moon, but Alex came round and had a look at the farm and told me how to go about it and most problems I had were caused by compaction of the soil. It was an old dairy farm and over the years the cattle had compacted the ground so there’s no soil structure and that’s the most important thing in bio-dynamics because without that you’ve got nothing and that leads to all your problems. I’ve been to some organic farms and they have no soil structure at all – they may be farming organically but there’s definitely no soil structure. The first thing he said that I had to do was to deep-rip the ground every 6 metres which was a bit of a hassle as I already had trees in so you get a bit p!!!ed off when you think that the tree root you are pulling out is a bit of irrigation pipe you’ve buried and forgotten about! Then I ripped every 9 metres across to break the soil. He’s very particular on your sillaging practice that you do it at the right time when the ground is dry so that you actually break the ground apart.
Sheryl How far down do you go?
Terry As deep as you can go. I was probably going down 2½ feet – as much as the tractor would pull. If it’s dry, you’ll actually fracture and put cracks in the soil and you have to be very good on the angle of the ripper that you use. Nearly every farm you walk on in Australia would have a hardpan because of inappropriate tillaging practices.
Member Did you do this at your new property at Beerburrum?
Terry No, I have different soil there – I’m on sand. At Mt. Mee I had red volcanic soil and started in 1982 and by the time I left in 2001, it was black soil. If you went to the boundary line you were back into the red soil. It stopped where I had been spraying the 500 preparation. Alex will tell you just so much. He likes you to be a thinking farmer; he believes that you don’t get it out of the book; he wants you to use your eyes/brains and work it out for yourself. He’ll rarely tell you the answer that you want to hear. He’ll make you go away and think. He just wants you to observe and work with nature. I started to do all that ripping at Mt. Mee and in those days I wasn’t registered – you could put out lime and dolomite and you were allowed to mix it with superphosphate so that the lime counteracted the acidifying effect of the superphosphate. We then planted it under pasture because with bio-dynamics the 500 that you spray out, it needs the plant roots to work so when you spray the 500 to get it in the ground, the microbes actually travel down into the ground via the plant roots and it’s your plant roots that give you the soil structure; gives you the organic matter – the lot. With horticulture, I consider it’s not a mono-culture because if you have trees above the ground, you’re actually growing a pasture and you’re growing humus and organic matter under the ground by the plant roots and what happens is you’ll let the grass grow up 6-9 inches til it’s a lush green then you’ll mow it off and the better mower you have, the better! On my new place, I bought a Kubota front cut mover which throws all the beautiful clippings under the trees and gives a good mulch but what happens is that as your plant grows up, it also grows down as well so that when you mow it off, the roots shorten up and die off so that they become your organic matter for the next lot of roots that come down to feed on.
Sheryl What do you grow?
Terry Legumes are the best. Red & White Clover are the best two.
Sheryl Summer or Winter crop?
Terry Whatever – your White Clover will come up in spring and Pinto Peanut is good if you’re in the high country. Woolly Pod Vetch is very good at establishing quickly – it will grow up but it dies down naturally but you want to mow it before it seeds!
Member It will climb – went right up my bananas!
Terry Storage is very important for the 500 preparation. It has to be kept in glazed ceramic jars surrounded by 3” of peat moss and they’re very particular on their method of stirring. The only argument I’ve won with Alex is with heating up the water. If you go anywhere inland, they’ve all got facilities for heating water but I maintain that when I was putting out the 500, I’d normally put it out when there was a couple of days of showery weather, I’d mow the grass then mix it out in the open and I asked Alex why I had to heat the water because most times when I’m putting it out it’s around 30º and stirring it out in the open for an hour or so, it would go back to an ambient air temperature so he didn’t make me get a heating device for the water.
Member Can you use dam water?
Member Pure water is better.
Sheryl I’ve read that you have to stir it by hand one way for an hour then the other way for the following hour!
Member The farmers have now developed a stirring machine – it’s an electric motor on pulleys and as it spins around it makes a vortex and it has a float system that comes up and as it reaches a certain water height, it trips the machine and a switch reverses the motor and it goes back the other way. We paid about $900 for the machine. It does about 60 litres at a time. It beats stirring it by hand for an hour! It takes about 14-18 seconds to make the vortex and what they call chaos is the period between creating a vortex in the opposite direction. What you are doing is activating the 500 by oxygenating it and increasing the bacterial count of the 500 by 76,000 times in an hour so the microbes can multiply so that when you spray it out say of an evening when you have moisture, so that from one bacteria, in 24 hours your bacteria can go up 2 million to 1 so that’s how it works.
Sheryl How often do you put it out?
Member Twice a year – during the first lot of rain in November then again coming into Autumn. The only thing Alex insists on is that you don’t do it in a node day which is when the moon comes between the earth and the sun but it only happens twice a month when you get an ascending and a descending node. In summer Alex sends up a mixture called Prepared 500 but it’s also got all the other preparations in except 501. The 501 preparation is cow manure from lactating cows which they put in a cow horn and they bury it around Easter then dig it up around November.
Sheryl So none of you do this – you just buy the preparation off Alex in Victoria?
Terry Why would you bother when you can just get it off him. I get enough for 40 acres at a time and it costs me about $25-$30.00 but what you have to remember with the 500 is that you are putting out a living organism and it needs the air and it needs moisture. You put it out within an hour of it being stirred.
Member I was reading something about the water molecule H²0 being a bipolar molecule; positive at the hydrogen ends and negative at the oxygen end. Solution 500 is the equivalent of an ionic crystal and when placed in water becomes fully hydrated and so its active ionic components can migrate in the water to where they will be taken up by the plant cells and used in plant growth. (*see note at end).
Terry I just think of it as a living organism which you were putting in the water! Alex is very particular in that if you are going to heat the water that it’s heated by wood/gas/solar – doesn’t like electricity/plastic hoses.
Member There’s the chemical, the biological and the energy.
Sheryl How many members here are bio-dynamic?
Answer A few although some don’t classify themselves as bio-dynamic but just use the preparation.
Terry What the 500 does is that it travels down the plant’s roots so you get air space which allows the plant to breathe but with compacted soil, there’s no air space so it can’t breathe so a bio-dynamic farmer will do better in a drought. You can change your soil in quite a short period of time. They reckon it takes thousands of years but with the microbes if you dig down deep enough, you can see where the microbes have travelled down the plant root into the sub-soil and the soil will actually change around the plant roots. On my present property at Beerburrum, I got it up to A grade accreditation in 18 months but I think it would have been quicker than that because Alex only visits every 12 months. If you have sandy soil, I reckon within 12 months with sandy soil because I’ve got the overhead water, the grass and this was a neglected farm.
SherylIf you don’t have water and have to rely on rain, is it going to work?
Terry It will work but it will just take longer because the microbes need moisture to survive so the more moisture the better.
Sheryl Do you share the Stirring Machine amongst yourselves?
Terry No, it’s very finely tuned. I grow Chokos, Custard Apples, Vegetables without any other inputs.
Sheryl So you don’t use any extra fertiliser?
Terry No. I think that soil & leaf analysis is very subjective. You could have it done by one company and another one done by a different company and they will give you different results.
Member The results will depend on what they want to sell!!!
Terry Most of the soil testing are done by the chemical companies so if you went to your handbook on say custard apples, you’ll see that it will match the recommended dose! What convinced me with this preparation 500 is that I started off with compacted soil at Mt. Mee and on the red soil and you get into that sub-soil which is almost yellow, when you actually see the plant roots get into that and you can see the browning and the microbes working and changing it from clay to soil, then you’re convinced.
Sheryl If you currently have mulch down, would you put your preparation down on top of your mulch or take it away?
Terry I put mine on the grass. Most of the plant roots which feed your tree are out on the edge.
Member Can you put it down on bare ground?
Les What we’re developing now is a system of stripping so we have one metre of grass, one metre of vegies and so on and the grass will keep the root system in place to keep the soil structure – hopefully. We put out our 500 with a knapsack spray.
Terry I have a tractor and a little boom – it’s run off battery operated wiper blades off a 1964 Holden and it’s an old oscillating type.
Les What sort of pump does Alex recommend?
Terry 8 psi is the max. allowed. It’s a diaphragm pump and it has a flicking action because of the windscreen wiper attachments.
Sheryl Les, when you want to change over your strip rows, how do you achieve this?
Les With great difficulty – it’s one of the challenges.
Sheryl So how do you?
Les We use a rotary hoe on it but we don’t grow Vegetables on the area that was used for grass.
Terry A lot of people want to put on heaps of fertiliser because they’ve taken so much out but a lot of that is rubbish because most of the weight you are taking out in fruit is probably 90% water. You’re taking very little nutrient out of the soil and by using the 500 and constantly mowing, you’re putting more back in than is needed.
Les A measurement is that a plant actually exudes up to 70% of the nutrition that it creates through photo synthesis to feed the microbes around the root so that they are giving out as well as taking in.
Member Do you ever use cowpat pit?
Terry No, what’s that?
Member It’s better than cow horns. You get cow manure, egg shells and basalt and mix it for an hour by hand then put it in a pit in the ground and add your preps in there and leave it for two months and when you bring it out, it’s all gluggy.
Sheryl What combination do you use?
Member A barrow load of cow manure to 800 gms of egg shell and 2 kilos of basalt powder.
Member When you farm bio-dynamically, you don’t need all these other inputs that people are trying to sell. If you need any inputs, the minimum would be crusher dust and if you want to put any manures out, then do a sheet compost on the ground. Sheet compost is when you throw the manure straight on the ground and letting it break down.
Terry There’s a whole bureaucracy built around organic fertiliser and lots of hangers on wanting to sell their product that you don’t really need and a lot of them are in a form that the plant can’t pick up anyway. It’s the microbes that create most of your plant food. If you read some of your books, it’s the microbes that change some of the elements and create.
Sheryl What books do you suggest that our members read?
Terry Any of Alex Podolinsky’s books. “Bio-dynamic Agriculture Introductory Lectures Vol. I & Vol. II. His videos are also very good. Alex says that if you can grow good weeds and good grass, why do you need a soil test? It’s only if nothing will grow there or the grass is sick, then it’s probably just a lack of nitrogen. I’ve found it very hard establishing legumes. You have to find out which legume suits your area. Avoid climbing types. I think the choko in itself is a legume because when you dig them out, you get a big tuber. Don’t use a slasher; use a proper mower.
Member It’s a myth that legumes fix nitrogen – it’s the microbes. Many other plants can also encourage those microbes – not just legumes eg corn is a very good soil builder.
Terry I’ve done a lot of work for the Sunfresh Growers Group on the Sunshine Coast where I’ve been visiting conventional farmers and they wonder why they have problems with their fruit trees. They’re trying to grow fruit trees on ground that’s as hard as Les’s driveway and they’re expecting to get fruit! They’re attuned to the chemical fix but chemicals don’t fix your soil structure.
*Note from Bob
The water molecule is an open V shape with the oxygen atom at the base of the V and one hydrogen atom at the end of each V arm. The atoms are held by covalent bonds formed by sharing two electrons. The oxygen atom takes a slightly greater share of the electrons so the water molecule is described as bipolar with the oxygen atom slightly negative and each hydrogen atom slightly positive. When ionic crystals are placed in water, the negative oxygen ends of the water molecules are attracted to the positive ions of the ionic crystal while the negative ions attract the hydrogen ends of the water molecules. This process leads to the ions of the ionic crystal becoming completely surrounded by water molecules and then each ion is described as being hydrated and can migrate in the water solution independent of the original molecular bonding in the crystal.
Article compiled by Sheryl Backhouse