Great sense of humus
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Cosmic energy, lunar cycles, cow horns filled with manure and buried - no, it's not a Wicca workshop but what our biodynamic food producers use to make Victoria's tastiest produce. By Richard Cornish.

THE late-summer sun beats down on the little market garden on the banks of the Leigh River at Inverleigh, 30 kilometres north-west of Geelong. Biodynamic grower Darren Aitken (pictured on our cover) wanders through his orchard, scattering chickens and ducking ripening fruit hanging from boughs.

With a hint of a bemused grin, this straight-talking bloke points to the sun beating down on the leaves of the trees and grass.

"That," he says poignantly, "is cosmic energy. I use it to grow my produce," he says matter-of-factly.

Aitken is aware it sounds a little outlandish to some. "I know the term puts some people off but that's what sunlight is."

Biodynamic growers don't just use cosmic energy. They plant by the stars and cycles of the moon and fertilise the soil with manure buried inside a cow's horn.

Their critics call the practice "occult", labelling them followers of a quasi-religious movement. To their fans, they are the best food and wine producers in the country. The movement is gaining popularity with farmers, market gardeners and winemakers converting to biodynamics mainly because they eschew chemical fertilisers, hormones and pesticides.

From a fringe food movement 40 years ago, biodynamic is now mainstream. Supermarkets sell a biodynamic yoghurt from local supplier Jalna and health food stores have a new Mungali Creek milk ($3.50-$3.95 a litre) arriving on their shelves.

Alex Podolinsky, the man considered by many to be the father of biodynamics in Australia, walks us through his shed at his property in a valley near Powelltown. Sacks filled with cow horns are stacked to the rafters. Previously the sacks were filled with fresh cow manure, buried in the earth over winter. Podolinsky reaches into a covered bin and pulls out a handful of "preparation 500". This used to be cow manure but has been transformed into a smooth, moist, dough-like substance that smells neutral. In it are billions of microbes and particles of trace elements that are to be stirred in water and sprayed over a farm, garden or vineyard. An erudite, effusive and energetic man in his 80s, Podolinsky spells out the differences between organics and biodynamics. While organic certification requires the exclusion of chemicals, biodynamics is about the creative input - treating humus to hold soil nutrients, he says.

"My aim is to make our farmers observe what is happening on their farm and think biologically. I see our farmers as creative composers."

The ideas and techniques of biodynamic farming were developed at the beginning of the 20th century by European educator and philosopher Rudolf Steiner, who named nine "preparations" numbered from 500-508 that were fundamental to plant health. The word biodynamic was coined after his death. It comes from ancient Greek "bios", meaning life and "dynamis", meaning power or energy. Terminology used by the biodynamic culture today can be confusing. One farming practice, cosmo-earthly ecology, describes the making of soil fertile by growing plants, allowing them to absorb and transform the energy of the sun through photosynthesis, then ploughing the plants back into the earth for the microbes to transform them into nutrient-rich humus.

Darren Aitken shows us cosmo-earthly ecology in practice as he strides through chest-high grasses, dandelions and garden plants such as the chicory growing between his apple trees. When the time is right, he will mulch them into the soil, where microbes will break them down into humus. "One of the ideas of biodynamics is that you don't need to bring extra inputs onto the farm," he explains. "It's a closed system. You use what occurs naturally to create more life."

Aitken bends down and tears out a lump of dark earth that looks like rich chocolate cake, except for the teeming numbers of worms and insects. "It's the life you can't see that really matters," says Aitken. He squeezes a handful of soil and it sticks together like moist, black breadcrumbs. This is colloidal humus. It can hold 75% of its own weight in water. The quality of Aitken's produce is stunning. His beetroot is sweet, earthy and carries an aroma of berry fruit. The five different varieties of rhubarb are sweet and pleasantly earthy with a faint rose fragrance. The unifying experience of tasting his produce is a wonderful sensation that leaves a lasting, satiating feeling.

While the demystification of the cosmic energy is one thing, the big price difference between biodynamic and conventional produce also warrants attention.

Although biodynamic goods are competitive with their organic equivalents, many biodynamic foods can be 10% to 100% more expensive than conventional foods.

Peter Podolinsky, director of the Biodynamic Marketing Company (and son of Alex Podolinsky), explains that there are a number of reasons. "Biodynamic food is not expensive," he says, repeating what to him has become a well-used phrase. "It's just that conventional produce is too cheap. You see no farmer alive who will argue that they don't deserve more money for their produce. But farmers overproduce in the hope they will get more money, but in the process they actually drive down the price of their produce themselves."

He also points out the extraordinary lengths some biodynamic farmers need to go to bring food to market. One line of biodynamic eggs costs $10.50 a dozen. The chickens have to be raised with meat-free meal, so the farmer milks cows and makes curd from the milk to feed the hens. He also grows pasture, field peas and lupins for them.

Part of the new generation of biodynamic farmer-entrepreneurs is the Fawcett family in central Victoria. The first Fawcett turned the rich volcanic soil at Campbelltown in 1865, but it was fifth-generation Ben Fawcett who pushed for conversion of the 1200-hectare family farm, Powlett Hill, 40 kilometres north of Ballarat, to biodynamics in 2000, seeing it as way to farm sustainably.

His father Andrew says, "It's amazing how the farm has changed since we started using preparation 500. Because of the humus, the soil absorbs and holds the moisture and, as a result, our crops can grow longer, giving us a healthier better-finished grain."

The Fawcetts' rye and flax seeds are sold to specialty bakers in central Victoria and Melbourne. Their spelt, an ancient form of wheat, is made into a range of successful packaged pasta and a mix of grains and seeds are used to feed the 100 Duroc pigs they sell to Rendinas Butchery in North Balwyn.