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Steiner's Plow

Reflections on radical farming, radical perspectives

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As I was riding through a remote part of the Swedish countryside last summer, I was surprised to see a farmer working a plow drawn by a horse. The young man's face sported a beard trimmed to Amish specifications, and his past-century clothing looked like it had come right out of a movie-set costume trailer. I stared in surprise.

"I didn't know you had Amish in Sweden," I said. My friend at the wheel of the car, an ex-pat from Marin, said, "We don't. Those are German back-to-earth farmers who've been immigrating to Sweden, part of the Rudolph Steiner movement."

So this was how some were taking the mystical agriculture path, I thought. While I know the costuming and the beard are optional, farmers following the plow in Steiner's footsteps do, in a way, have to leave their country—psychologically if not geographically—to follow in true spirit.

Steiner never intended his philosophy of farming to serve as a marketing gimmick so that more wine, for example, might be sold because the words "biodynamically farmed" appear on the label. What he intended was that the farming experience be reintegrated as part of the human spirit. His was not a get-rich scheme.

Austria-born Steiner, a brilliant and radical thinker who authored over 300 works before his death in 1925, was a mystic and scholar. Known for his many social-reform ideas, including the Waldorf methods in education, Steiner believed that those tilling the soil must resurrect and honor ancient agrarian practices and combine them with a creative spirituality—a kind of farming-the-self ideal.

For his vision, Steiner functions like a patron saint of alternative agriculture. Decades before scientist James Lovelock's 1965 Gaia hypothesis, positing that the planet Earth is a living organism, Steiner was claiming the same principle—that the farm is a living organism and that the farmer is part of that organism. So biodynamic principles require a big shift in perspective, a life change for those who take them on with whole-hearted conviction.

Many are attracted to Steiner's ideologies—some sincerely, others superficially. But when the San Francisco Examiner claimed in 2010 that biodynamic farming was entering the mainstream based on the fact that a few hundred wine-industry folks attended a biodynamic workshop, I shook my head. I am still unconvinced. I'm not cynical, just aware that relatively few have the conviction (and the means) to go as far as that farmer I saw following his horse and Steiner's plow. "Turn to the ancient principle," Steiner wrote. "Spirit never without matter, matter never without spirit."

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