‘It’s all about the connections between the earth, the atmosphere and the cosmos,’ says Marc Intervera of his approach to biodynamic farming. We’re standing on top of a hill looking out over the creamy yellows and soft greens of the rural Adelaide Hills landscape.
It’s late November 2015 – the land is abundant and buzzing with life. Hay bales are scattered on a carpet of freshly cut grass, rows of flowers in various shades of yellow, white and pink march across paddocks punctuated by rows of pear trees, and a kangaroo hops about in the distance. Idyllic is an understatement.
Marc is the former horticultural specialist at Jurlique, an Australian skincare brand founded by Jurgen and Ulrike Klein around 30 years ago. Jurgen, a biochemist, and Ulrike, a botanist, wanted to create products based on natural ingredients and biodynamic farming methods. They chose the Adelaide Hills to grow the ingredients for their products, and soon began creating creams, oils and ointments.
Fast-forward to 2016 and the brand has grown into an international affair, with their products sold in more than 19 countries. Over 90% of the botanical extracts used in Jurlique products are grown on the farm – including crops like roses, calendula, chamomile, lavender, licorice, marshmallow, birch, and more.
My initial assumption regarding the farm, given the size of the brand and their output, was that it would have to be a huge, industrial operation. I was surprised. It’s small – around 100 acres, 40 of which are used for production, and around 40 of which are either remnant bushland or being regenerated with native plants, many of which have been grown from seeds selected from locally endemic plant species. There’s an old homestead, used as the farm office, a drying shed and shop, and a bunch of greenhouses. Where the magic happens, though, is in the little stone shed next to a stand of old pine trees. A box of cow horns sits on the floor, a jar of crushed quartz on the windowsill, and there’s a weird swirly waterfall thing outside the door.
The shed is where the biodynamic preparations are made, continuing Ulrike and Jurgen’s legacy. For them, growing the plants biodynamically had little to do with quantifiable outcomes like higher yields but was more about increasing the vitality within the plant, and therefore the product.
Marc continues these practices today, and is clearly passionate about his job. He also turns out to be one of the most interesting characters I’ve met in quite a while. He’s got a degree in horticultural science, spent a few years studying lomi lomi massage in Hawaii, and one of his favourite plant books is ‘The Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs’. Oh, and he builds 4×4 cars in his spare time. In one breath he’s talking about scientific trials he’s undertaken measuring the antioxidant qualities of calendula grown on the farm, and the next he’s discussing whether a plant has masculine or feminine energy.
‘Biodynamics is about healing and nurturing the earth’, says Marc. ‘Good organic and biodynamic farmers do very similar things. The main difference is a biodynamic farmer uses special preparations, works by the lunar calendar, and is perhaps more in tune with his/her farm.’
In an organic system the goal is to grow plants that are nutritionally good for us. In a biodynamic system we take it one step further – so the plants are not only nutritious, but they also nourish and balance us on other levels.
The biodynamic approach to agriculture was first developed by Rudolph Steiner in the early 1920s. Marc tells the story of a German farmer’s son being sent to sit on the doorstep of Rudolph Steiner’s house. He was told not to return without him. Steiner finally agreed to visit the farmers, who were struggling with production declines, increased stock mortality rates and substandard sauerkraut. He delivered a series of lectures outlining his approach to agriculture – increasing the biological life of soil through the use of special preparations, looking at farms holistically, and seeing connections between the earth, atmosphere, and cosmos. The lectures were published in a book, Agriculture, in 1924. Steiner died just one year later.
As Marc suggests, there are many similarities between organic and biodynamic farming. One of the main differences is in the use of the preparations used to enrich the soil in biodynamics.
There’s a bunch of recipes developed by Steiner (and others after him) involving a myriad of manure, herbs, quartz and more. One used regularly at the Jurlique farm is Preparation 500, which involves filling a cow horn with manure from lactating cows. The horns are filled, buried in a pit for around four months, and then dug up, emptied and added to water.
The water and manure mix is then activated in a flow form machine, which swirls the water clockwise, then anti-clockwise, creating vortexes again and again. ‘The idea of the vortex is it brings etheric energy from above, and emulates the natural rhythms of nature, being chaos and order, chaos and order. So, we’re sort of simulating what happens in nature in our preparation. We activate it, bring it to life, and then spread it out over the farm.’
The mix will run through the flow-form machine for around an hour before being deemed energized and ready to apply to the land. The fermented cow manure and water mix is then applied randomly around the paddocks with a brush, and with the applier focusing on thoughts of love and vitality.
According to Marc, Preparation 500 ‘harnesses earth bound energy’, increasing the vitality of the soil. The preparation is applied around four times a year. ‘We put it out in the afternoon, generally in the spring when the earth is awakening or in autumn, when it’s starting to contract and go to sleep.’
The other preparation used regularly on the farm is Preparation 501. This is a mix of ground quartz buried in a cow horn in a similar manner to Preparation 500. The quartz mix is then sprayed in the air. ‘We’ll spray it in the morning when the light energy is most active. The idea is to increase photosynthetic potential in the sky as well as add a silica component to the atmosphere,’ says Marc.
The application of the biodynamic preparations on the farm are not just done on any old day. Their timing is determined by an astrological calendar, developed by a man called Brian Keats, which includes a range of information such as planting days, harvesting days, moon, sun and planet positions and more. Marc uses it to guide farm activities, where practical. This calendar has pride of place in his office, alongside the most amazing library of plant books I’ve ever seen. They were Ulrike’s collection, and are used by Marc to research new plants and their ‘magical’ qualities. I reckon I could live happily amongst them for a week or three.
There’s something mad and wonderful about biodynamics. And there’s something mad and wonderful about an international skincare brand growing the plants for their products in this way. Do they work better? I don’t know. For me, that’s not the point. If everything in the world were scientifically quantifiable, where would the mystery lie? What would happen to the delight, the wonderment, and the magic of life and its unknowns? Any approach to farming framed by the deep care and respect for the earth, atmosphere, and cosmos is fine by me.