Ileen Macpherson – a pinoneer of the biodynamic movement

Ileen Macpherson – a pinoneer of the biodynamic movement

Ileen Macpherson (1898-1984) was born in August 1898 in Australia. She attended Clyde School in St. Kilda (Melbourne) and as a young adult became increasingly interested in natural ways of producing food.
This interest brought her to regular Anthroposophy meetings, based on the early biodynamic philosophy by Rudolf Steiner .  Anthroposophy is a philosophy that combines natural science (such as biology) and the intellectually comprehensible spiritual world. It is rooted in German idealism and mysticism, but its essential message is respect for nature, development of the human being in an individual manner rather than a mass-educational approach und the connection of our
 micro universe to the universe as a whole. So according to Rudolf Steiner it makes sense to watch what the universe is doing (for example Full Moon and other celestial aspects in the sky) and connect them to tasks such as planting, weeding, turning the soil and else. Seeds of this philosophy are now found in ethnical banking, the Waldorf education and alternative medicine.
One of the speakers at these early Anthroposophy meetings in Melbourne was Ernesto Genoni, an Italian citizan who arrived in Australia in May 1926. A few years later Ernesto and Mrs Anne Macky started the Anthoroposophical Society and it is through these meetings at the Anthroposophical Society that Ileen meets Ernesto.
A year later the pair have plans to start the first biodynamic farm in Australia and they call this farm Demeter Farm (named after the the Demeter society, a brand that is still around today and that upholds the quality of biodynamic farming. Its name was taken from Demeter, the Greek goddess of grain and fertility). There Ileen and Ernesto perfected crop rotation, soil enrichment and the study of healthy plants and all organisms that are connected to the farm. The Biodynamic agriculture is a cycle where every part reinforces the entity as a whole. For example grass clipping and rotten food are turned into compost and this compost again fertilises the land where cows feed on its grass. In turn the cow’s horns and manure are then used to enrich the soil which then produces healthy plants and fruit trees.
In March 1935 the Demeter Farm in Dandenong, Victoria, finally opens and produced good quality biodynamic food on 40acres of land for over two decades.  The main crop was fruit, vegetables and milk. Soon after the opening Ileen and Ernesto found a group called the Experimental Circle of Anthroposophical Farmers and Gardeners’. 
This group soon becomes known for all ways of alternative farming in Australia and even Alfred Meebold comes to stay over for a fortnight. But just as things are going so well, tragedy strikes. Ileen, a very active person  in her early years and busy with long days farming and milking cows, became weaker and weaker. She still carried on as usual, but her conditions deteriorates and soon her legs gave way. In 1943 she was admitted to Epworth hospital where she spent on and off the next three years.
This was a bitter blow for Ernesto. Not only did he now have to carry out all the hard work on the farm, but he also had planned to go with Illen to Europe to join the Biodynamic movement, but all these plans were now nil and void.
In the end Ernesto stayed at the farm at at Ileen’s bedside.  When she was finally released in 1946  she would be confided to a wheel chair for the rest of her life. The cause was later revealed as pernicious anaemia (a lack of vitamin B12). Nowadays this condition is easy to cure, but in the 1940ies it often led to the patient’s death or life in a wheelchair.
Although Ileen tried her best with Ernesto to keep the farm alive, in the end her failing health was getting too much for Ernesto and the farm was sold in 1955. Ernesto started painting (the picture of Ileen above was painted by him) and Ileen, although now unable to practise it, never let go of the  biodynamic ideology. After her death in 1984 the Ileen Macpherson Trust still supports Anthroposophic causes in Australia.
The secret of Biodynamic gardening

The secret of Biodynamic gardening

Place for meditation Gardening in harmony with the phases of the moon has been practised for thousands of years. Its modern version ‘Biodynamics’ has been redefined by Rudolf Steiner less than a century ago. It builds on the concept of organic farming by combining it with the Ancient Lunar planting method and the use of natural remedies, such as soil tonics and natural pest control.

Derived from the Ancient Greek words ‘bio’ (life) and ‘dunamis’ (power), the biodynamic garden is managed as if it was a single complex organism with a resource of energy or “life power” that can be recycled.

The biodynamic gardener prepares the soil in spring with compost, created from the grass clippings and plants from the very same land the year before. During the growing cycle, herbal preparations are added to the soil and crops are rotated and grown by the method of ‘companion planting’.  Garden tasks like pruning, planting, re-potting and more are undertaken at specific times during the lunar cycle as marked on the moon calendar.

The founder of the Biodynamic movement, the Austrian Rudolf Steiner, held a series of lectures in 1924 on agriculture. In these lectures, he responded to a concern from farmers about deteriorating soil conditions and the effects it has on the growing plants. The deterioration of the crop and quality of the soil had accelerated since the introduction of artificial fertilisers at the turn of the 20th century and something had to be done to address this problem.

Soon after these lectures a research team was set up to look into how a ‘living soil’ can keep plants healthy and what methods can be employed to keep the land fertile and productive without the use of chemicals or other ‘foreign’ substances.

Today ‘biodynamic gardening/farming’ is practised in well over 50 countries worldwide and biodynamic farmed food tastes so good that it wins awards all over the world. The University of Kassel, Germany, even has a dedicated Department of Biodynamic Agriculture, which studies the effect of biodynamic food and lifestyle on human health.

Biodynamically farmed products are now protected and labelled by the’ Demeter brand. It was established in 1928 and aims to protect consumers and farmers alike. Similar organisations are the French ‘Biodivin” ( it certifies that the wine is biodynamicaly farmed) and the Egyptian EBDA (Egyptian Biodynamic Association).

How does it actually work?  the tides

We know that the moon’s gravitational pull moves billions of litres of water around the planet Earth every single day. But there is not only water in the ocean. We humans, for example, consist of nearly 70% water, and a lot of water is also contained in plants.

The water circulating within a plant contains vitamins, minerals and other active substances and travels from the root system through the stem into leaves, blossoms and fruit. At certain times during the moon cycle more liquid is concentrated in the root system, at other times more in leaves, fruit and blossoms. On a practical level that is why there are ‘good and bad times’ for certain activities. For example, when you pick an apple and want to eat it straight away, you want it to be juicy and full of vitamins. Therefore you pick a time when most liquid will be concentrated within the fruit. However, if you want to store the apple for a long time, you want to pick it at a different time when there is slightly less liquid in the fruit,  so the apple will keep  fresh for longer.

Biodynamic versus conventional growing

Biodynamic versus conventional growing

In the early 1920ies the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner was approached     by a number of concerned farmers who saw that in just a few years of using artificial fertiliser the soil was getting so depleted that they feared for the future of their land. Faced with this dilemma, Rudolf Steiner prepared a series of lectures that would become the foundations of the Biodynamic planting movement.

‘Biodynamic growing’ has now become a fashionable term, but what does it actually mean?

I would say, Biodynamics is more than just growing food, it is a philosophy or a way of life.  Conventional farming methods are all about as much profit can be had,  growing the most amount of food in the smallest space and shortest time. In order to do that, sacrifices have to be made. These come in the form of depleted soils, unnaturally forced or grown produce. Just think of the tomatoes or strawberries grown in rock wool with a bit of fertiliser and water, the thought alone just makes my stomach turn. Food grown in the way also tastes bland and uninspiring. But of course if you only eat this type of food then you would not notice the difference. But grow a few tomatoes in good soil on your window sill and taste the difference!

The Biodynamic way of growing food starts already with the soil. There is no rock wool, just rich, fertile soil that is not seen as a commodity, but as a precious material that produces great food.

The most precious ingredient in a healthy soil is humus. This is the part of the topsoil where all the nutrients lie. It is a complex process how nature turns leaves and other organic matter into compost and humus. The humus layer helps the soil to retain moisture and oxygen. It also helps the plants to grow by a way of ion-exchange. In short, humus is the soil’s ‘life-force’ and without it the soil is just a dead material where plants rest in.

Rudolf Steiner toolittle gardenerk particular interest in the soil and humus layer. He ordered compost preparations to be made out of plants such as nettle, yarrow, dandelion or valerian. These preparations were added to the soil and acted as a kind of soil tonic. In nature these plants are the natural healers and often grow next to fields and flowers. But today they are just seen as garden weeds. But by completely getting rid of them their vital contribution to keep your garden soil healthy is lost.  So today’s Biodynamic famers and gardeners add these preparations to the soil to enrich the humus layer. Additionally they plant with the seasons, the water tables and the most controversial part of it – in accordance to the lunar phases.

In conventional agriculture animals are totally excluded from the food production process or are even destroyed by pesticides. In the Biodynamic model animals are actively invited in as part of the growing process. Ladybirds are introduced to kill the aphids, bees to pollinate the crop and earthworms to turn the soil. Cow manure and horns are used as part of the fertilisation process. Of course pests do occur and they are kept at bay with nets or by planting herbs and other (for them) bad smelling plants.

The land is not seen as a short-term commodity, but as a precious ground for growing food that has to be preserved for many generations to come. Sadly some studies claim that over the last century around 60%! of the world’s humus has been lost. The result is more frequent flooding, as it is the humus layer in the soil that can absorb a large amount of water in a very quick time and hold it there as a reserve for the dry days further down the line.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not advocating to go back to the dark ages and of course a growing population brings with it pressure on food resources. But all I am hoping we are getting away from a farming model that only looks at profits and have no regards whatsoever for the soil and its long-term health. I also would like to see animals and ultimately humans again as part of the growing process. We all need to wake up and reconnect again with what we eat. Let’s make all sure that what is farmed is done so in a humanely and sustainable way, not just for us, but for all species here on earth.

P.S. The WWF has just published a study where it claimed that between 1970 and 2010 50% of wildlife has vanished over this time span. Many species such as the River Dolphin have now become extinct.




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