Extreme organic

Seeding by star-chart, burying stuffed cows' horns... Witchcraft? Or farming? Adharanand Finn finds out

In one corner of the vegetable garden, a cow's horn has just been dug up. It had been filled with manure and buried there by van der Stok at the start of the winter. Later, a single handful of the manure from the horn, turned hard and odourless over the cold months underground, will be added to a large barrel of water and stirred for exactly one hour. Then, on a night when the stars are aligned, the finished mixture will be sprayed over the land.

This process, which even van der Stok admits is "a bit off the wall", is integral to the way Hapstead Farm runs. It's part of the biodynamic ethos that governs his farming practices, a form of extreme organic farming, or gardening, that combines astrology and philosophy.

Biodynamics was invented back in the 1920s by the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, and it has recently seen a surge of interest in this country. There are currently 120 commercial biodynamic farms registered in the UK.

The notion works by treating each farm as a self-contained unit, where nothing is brought in from the outside and the animals that live there both fertilise the land and eat from it. "The interrelation between the animals and the land is key," says van der Stok. Other soil preparations include stuffing the small intestines of slaughtered cows full of herbs, and burying stags' bladders. Van der Stok, who has been doing this for over 30 years, says he is still trying to fathom why these preparations work, but he is convinced that they do.

The right balance of animals on the farm is also important, he explains. "If you have too many sheep, for example, the land becomes sheep-sick." At Hapstead, a small farm of just 60 acres, there are 30 cows and 60 sheep, as well as pigs, chickens and a horse. Van der Stok says that, because of the way the land is shared by the animals, and because they all use it in different ways, he has never had to dip or worm his sheep, as conventional farmers do. He rarely has problems with pests. "If a plant forms itself properly, it has less problems," he says.

Conventional farmers are usually impressed with his results. But, he says, they always feel that they couldn't do it themselves. "After all, there's no scientific proof that it works," he says. So, there is an element of belief required? I ask him. "Yes," he says, nodding certainly.

Astrology also plays an important role in biodynamics. Seeds are planted according to a star calendar, which gives the exact time for different plants to be sown, according to the alignment of the planets. Van der Stok thinks this goes a bit far, specifying the exact minute, but he does use the calendar as a guide.

This may all sound a bit fantastic, but, as van der Stok points out, if the Moon can move the oceans, then maybe it can affect the soil. Certainly, the growth of biodynamics in recent years suggests that there is method amid the apparent madness. And it's not only in the UK that biodynamics is popular. The heart of the movement is in Germany, where there are more than 1,400 biodynamic products available. And in Egypt, a huge biodynamic farm has grown up out of the desert just outside Cairo, producing everything from fruit and vegetables, to cotton, herbs and spices. The success of the farm has led to more than 800 other Egyptian farmers turning to biodynamics.

Van der Stok is adamant that biodynamic food tastes better. "We once had a bad beetroot crop so we bought some from the supermarket," he says. "It tasted shit," he says.

He is not alone in appreciating the taste of biodynamic produce. It may be some time, however, before the shelves of Tesco are laden with biodynamic produce. Unlike conventional, or even organic, farming, success in biodynamics is not measured in terms of profits, or even by the quality of the food, but by the health of the farm.

"The idea that the land can be overworked to make money is a falsity and can lead to problems," says van der Stok. In fact, one of the problems arising from over-extensive farming is now threatening the very existence of biodynamics, at least in Europe. Restrictions on how dead animals are disposed of, brought in to combat the spread of BSE, make many of the practices used in biodynamic farming virtually impossible to follow. This is ironic considering that as long ago as 1919, Rudolf Steiner wrote: "If we feed animals to animals, it will make them mad."

www.biodynamic.org.uk; www.emerson.org.uk