Photo tour: healing the planet through agriculture

© C. Lepisto

It all started with the milk. Why is this brand of milk so good?

The package glowingly describes how the milk is produced and packaged at the eco-village of Brodowin. But doesn't every package of milk boast about high quality behind pictures of happy cows? A decision was made: Brodowin lies only 65 km (40 miles) north of Berlin; we would go see for ourselves.

© C. Lepisto
Cows in the barn at Brodowin

"Healing the planet through agriculture." Those in the know will recognize the slogan that expresses the purpose of the Demeter Association. Demeter grants the only "biodynamic" farming certification, a standard that incorporates organic methods but goes beyond to embrace what founder Rudolf Steiner defined as the "spiritual foundations" of agriculture.

The Demeter standards require animals, enough to provide fertilizer for the rest of the farm. About 450 head of cattle populate Brodowin, counting calves, cows, and bulls. About 200 cows give milk at any time, averaging 7500 liters (1975 gallons) per cow per year. For comparison purposes, an industrially farmed cow gives about 10-11,000 liters per year.

© C. Lepisto
Free-ranging bull with cow

A sign on the door to the main barn warns of the danger: free-ranging bulls. It is with relief that we learn the bulls range free behind the barrier that separates the herd from the walkway -- as long as we don't make one mad, all will be well. Each group of cows has its own bull, and all of the animals may come and go from the barn to the pasture as they please. The barn itself is built with sections that have no roof, allowing the animals to choose how much shelter or sun they want.

After Germany re-united, the former east German cooperative decided to pursue organic farming. This was in part due to the farm's location, in the UNESCO Schorfheide-Chorin Biosphere Reserve, but also because of a desire to create jobs by using the more labor-intensive organic methods.

© C. Lepisto
Calf igloos prevent disease spreading

Our tour guide explains that the cows at the Demeter farms have longer lifespans than industrial cows, so they need to start out right. The calves stay with the mothers for the first week, getting a jump-start for their immune systems by feeding on the first milk the mother produces after giving birth. After separation from their mother, the calves are kept in separate areas, to prevent catching or spreading disease while their immune systems develop strength. They are fed on raw milk until they are old enough to switch to solid foods.

© C. Lepisto
Calves live in small groups as their immune systems develop

As the calves grow, they can be united with a few of their buddies into groups, where they begin exploring the hay offered along with their milk. The farm does use antibiotics, but only case-by-case, when the site veterinarian diagnoses a need for treatment. This may be the greatest advantage of organic farming, given the suspected role of agricultural antibiotics in the development of antibiotic resistant super-bugs.

The animals at Brodowin fertilize the rest of the farm, which produces feed for the animals as well as for the people of nearby Berlin. The economics of organic farming require Brodowin to find creative ways to keep the profits at the farm. Although the Brodowin milk is sold through organic stores in Berlin, the produce of the 26 hectare vegetable gardens are delivered directly to consumers in subscription-boxes.

© C. Lepisto
Field sprays are mixed according to Demeter methods

As we leave one of the barns we wonder about a series of tanks on a platform overhead. This is the Demeter method at its strangest: these tanks are used to prepare cow-horn manure and horn silica field sprays according to Demeter methods. Our guide explains that the hollow horns remaining after a cow's passing are filled with manure, and buried underground through the winter. The composting manure gathers cosmic rays in the cold season, and in spring the mixture is dug up and the manure crumbled into the mixing tanks.

A special process of mixing creates a vortex that distributes the cosmic energy in the correct manner (the view from the platform is reported to put the mixer in the right mindset during the hour-long mixing process, but more importantly the elevation obviates the need for pumps, which might disturb the cosmic energy). This liquid is sprayed on the fields, in a ratio of one cow-horn of manure worth of water to each hectare. The process is repeated through the summer months with horns filled with mountain crystals, a source of silica, which is distributed over three hectares per horn.

According to Demeter methods, "Only the combination of manuring and application of bio-dynamic field sprays would lead to increased fertility of soil and to a (holistic) nutritional quality of the crops." Apparently, scientific studies do support the benefits of these field sprays, but the scientist in me suspects that the effect is correlated to the high degree of care and concern such rituals represent rather than caused by the cosmic power collected in the cow horns.

© C. Lepisto
Brodowin Ecolean milk packaging line

In contrast to the aged tanks, we find Brodowin's commitment to modern methods at the other end of the farm, in the dairy. Here we see the packaging line that fills the Ecolean bags that caught our attention a couple years ago, when the traditional brown glass returnable bottles disappeared from the shelved of our local organic market.

Today, 50% of Brodowin milk goes into bottles and 50% into the Ecolean bags. Brodowin employees committed to the environment studied the issue closely as consumer pressure for disposable packaging grew. The life cycle analysis (LCA) shows that the bags are more eco-friendly if the milk is transported over 100 km (62 miles) or if the re-usable bottle makes fewer than 15 cycles.

© C. Lepisto
Goat kid exploring

Brodowin has goats and chickens as well as cows. Our guide admits that economics drive compromises in the choice between chickens bred to be layers or dual-use birds that can also produce meat. If her preferred breed were used, that would push the price point per egg from 40 euro cents (50 cents US) to 65 euro cents (80 cents US).

Unlike cows, goats breed seasonally, so the supply of goat milk is not constant. The farm sells goat cheeses for a nice profit, but when supplies dwindle, they dedicate the milk to customers who drink the goat milk to avoid problems with cow milk allergies.

In accordance with Demeter standards, the farm does not trim horns or beaks. Demeter forbids industrial techniques like docking tails to prevent bored pigs from biting their neighbor's twirler, or docking beaks to prevent chickens pecking each other. The Demeter philosophy requires the animals to be kept in a manner consistent with their nature, so that they do not harm each other out of stress or lack of space.

Some people say it is the horns that make the milk taste good. Cosmic rays, happy cows, or good animal husbandry -- whatever the cause, the proof is in the pudding. After all, we are here because the milk just tastes better.

Tags: Animal Welfare | Farming | Food Miles | Organic Agriculture

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