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Soil quality and profitability of biodynamic and conventional farming systems: A review

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Biodynamic and organic farming are similar in that both are ecologically oriented and do not use chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The main difference is that biodynamic farmers add eight specific amendments, called preparations, to their soils, crops, and composts. Recently, there has been an increasing interest in biodynamic farming practices and systems because they show potential for mitigating some detrimental effects of chemical-dependent conventional agriculture. Only a few studies examining biodynamic methods or comparing biodynamic farming with other farming systems have been published in the refereed scientific literature, especially in English. This paper summarizes data from previous studies, both published and unpublished (theses), that have compared biodynamic and conventional farming systems with respect to soil quality or profitability. These studies have shown that the biodynamic farming systems generally have better soil quality, lower crop yields, and equal or higher net returns per hectare than their conventional counterparts. Two studies that included organic management treatments with and without the preparations showed that the preparations improved biological soil properties and increased crop root growth. However, more research is needed to determine whether the preparations affect soil physical, chemical, and biological properties and crop growth and, if so, their mode of action.
Organic Farming & Biodynamic Agriculture Training resource book
64
Soil Quality & Profitability
of Biodynamic & Conventional
Farming Systems
By
John P. Reganold
1 gallon = 4.54 litres
2.2 lbs. = 1 kg
1 ounce (oz.) = approx. 28 gram
Organic Farming & Biodynamic Agriculture Training resource book
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Soil quality and profitability of biodynamic and conventional
farming systems: A review
John P. Reganold
Introduction
Growing concerns about the environ-
mental, economic and social effects
of chemical-dependent conventional
agriculture have led many farmers
and consumers to seek alternative
practices and systems that will make
agriculture more sustainable. Alter-
native farming systems include
‘organic’, ‘biological’, ‘biodynamic’,
‘ecological’, and ‘low input’. How-
ever, just because a farm is “organic”
or ‘Biodynamic,’ for example, does
not mean that it is sustainable. To be
sustainable, it must produce food of
high quality, be environmentally safe,
protect the soil, and be profitable and
socially just (Reganold et al., 1990).
Recently, there has been increasing
interest in biodynamic farming and
___________________________
John P. Reganold is Professor, Department of
Crop and Soil Sciences, Washington State
University, Pullman, WA 99164-6420.
gardening. For example, between 1989
and 1992 the number of biodynamic
farms in France increased from 142 to
202 (Bio-Dynamic Farming and
Gardening Association in New Zealand
1993). Although biodynamic farming
is practiced in cool and warm climates
on all continents, the highest propor-
tions of biodynamic farms are found in
Western Europe, Australia, New
Zealand, and North America (Lampkin,
1990). A mid-1980s survey in Europe
found 1,090 commercial biodynamic
farms and gardens on 17,616 ha; 42%
of these were in Germany and 15% in
Holland (Koepf, 1989). The survey
also found that the European
biodynamic movement included 28 full-
time advisors, 124 processors under
contract; 47 wholesalers, about 3,000
retailers, 30 consumer groups, and
many additional part-time biodynamic
farmers and gardeners. A rough
estimate is that there are at least 2,000
practicing biodynamic farmers (full or
part-time) and gardeners in the United
States today (Charles L. Beedy,
Executive Director, Bio-Dynamic
Farming and Gardening Assoc. Inc.,
Kimberton, Pennsylvania, personal
communication, August 1994).
Biodynamics is considered by some
to be the oldest organized alternative
agriculture movement in the world. It
began in 1924 following a series of
lectures by Rudolf Steiner, the
founder of anthroposophy, at the
request of German farmers (Koepf,
1989). Within a few years, interest
spread to several European countries.
Ehrenfried Pfeiffer brought bio-
dynamics to the United States from
Europe before World War II. Today,
farmers, gardeners, advisers, and
scientists are organized into
biodynamic associations, some of
which have their own research
facilities. A certification program
was introduced in 1928 for marketing
basic foodstuffs, which are now
marketed under the trademarks
Demeter and Biodyn. Most, if not all,
certified biodynamic products (for
example, those with the Demeter
label) would meet the criteria for
certified organic, but certified organic
would not meet the Demeter
standards, mainly because the
biodynamic preparations are not used
in organic farming.
Like organic farming, biodynamic
farming uses no synthetic chemical
fertilizers and pesticides, and instead
emphasizes building up the soil with
compost additions and animal and
green manures, controlling pests
naturally, rotating crops, and
diversifying crops and livestock. A
major difference is that biodynamic
farmers add eight specific
preparations to their soils, crops, and
composts to enhance soil and crop
quality and to stimulate the
composting process (Koepf et al, 1976.)
Abstract. Biodynamic and organic farming are similar in that both are ecologically
oriented and do not use chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The main difference is that
biodynamic farmers add eight specific amendments, called preparations, to their soils,
crops, and composts. Recently, there has been an increasing interest in biodynamic
farming practices and systems because they show potential for mitigating some
detrimental effects of chemical-dependent conventional agriculture. Only a few studies
examining biodynamic methods or comparing biodynamic farming with other farming
systems have been published in the referred scientific literature, especially in English.
This paper summarizes data from previous studies, both published and unpublished
(theses), that have compared biodynamic and conventional farming systems with
respect to soil quality or profitability. These studies have shown that the biodynamic
farming systems generally have better soil quality, lower crop yields, and equal or
higher net returns per hectare than their conventional counterparts. Two studies that
included organic management treatments with and without the preparations showed
that the preparations improved biological soil properties and increased crop root
growth. However, more research is needed to determine whether the preparations
affect soil physical, chemical, and biological properties and crop growth and, if so,
their mode of action.
Key words: biodynamic farming, biodynamic preparations, soil quality, farm
profitability, cropping systems, on-farm research, sustainable agriculture.
Organic Farming & Biodynamic Agriculture Training resource book
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The eight preparations, designated by
their ingredients or by the numbers 500
to 507, are made from cow manure,
silica, flowers of yarrow, chamomile,
dandelion and valerian, oak bark, and
the whole plant of stinging nettle (Table
1). Some biodynamic farmers make the
preparations themselves while others
buy them from certifying biodynamic
associations or experienced practitioners.
The thoughts behind the preparations
are unconventional and based on a
holistic approach to nature. When
applied, extracts of the preparations are
so highly diluted in water that physical
or biological effects seem unlikely. Yet
significant increases in yield have been
reported in the biodynamic literature
(Goldstein,1990).Biodynamic practitioners
maintain that the preparations are not
‘witchcraft’, ‘snake oils’, ‘miracle cure-
alls’, or part of a get-rich-quick scheme.
Goldstein (1990) believes that people
who doubt that the preparations benefit
agriculture do so for the following
reasons:
Most people have probably not heard
of biodynamics or biodynamic
preparations.
Biodynamics is based on spiritual-
physical principles. Spiritual matters
are difficult, if not impossible, to
measure.
The making of the preparations seems
strange or unsanitary to many.
Such small amounts of the
preparations are applied to crops,
soils, or compost that a response
seems unlikely.
No correct chemical/physical answer
to why the preparations may work has
been offered. Some have proposed
that the preparations act as microbial
inoculates; others, think they may
have hormonal effects or maybe even
radiative effects.
Besides the preparations, there are other
differences between organic and
biodynamic farming. Modern organic
farming was started by Sir Albert
Howard in England in the 1930s,
emphasizing the use of compost instead
of chemical fertilizers (Oelhaf, 1978).
In 1924, Rudolf Steiner’s concept of a
healthy agriculture took into account
not only crop rotations, sound stocking
rates, and organic manuring, but also
cosmic factors, namely the influence of
the moon and planets. For example, his
observations led him to believe there
was a relationship between the position
of the moon relative to the sun (synodic
rhythm), planting dates, and crop
growth (Spiess, 1990).
Although there have been many articles,
ranging from the sketchy to the detailed,
describing studies of biodynamic
practices, most of this information has
not been reviewed according to rigorous
scientific principles by traditional soil
scientists, agronomists, or agricultural
economists (Koepf, 1993). Few studies
examining biodynamic farming
methods or comparing biodynamic with
other farming systems have been
published in the referenced scientific
literature, especially in English. Most
such studies have been conducted and
published in Germany and Sweden and
are not available in English (Koepf,
1989, 1993).
This paper summarizes data from
several previous investigations
comparing biodynamic and
conventional farms or research plots in
Europe, Australia, New Zealand, the
United States, and the Canary Islands.
Since this review includes mostly
English publications, it covers only a
small portion of the literature on
biodynamics. The objective of each
study reported here was to determine
the effects of biodynamic and
conventional farming on soil quality or
economic performance, two of several
indexes of agricultural sustainability.
Table 1. The eight biodynamic preparations, which consist of fermented materials that wre used as field sprays or in
manure or compost piles (Proctor, 1989).1
Preparation Substance from which preparation is produced Application of preparation
500 Cow manure fermented in a cow horn A spray for soils before planting
501 Silica fermented in a cow horn A spray for growing crops
502 Flower heads from yarrol (Achillea millefolium) fermented in the
bladder of a stag Preparations 502 through 507 are
applied to manure or compost piles
503 Flower heads from German chamomile (Matricaria recutita)
fermented in a cow intestine
504 Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) fermented in the soil
505 Oak bark (Quercus robur; in North America Quercus alba)
fermented in the skull of a domestic animal
506 Flower heads of dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) fermented in a
cow mesentry
507 Juice pressed from valerian flowers (Valeriana officinalis)
1 Although not considered one of the eight main preparations, a ninth preparation, sometimes referred to as 508,is made by boiling the
horsetail plant (Equisetum arvense) and is applied only in excessively wet years to prevent fungal diseases.
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Volume 10, Number 1 1995
Soil Quality Studies
High quality soils not only promote the
growth of plants, but also prevent water
and air pollution by resisting erosion
and by degrading and immobilizing
agricultural chemicals, organic wastes,
and other potential pollutants. The
quality of a soil is determined by a
combination of physical, chemical, and
biological properties such as the soil’s
texture, depth, porosity, capacity to
store water and nutrients, organic matter
content, and biological activity
(National Research Council, 1993). In
this section I report on studies
examining different combinations of
soil physical, chemical and biological
properties of farms or research plots
under biodynamic and conventional
manage-ment. Some studies also
include an organic treatment.
Sweden. In 1958, the Scandinavian
Research Circle began a field plot
experiment in Järna to study the effects
of biodynamic, organic, and
conventional management on soil and
crop quality (Pettersson and von
Wistinghausen, 1979). Eight non-
replicated fertilizer treatments were
applied to field plots. Each treatment
had the same four-year crop rotation:
summer wheat / clover-grass mixture/
potatoes/beets (Table 2). Routine soil
tests have been carried out since 1958 at
3 to 5 year intervals detailed analyses
were done of the topsoil (0-10cm) and
subsoil (25-35 cm) in 1976, 1985 and
1989, and of the second subsoil layer
(50-60 cm) in 1985 and 1989
(Pettersson et al., 1992).
In all three sampling years, the topsoil
of the biodynamically treated and
organically fertilized plots (K1-K4)
generally was higher in organic matter,
microbial activity, enzyme activity
(dehydrogenase and urease), earthworm
channel, total N, and pH than the topsoil
of the control (K5) or chemically
fertilized plots (K6-K8) (Pettersson et
al., 1992). Among the organically
fertilized treatments (K1-K4), treatment
K4, the only one with both organic and
inorganic fertilizers, had the lowest
microbial activity, dehydrogenase
activity, and earthworm channels for all
three years. Extractable P levels were
highest in the chemically fertilized
treatments (K7 and K8) in all three
years.
In the Pettersson et al. study (1992),
average yields for all four crops over
the 32 year period (1958-1989) were
comparable for all treatments, except
that the control (K5) was lower and the
low NPK treatment (K6) somewhat
lower. The variation in yield among the
seven treatments other than the control
was almost 20%, with the K8 treatment
(high NPK) having the highest average
yield and the K6 treatment (low NPK)
the lowest.
Granstedt (1991) measured plant
nutrient inputs and outputs on
conventional and biodynamic farms in
Sweden. He showed that the nutrient
economy on biodynamic farms was
more efficient and potentially more
environmentally safe than on
conventional farms.
Germany. A four-year plot experiment
comparing biological soil properties under
biodynamic, organic, and conventional
vegetable management was carried out in
Germany (Abele, 1987, as translated by
Koepf, 1993). Each management system
received annual applications of N at three
different rates (50, 100 and 150 kg/ha),
applied as chemical fertilizer to the
conventional plots, as composted manure
to the organic plots, and as composted
manure with biodynamic preparations to
the biodynamic plots. At all three N rates,
organic matter and total N were
significantly higher in the biodynamic
plots than in the corresponding organic
plots, and in both the biodynamic and
organic plots than in the conventional
plots. The biodynamic plots also were
significantly higher than the organic plots,
and the organic plots in turn significantly
higher than the conventional plots, in
dehydrogenase activity, microbial
biomass, and dehydrogenase activity per
unit of microbial biomass.
In another plot study on an experiment
station in German, Reinken (1986) found
higher organic matter levels and
earthworm populations on biodynamically
treated vegetable and apple plots than on
conventionally treated vegetable and
apple plots.
Austria. Forssner (1987) investigates
soil animals, microbial activity, soil
enzymes, and other soil properties on two
pairs of matched biodynamic and
conventional farms near Vienna. The
biodynamically farmed soils had greater
numbers of protozoa (testate amoebae and
ciliates) and nematodes, higher microbial
activity and humus content, and lower
bulk density than the conventionally
farmed soil. However, few differences
could be asserted with high statistical
confidence because of the low sample
size.
Austrialia. In a comparison of a
biodynamic and an adjacent
conventional farm in Australia, Forman
(1981) examined soil properties, yields,
and plant nutrient contents. The two
farms were in the Breeza Plains area in
New South Wales. The seven-year old
biodynamic farm used a crop rotation of
Table 2. The eight treatments in the field plot experiment in Järna, Sweden
(Pettersson and von Wistinghausen, 1979).
Treatment Fertilizer application
K1 Compost manure with biodynamic preparations 502 through 507 and,
from 1962 on, 1% levels of meat meal and bone meal (only bone meal
after 1974); soils and plants treated with biodynamic preparations 500
and 501, respectively.
K2 Same as K1 but excluding biodynamic sprays 500 and 501
K3 Raw manure with 1% additions of horn and bone meal as of 1974
K4 Raw manure at half the K3 rate plus inorganic MPK fertilizer at half
the K6 NPK rate
K5 Control (unfertilized)
K6 Organic NPK: From 1958 through 1973, compounded from Ca(NO3 )2,
NH4NO3 , superphosphate, and K2SO4 ; from 1974 on, prepared blend
(11-5-18) with trace minerals
K7 Inorganic NPK at twice the level as in K6
K8 Inorganic NPK at four times the N level and twice the P and K levels
as in K6
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wheat/
rye/fallow/wheat/fallow/wheat/wheat. The biodynamic paddock was in scattered timber before being cultivated.
The 11-year old conventional farm used
a wheat/ wheat/fallow rotation. Before
the conventional paddock was put into
arable crops, it first had been farmed for
10 years, then was in pasture for about
35 years. Organic matter, extractable P,
and pH were all significantly higher on
the biodynamic farm than on the
adjacent conventional farm (Table 3).
Levels of K were similar; only Mg and
Na were lower on the biodynamic farm.
Forman also conducted a greenhouse
pot trial with wheat using soil samples
from the biodynamic paddock and the
conventional paddock. Both soils
received various combinations of two
biodynamic preparations (500 and 507)
and two inorganic fertilizer nutrients (N
and P). A total of 16 treatments
(including a control), each replicated
three times, was applied to pots from
both biodynamic and conventional soils.
Over all treatments, Forman found that
the biodynamic soil had higher wheat
seedling emergence counts 7 and 8 days
after sowing and a much higher rate of
tiller formation 13 days after sowing
than the conventional soil (Table 3).
It also had significantly higher dry
matter wheat yields (48 days after
sowing), and higher yields per unit
of water added (water use efficiency)
than the conventional soil. Plants
grown in the biodynamic soil had a
significantly higher N content and
uptake, P uptake, and Ca content
than plants grown in the
conventional soil, but P content was
significantly higher in the
conventional soil.
Table 3. Mean values of soils data from adjacent paddocks and plant data from pot trials, New South Wales Farm Pair, Australia
(Forman, 1981).
Soil1 and Plant Properties Biodynamic Farm Conventional Farm
Soil Properties in Field Study
C(%) 1.43* 0.94
Total Nitrogen (%)2,3 0.23 0.13
Extractable P (mg/kg) 44.9* 27.8
Extractable Mg (cmol/kg) 1.65 1.86*
Extractible K (cmol/kg) 1.33 1.39
Extractable Na (cmol/kg) 2.17 4.63*
pH 6.12* 5.57
Pot Study
Seedling emergence count (7 days after sowing)3 111 48
Seedling emergence count (8 days after sowing)3 210 165
Plants showing tiller development (13 days after sowing)3 86 13
Mass of dry matter wheat produced (g) per pot (48 days after sowing) 2.57* 1.57
Mass of dry matter wheat produced per amount of water added (mg/ml) 1.32* 0.98
Plant N content (%) 2.09* 1.84
Plant N uptake (mg) 55.2* 30.4
Plant P content (%) 0.36 0.46*
Plant P uptake (mg) 9.4* 6.9
Plant Ca content (%) 0.33* 0.25
Plant K content (%) 3.31 3.17
Plant Mg content (%)
0.13 0.12
*Indicates a significantly higher value (p<0.01, usig a two-sided t-test for the field study ad a two-way ANOVA in a randomized
complete block design for the pot study).
1Based on a sampling depth of 0-10 cm.
2Total N means are each based on analysis of only two bulked samples per paddock; all other soil properties are averages for 25
separate samples per paddock.
Organic Farming & Biodynamic Agriculture Training resource book
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3Not statistically analyzed.
Volume 10, Number 1, 1995
Penfield (1993, 1994) established a long-
term research project in 1989 at the
Roseworthy Campus of the university of
Adelaide in Australia to investigate soil
characteristics, crop yields, and
economics of four farming systems:
biodynamic, conventional, integrated
(low input), and organic. The systems
are being compared in a 16 ha campus
farm paddock previously in pasture, with
two replicated 2-ha plots per treatment.
A wheat crop is grown in all treatments
every four years. After four years, the
four treatments showed few statistically
significant differences in organic C, VA
mycorrhizae, microbial biomass and
activity, earthworms, water infiltration,
soil erosion, or extractable P (Penfold,
1994).
New Zealand. To examine the effects
of biodynamic and conventional farming
systems on soil quality, Reganold et al.
(1993) examined seven biodynamic
farms on the North Island of New
Zealand, each of which was matched
with one or two adjacent conventional
farms on the basis of soil characteristics
and crop or livestock enterprises (total of
16 farms). The farms included a range of
representative enterprises in New
Zealand: market garden (vegetables),
pipfruit (apples and pears), citrus, grain,
sheep/beef and dairy. Farm fields within
each pair or three farm set had the same
crop or livestock enterprise and soil type.
The biodynamic farms had been
biodynamically managed for at least 8
years; the oldest for 18 years. The
biodynamically managed surface soils (0-
10 cm), had significantly higher organic
matter content and microbial activity,
lower bulk density, easier penetrability,
and thicker topsoil than their
conventional neighbors (Table 4).
Differences in chemical properties were
mixed: cation exchange capacity and total
N were higher on the biodynamic farms,
while available P, available S and soil pH
were higher on the conventional farms.
Levels of Ca, Mg, and K were similar in
the two systems.
The physical condition of the soils on all
16 farms has since been assessed
(Reganold and Palmer, unpublished data)
using a soil structure index developed by
Peerlkamp (1967), as modified by
McLaren and Cameron (1990).
The structure index ranges from 1
(poorest condition) to 10 (most
favorable). The index for the
biodynamically farmed soils averaged
7.4, whereas the conventionally
farmed soils were significantly lower
at 5.7 (Table 4).
Reganold et al. (1993) analyzed only
the vegetable farm pair for
earthworms and found the
biodynamically cropped soil to have
more than 8 times as many
earthworms (more than 25 times by
mass) as the conventionally cropped
soil. In later measurements on two of
the other farm pairs in the study of
Reganold et al. (1993), Levick (1992)
found 12 times as many earthworms
on the biodynamic citrus farm and 84
times as many earthworms on the
biodynamic pipfruit farm compared
with their conventional counterparts.
Levick also found that the
biodynamically farmed soils had
significantly higher water infiltration
rates, porosity, organic C and soil
respiration, and lower bulk density ad
penetration resistance than the
conventionally farmed soils.
Table 4. Mean values of aggregated soils data (Reganold et al. 1993).
Soil Property1 All Biodynamic Farms All Conventional Farms
Bulk density (Mg/m3) 1.07 1.15*
Penetration resistance (0-20 cm) (MPa) 2.84 3.18*
Penetration ressistance (20-40 cm) (MPa) 3.55 3.52
Soil Structure Index2 7.4* 5.7
Topsoil thickness (cm) (includes surface and subsurface (A) horizons 22.8* 20.6
C (%) 4.84* 4.27
Respiration (µL O2 h-1 g-1) 73.7* 55.4
Mineralizable nitrogen (mg/kg) 140.0* 105.9
Ratio of mineralizable N to C (mg min N/g C) 2.99* 2.59
Cation exchange capacity (cmol/kg) 21.5* 19.6
Total N (mg/kg) 4840* 4260
Total P (mg/kg) 1560 1640
Extractable P (mg/kg) 45.7 66.2*
Extractable S (mg/kg) 10.5 21.5*
Extractable Ca (cmol/kg) 12.8 13.5
Extractable Mg (cmol/kg) 1.71 1.68
Extractable K (cmol/kg) 0.97 1.00
pH 6.10* 6.29*
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* Indicates a significantly higher value (p<0.01, using a two-way ANOVA).
1 Based on a sampling depth of 0-10 cm, except where noted.
2 Unpublished data (Reganold and Palmer, 1994) based on soil structure index developed by Peerlkamp (1967), as modified by McLaren and
Cameron (1990).
United States. Goldstein (1986)
compared the effects of biodynamic,
organic, and conventional
management on biological soil
properties and crop growth
characteristics in a three-year field
plot study in a dry-land grain
production area of Washington State.
The biodynamic plots (manure
compost and preparations) and the
organic plots (manure compost only)
were significantly higher in organic
matter and microbial respiration and
biomass than were the conventional
plots (N and P fertilizer). The
biodynamic plots were significantly
higher in microbial biomass and
slightly higher in organic matter and
microbial respiration than the
organic plots. The biodynamic plots
also had more growth of winter
wheat roots than either the organic or
the conventional plots.
Canary Islands. Garcia et al.
(1989) studied soil fertility and foliar
composition on a 5-year old, 6-ha
biodynamic avocado plantation in
Tenerife (largest of the Canary
Islands). They compared the results
with similar soil data (gathered 5
years earlier) from 31 conventional
avocado plantations and similar
foliar data from 15 plantations. They
found that the surface soils (0-25 cm)
of the biodynamic plantation were
significantly higher in pH, organic
matter, and available P, Ca, Mg, and
K than those of the conventional
plantations. Foliar levels of N, P, K,
Mg, and Cu were similar in the two
types of plantations; Ca and Mn were
significantly lower in the biodynamic
avocados, although they fell within
the range considered normal, and
foliar Zn was significantly higher in
the biodynamic avocados.
Economic Studies
Researchers in the studies reported
here used enterprise gross margin as
a measure of economic performance,
except for Vereijken (1986; 1990).
Gross margin is the difference
between gross revenue and variable
or operating expenses. Variable
costs include fertilizers, pesticides,
fuels, labor, and biodynamic
preparations, among others. Fixed
costs such as debt servicing were
excluded.
Germany. Schlüter (1985), at the
University of Stuttgart-Hohenheim,
Germany, analyzed farm
management, labor, yields, and
profitability of 16 biodynamic farms
from seven production regions in the
southwest German state of Baden-
Württemberg. (I base this review on
a condensed English translation of
her dissertation by Koepf [1986].)
Schlüter’s team gathered data from
farm records and from interviews
with the farmers every three months
for two years (1980-1981). The
farms had been under biodynamic
management for an average of 14.5
years (6 to 51 years) and averaged 28
ha in size (15 to 49 ha). The
biodynamic farms produced cereal
crops, row crops (potatoes, sugar
beets and field vegetables), maize for
silage, other arable forage
(clover/grass, mixtures of legumes
with cereals), and livestock (cattle,
pigs, poultry, dairy). Results from
the biodynamic farms were
compared with annual official
statistics from the Baden-
Württemberg Ministry of Food,
Agriculture and Environment for
conventional farms in each
production region.
The yields of all the cereal crops on
biodynamic farms for 1979/1980 and
1980/1981 were lower by 13%; the
average being almost equal to
conventional farm yields on the good
soils and considerably lower on the
poorer soils. Koepf (1986) points
out that part of this difference may
have been due to preference of
biodynamic farmers and their
customers for certain lower yielding
cultivars with desired baking
qualities, and to the production of
spelt (Triticum spelta, or German
wheat), hulless oats, and hulless
barley for human consumption.
Potato yields were similar in the two
farming systems. Milk yields per
cow on biodynamic farms were
almost 15% lower than on the
conventional farms. Again, Koepf
(1986) notes that this difference may
have resulted because biodynamic
farmers who wished to qualify for
Demeter (biodynamic) certification
were allowed to buy commercial
feeds only up to 10% of the dry
matter content of the ration.
The costs and returns for the
biodynamic and conventional farms
in the Schlüter study are shown in
Table 5. The biodynamic and
conventional farms had similar gross
revenues Gross revenues in German
marks (DM) per ha from all crops
were higher on the biodynamic
farms, whereas gross revenues from
animal husbandry (beef, pork, milk
and eggs) were 25 to 54% lower on
the biodynamic farms (Koepf, 1986).
However, because the biodynamic
farmers had lower costs than the
conventional farmers, their profits
were higher (Table 5). In the two
years studied, biodynamic products
received an average premium of 59%
(range 15 to108%) over the price of
similar conventional products
(Koepf, 1986).
On research plots at an experiment
station in German, yields of all
vegetable crops for a six-year period
averaged 16% less on biodynamic
plots than on conventional plots
(Reinken, 1986). However, since the
prices received were higher for
biodynamic than for conventional
vegetables, profits were significantly
higher for most biodynamic
vegetables, including spinach, celery,
red beet, white cabbage, and carrot.
Table 5. Gross revenue, expenses, and profits of biodynamic and conventional farms in Germany in 1980 and 1981 (Koepf, 1986).
Farm size: 10-20 ha 20-30 ha 30-40 ha
Bio Con Bio Con Bio Con
Number of farms 4 928 4 1,689 4 1,612
Organic Farming & Biodynamic Agriculture Training resource book
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Average size of farms (ha) 17.7 16.2 22.1 25.0 38.4 37.6
Gross revenue (DM ha-1yr-1) 6,369 6,625 6,874 5,774 3,507 4,689
Expenses (DM ha-1yr-1) 3,934 5,093 3,713 4,505 2,415 3755
Profit (DM ha-1yr-1) 2,435 1,532 3,161 1,269 1,092 934
Volume 10, Number 1, 1995
Reinken (1986) found that average
yields of three varieties of apples for the
six-year period were 30 to 38% lower
on the biodynamic plots than on the
conventional plots. Profitability for
apples was not reported. Labor
requirements for apple growing were an
average of 27% higher on the
biodynamic plots, but the biodynamic
apples received a premium of 27% over
the price of conventional apples.
An early study by the Baden-
Württemberg Ministry of Food,
Agriculture and Environment in
Germany (MELU, 1977), as translated
and reported in Koepf (1989) and
Lampkin (1990), reported results
similar to those of the Schlüter and
Reinken studies on yields and economic
performance. The MELU study
surveyed pairs of biodynamic and
conventional farms from 1971 to 1974.
It found that although the biodynamic
farms’ grain yields were from 10 to
25% lower, their variable costs were
lower and their net returns were about
the same to about 40% higher than their
conventional counterparts. If the
premium prices received by the
biodynamic farmers were replaced by
the conventional prices, their net returns
would have been about 0 to 20% lower
than those of their conventional
neighbors (Lampkin, 1990).
The Netherlands. Research on
alternative and conventional farming
systems began in 1979 on a 72-ha
experimental farm in Nagele (Vereijken,
1990). Three farming systems were set
up as whole farms: a 22-ha biodynamic
farm, a 17-ha conventional farm, and a
17-ha integrated farm (minimal inputs of
fertilizers and pesticides). Economic
data from 1982 to 1985 (Vereijken,
1986) and from 1985 to 1987
(Vereijken, 1990) indicated that gross
revenue was the highest for the
biodynamic farm because of the high
premiums paid for the biodynamic
products. However, total production
costs also were higher for the
biodynamic farm than either the
conventional or the integrated farm,
which resulted in the biodynamic farm
having the lowest net income.
These results contrast sharply with other
results discussed in this paper. As
pointed out by Lampkin (1990), a major
flaw in the Nagele study is that the
biodynamic unit was established as a
labor-intensive mixed dairy and arable
system (11-year crop rotation) in an area
that is almost exclusively arable. The
conventional and integrated units were
set up as arable farms with the same
four-year crop rotation. Labor costs for
the biodynamic farm were almost three
times higher than for either the
conventional or integrated farm, causing
most of the difference in net returns.
Lampkin (1990) concludes that a less
labor intensive organic system could
have been developed that would
have been more competitive given
the conditions in the region.
Australia. In the Penfold study
(1993) discussed earlier,
conventional yields were highest (3.5
ton/ha) and biodynamic yields were
lowest (2.3 ton/ha) in 1992, when all
four treatments were in wheat (Table
6). However, the biodynamic
treatment had the highest total gross
margin per ha for the first four years
(1989-1992), followed by the
conventional, organic, and integrated
treatments (Table 6). This included
a 20% premium on organic and
biodynamic wheat from the 1992
harvest. The biodynamic and
conventional treatments had the
highest gross margins mainly
because they had three cash crops,
whereas the organic and integrated
treatments had only two.
New Zealand. Reganold et al.
(1993) compared the economic
performance of biodynamic and
conventional farms in the same study
that analyzed soil quality. They
examined farmers’ annual accounts
from 1987 to 1991 for 11 of the 16
farms. These results also were
compared to representative
conventional farm data in annual
Table 6. Rotations (1989-1992), wheat yields (1992), and gross revenue, variable costs, and gross margin (1989-1992) of biodynamic,
conventional, integrated, and organic plots in Australia (Penfold, 1993; 1994).
Biodynamic Conventional Integrated Organic
Rotation: 1989 oats/medic for hay wheat oats/medic for hay oats/medic for hay
1990 legume-based pasture peas legume-based pasture wheat (mulched)
1991 oats/vetch for hay legume-based pasture legume-based pasture green manure crop
1992 wheat wheat wheat wheat
Wheat yield (1992) (t/ha) 2.3 3.5 2.7 2.9
Total over rotation 1989-1992 (A$/ha)
Gross revenue 1,399 1,196 823 992
Variable costs 391 436 553 352
Organic Farming & Biodynamic Agriculture Training resource book
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Gross margin 1,008 760 270 635
reports by the Ministry of Agriculture
and Fisheries (MAF) for all major
farming systems in New Zealand. On a
per hectare basis the biodynamic farms
were as profitable as the neighboring
conventional farms and re
representative conventional farms
(Table 7). Most of their products were
sold as certified organic or biodynamic
at premium prices up to 25% above the
market prices of similar conventional
products. Most of the biodynamic
farms had less year-to-year variability
in gross revenue than the conventional
farms (Reganold et al., 1993).
Economic stability is a significant
characteristic of sustainable farming
systems.
Summary and Discussion
The farming goals of biodynamic
practitioners include protection and
enhancement of soil to produce high
quality products. To stimulate life in the
soil and in plants, they use eight specific
amendments, called preparations, on
their soils and crops and in their
composts. Their system includes
practices such as green and animal
manuring, composting, biological pest
controls, reduced tillage, complex crop
rotations, and diversified crops and
livestock.
This paper has summarized the few
studies available in English that hae
compared soil quality or farm
profitability in biodynamic and
conventional farming systems.
These studies found that the
biodynamic farming systems
generally had better soil quality,
lower crop yields, and equal or
greater net returns per hectare than
their conventional counterparts. The
economic studies showed that
biodynamic farming systems can and
do work. Many biodynamic farmers
stay in business because of the price
premium received for their products.
Although the studies reported here
included these premiums, they did
not count the environmental and
health costs of the two farming
systems, which are external to the
farm’s accounts. The log-term
profitability of many conventional
farms seems questionable when these
externalities are included. Indirect
costs such as offsite damage from
soil erosion, surface and ground
water pollution, hazards to human
and animal health, and damage to
wildlife from conventional farming
practices are presently borne by
society. When these external costs
are included in the costs of
production, the profitability and
benefits to society have been shown
to be the greater for some alternative
farming systems (Holmes, 1993).
Some of the studies on soil quality
were conducted on a single pair or
multiple pairs of commercial farms.
Conducting paired-farm research to
compare the effects of agricultural
systems on soil requires three things:
1) neighboring farms that are now
Table 7. Average annual gross revenue, variable costs, and gross margin of
biodynamic and conventional farms in New Zealand, 1988 to 1991 (Reganold et al.,
1993). Average (NZ$ ha-1 yr-1)
Farm enterprise Bio Con MAF1
Market gardens
Gross revenue 14,094 18,845 ___2
Variable costs 4,977 8,088 ___2
Gross margin 9,117 10,757 ___2
Citrus orchards
Gross revenue 13,434 ___3 13,481
Variable costs 6,254 ___3 8,974
Gross margin 7,180 ___3 4,507
Mixed farms
Gross revenue 703 1,337 1,027
Variable costs 311 537 436
Gross margin 392 800 591
Livestock farms
Gross revenue 463 393 328
Variable costs 46 83 84
Gross margin 417 310 244
Dairy farm set #1
Gross revenue 2,283 ___4 1,355
Variable costs 833 ___4 426
Gross margin 1450 ___4 929
Dairy farm set #2
Gross revenue 1,696 2,237 1,817
Variable costs 918 503 513
Gross margin
778 1,734 1,304
1 Representative conventional farm based on New Zealand Ministry of Agriculture and
Fisheries.
2 There are no MAF models for market gardens.
3
Only two years
Organic Farming & Biodynamic Agriculture Training resource book
73
managed by different systems but that
previously were under similar
management; 2) side-by-side fields
where soil-forming factors are
equalized; and 3) sufficient time for
each management system’s respective
practices to have influenced soil
properties (Reganold, 1988; Reganold
et al., 1993). Pseudoreplication, where
replicates are not statistically
independent, in the strictest sense is
unavoidable when comparing two fields
form a single farm pair, as in the
Forman (1981) study. As Hurlbert
(1984, p.199) explains: “Replication is
often impossible or undesirable when
very
Organic Farming & Biodynamic Agriculture Training resource book
74
large-scale systems (whole
lakes, watersheds, rivers,
etc.) are studied. When gross
effects of a treatment are
anticipated, or when only a
rough estimate of effect is
required, or when the cost of
replication is very great,
experiments involving
unreplicated treatments may
also be the only or best
option.” The commercial
farms in the studies discussed
here meet the criteria or
large-scale systems. Still,
when possible, it is better to
use multiple farm pairs in a
block design to have proper
replication. How statistical
difficulties in farming
systems comparisons can be
overcome through proper
design and analysis is
discussed by Wardle (1994)
and Reganold (1994).
Plot studies, too need
adequate replication for
proper statistical design. For
example, the plot studies by
Penfold (1993) and by
Pettersson and von
Wistinghausen (1979) would
have been improved if they
had four replicates per
treatment instead of two and
one, respectively. Yet these
studies still are valuable,
because they demonstrate
different farming systems and
provide long-term results.
An interesting question raised
by the soil studies is whether
soil quality is affected by the
biodynamic preparations in
particular, or whether the
effects are from the organic
amendments applied in the
biodynamic system The
research of Goldstein (1989)
and Abele (1987), which
included siilar organic
farming treatments with and
without the preparations,
illustrate that the biodynamic
preparations positively
influence biological soil
properties and crop root
growth. Much work on the
preparations has been done
by biodynamic researchers.
The results have been
variable, particularly
regarding the effect of the
preparations on manure
decomposition, soil biology,
crop yields, and the keeping
quality of different products
(Goldstein, 1990). However,
very little has been published
in the refereed scientific
literature and not all the work
was of high scientific quality.
More research is needed that
specifically examines
whether the biodynamic
preparations affect the soil’s
physical, chemical, and
biological properties and crop
yield and quality, and if so,
their mode of action. The
results of such studies need to
be published in refereed
scientific journals.
Acknowledgement: Part of this paper
ws presented at the 3rd Wye
International Conference on
Sustainable Agriculture and
appeared in the conference
proceedings “Soil Management in
Sustainable Agriculture” (H. Cook
and H>C> Lee, eds., University of
London, Wye College, Wye,
England, 1994).
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