The Farm Organism

Unit Overview - The aim of this unit is to provide the learner with a knowledge and understanding of the concept of the whole farm organism and the ability to reflect on this concept relating to their own holding.


1.1 Explain the concept of the whole farm organism


Of course it is true that Rudolph Steiner was the inspiration and designer of the Biodynamic Movement, but he also sowed the seeds of the organic movement in his Agriculture Lectures.   I write this because the term organic farming was coined by Oxford University agriculturalist Lord Northbourne, in his book Look to the Land, and published in wartime England in 1940. It was a response to what he dubbed chemical farming, and from the outset he presented these as two mutually incompatible systems.


"In the second lecture of the Agriculture Course, Rudolf Steiner first presents the picture that the farm can be considered to be an organism with its head in the ground and belly above ground, with the layer of living soil acting like a diaphragm between the upper pole and the lower pole. It is a threefold being, with its nerve-sense head system in the ground, its metabolic system working in all that is above ground, and the living soil, like the heart-lung system, mediating between the two. " Biodynamicus


Building on Steiner's ideas, Northbourne’s key contribution to organic farming is the idea of the farm as organism. He wrote of “the farm as a living whole” (p.81). In the first elaboration of this concept, he wrote that “the farm itself must have a biological completeness; it must be a living entity, it must be a unit which has within itself a balanced organic life” (p. 96). A farm that relied on “imported fertility ... cannot be self-sufficient nor an organic whole” (p.97). For Lord Northbourne “the farm must be organic in more senses than one” (p. 98), and he pre- sents the holistic view that “The soil and the microorganisms in it together with the plants growing on it form an organic whole” (p. 99).


Some simple examples of the farm organism follow:


1. Building fertility on the farm through compost making.


All animal manure from chickens and goats, together with straw bedding that is cleaned out of the animal accommodation areas goes to the compost heap. In turn through the composting process and through the actions of decomposition, the addition of biodynamic preparations and the work of micro organisms, a rich well rotted compost mixture is produced, suitable for adding fertility to the growing beds in the Horticulture Area. In this way, additional artificially produced fertilisers are not purchased and added to the land, as would happen in intensive systems.  There are a number of obvious benefits to this type of practice.  Firstly, animal manure is disposed of in a sustainable way.  Secondly our vegetables are healthy and ultimately give good nutrition when eaten.  Thirdly the composting process demonstrates nature's recycling system to the students who visit the farm.  There are numerous other advantages, which far exceed any negatives.

2.  Using the woodland for timber construction projects.


Often, purchased timber is of poor quality and has been quick grown for profit.  As a result it can be warped and lacking in strength.  Often purchased timber is treated to prevent rot using chemical dips which are not good for the environment and which can leach back out of the wood.


Far better to use timber sourced on the holding and milled on the holding so that the timber doesn't have to travel far and so that the timber can be appropriately processed for the intended use. So Larch when milled is a suitable timber for cladding the external faces of buildings as it is waterproof and lasts well outdoors for many years.  It was also used on my holding for the purposes of building weatherproof roofing for pig accommodation.  The materials that can be found to hand are best used

for construction projects on the land.


3.  Using local stone for wall building and design projects.


At Eyam Edge Farm the bedrock is Gritstone.  A form of sandstone with larger particles of grit.  These were traditionally used to make grinding stones for the grinding of wheat, but were also used for the sharpening of knives in the cutlery industry.  In all areas of the country using local materials for the building of walls and houses is regular and common, slate in Wales for example, a combination of limestone and gritstone in The Peak District National Park region of Derbyshire.

Of course we have local quarries that can supply us with gritstone in large consignments, available cheaply.  We have used it to construct walls and gardens.  We constantly need to rebuild the boundary walls which have been in place for hundreds of years.  Using local stone the finished product harmonises visually with local features and weathers down to the same colours.  It avoids the transportation and pollution costs of bringing in materials from far flung locations.  For example the trend of importing Indian Limestone from across the globe must have dreadful environmental impact and probably bad practices at the source.


4. Planting Beech Hedges


When planting hedging around our horticulture area we chose beech.  This tree is found in many places on and near the site.  Knowing what we now do about underground relationships between trees, through the mycorrhizal fungi network we were able to 'innoculate' the planting holes with handfuls of the rich humus gathered from the beech woodland.  This should strengthen the establishment of the trees by improving nutrient uptake.  Furthermore, like the use of local stone, the use of appropriate native, locally adapted trees is better for the site and better for the visual appearance of the site.

Such examples are focused on the plant, the mineral, the animal and the human.  There are many more insights into this process on the 'Projects' page.  It is also worth saying that the Genius Loci unit contains a great deal more about this.


Another key feature of the benefit of the farm organism is in the enhanced resilience of the farm through being self-contained for feed and fertility. Now from a fertility perspective we have already discussed the importance of compost making.  If we could be self sufficient in animal feed we would be in an even stronger position in times of doubt and supply, such as in the present pandemic situation. I have to admit that I purchase organic feed for my animals, but my future plans include the growing of fodder crops.


Perhaps the greatest benefit of trying to create the farm organism comes from the harmony between the parts and the whole. The word harmony of course originates from the musical realm, where harmony is different voices vibrating at complimentary pitches to create wonderful music.  This can be seen as a metaphor for the farm.  Each element somehow 'vibrates' with its compatibility with the others. There is interconnectedness.  There is a sense of belonging.  There is a good feeling which comes about from the different parts fitting together in a mutually compatible way.


This is the essence of the farm organism.


2.1 Describe your own holding in the context of the whole farm organism


Examples of Eyam Edge Farm in relation to the idea of the farm organism:  Further information is contained within the Projects section of this website.


1.  Compost building from animal manure and bedding

2.  Use of locally sourced timber for construction

3.  Use of locally sourced stone for boundary walls and construction

4.  Use of beech hedging for Horticulture Area

5.  Use of herbs and vegetables for the feeding of students and staff during the school day.

6.  Digging of clay for pottery projects eg pizza oven

7.  Integration of plants for attraction of insects eg bees for pollination

8.  Installation of bird feeders to bring the birds to the site.

9.  Growing of fodder crops such as turnips for over the winter feed for pigs

10. Pigs utilise any waste products and effectively turn them into meat

11. Leaves from the site are collected and then shredded for leaf mold and composting

12. Where possible, construction is done with local materials

13. Plans for increasing fodder crops grown biodynamically.

14. Use of natural dyes plants for dyeing our own wool.

15. Shearing, scouring, washing, processing and dyeing our own wool for knitting and garments.


There are many more examples across this website.


2.2 Propose improvements for your own holding in the context of the farm organism


When I took over the management of the site at Eyam it was the middle of winter.  The stark landscape  was dramatic and bare.  The only building on the site was the barn, a building which was finished in the summer of 2015.  There were no animals or horticultural elements.  There was no electricity, no access road, no gas or mains sewerage.  It was an exposed site with a wild character.  Beautiful but brutal.  There was no farm organism.  There was barely a farm at all.  We did have a mains water supply, but it frequently froze and water was not plumbed into the building itself.


From this position, began the development of the holding.  From a biodynamic perspective, each element in the whole should support the whole.  Each group of animals might be considered an organ of the whole organism.  The by products of keeping the animals, can be composted and in turn returned to the horticulture area.  The leaves that fall from the trees can be shredded and composted.  The foliage that is spent and finished, such as flowers and vegetation can be placed on the heap and left over the autumn to break down into a rich fertile mix.


The soil is the intermediary between that which is above ground and that which is below.  At the Eyam site it quickly became apparent that the topsoil layer consisted of quite rich sandy loam, with small to medium sized gritstone rocks about 15cm down and fairly pure clay below that.  It supported wild grasses and flowers and has been recognised as being species rich.  In addition we identified slightly higher than average lead levels in the soil of between 200 and 800 ppm where 450 is considered the upper limit for the growing of food crops. This raised challenges beyond the obvious ones - that we were planning to grow at 1300ft above sea level.  The decision was made to grow in imported topsoil as a precaution.  All of the raised beds and growing areas are lined with Terram landscape fabric which is topped by a layer of gravel for drainage purposes and then fillled out with topsoil.


In addition there are other elements which must be designed and implemented to nourish the people that visit the site.  There are spaces that must be created for curriculum requirements. These places are again special 'organs' of the farm organism.  They draw the students to particular parts of the site where they will find the animals, trees or plants which form the beginning of learning journeys. They will also find specially placed features such as tables, sculptures, focus points, swings, firepits and secret spaces which contain hidden buildings, tents, dens or seating. All of these can be a part of the farm organism.


For example, we started with the building of The Sensory Garden, which was a protected space surrounded by a drystone wall constructed of gritstone.  The interior was built using oak sleepers to create raised beds which were then filled with a mixture of imported soil, biodynamic compost from High Riggs, and finally a topsoil mix from a local firm.


Proposed Improvements


1.  Further growth of fodder crops for animal feed

2.  Further vegetable production for feeding the school

3.  Additional animals brought into farm, eg a few cattle, donkeys

4.  Additional areas created for the processing of food such as pizza oven, bbq area.

5.  Additional growing of herbs for culinary and medicinal purposes.

6.  Increase dye plant production

7. Introduction of a horse.

8. Increase in compost production

9. Increasing the workforce to provide skilled tuition in forgework / blacksmithing

10. Increasing the workforce to provide skilled tuition in green woodwork.



















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Created by Jim Hildyard