Born from the outlandish theories of one man, biodynamic farming has married the esoteric with the agricultural. Just ask Wellington’s Wendy Lilje.
By Kim Harrisberg
He was born on the February 27th 1861 in the Austrian countryside to a young station master and housewife. Would his parents have believed that their newly-born would shape the life of a woman living on an isolated farm in Wellington, South Africa, 152 years later?
He was named Rudolph Steiner. His unrelenting fascination with knowledge may have hinted towards his future influence not only on this woman, but on an entire farming community. The site Rsarchive.org contains information on his life and his teachings. In his autobiography, The Course of My Life, he writes about how, at age eight, he felt a strong reassurance that more existed than the mere physical banalities of the world. He wrote, “… the reality of the spiritual world was as certain to me as that of the physical. I felt the need, however, for a sort of justification for this assumption.”
His whole life could be seen as a pursuit for this justification. His father, understanding he could not answer the returning questions of his son, sent him to school and eventually to the Technical University in Vienna. He studied and succeeded at more subjects than his curriculum required. He dealt with the works of Kant and Goethe, yet eventually realised his questions of the spiritual world were left unanswered.
At age 33 he published The Philosophy of Freedom which he felt was met with misunderstanding by academics. Unperturbed, Steiner began to lecture and write on what would later become a worldwide movement: Anthoposophy
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“Anthoposophy is a world view,” says Wendy Lilje. “It is the idea that spiritual beings influence the world and the world influences spiritual beings. The Waldorf Schools are based on this concept and so is anthroposophical therapy, architecture, dance, remedies and, of course, farming.
Biodynamic farming is like organic farming, but with a strict set of spiritual beliefs that aid the crops and the animals.”
Lilje is clad in rubber boots, jeans and a woollen black jersey. Her hair is cropped short, she wears not a trace of makeup and, as she gestures with her hands, soil is seen trapped beneath her nails. Years of physical labour and financial uncertainty have left her face lined, simultaneously accentuating and softening her expressions. She is standing beneath a large oak tree in her garden that makes up part of her home, the Bloublommetjieskloof Biodynamic Farm.
For the past ten years, this wild, green enclave amongst the Wellington Mountains has been Lilje’s home. It stands in stark contrast to Johannesburg, where she was raised and studied.
Lilje studied a Bachelor of Science at the University of the Witswatersrand. Fascinated by chemistry and its existence in nature, she went on to work for Weleda, a biodynamic skincare company. Lilje would travel to different farms and research the ingredients for future skin products. She was doing work on a farm near Bloublommetjieskloof, when she met Jean Malherbe, the then-owner of the land.
A bond was formed through mutual life views that centred on Steiner’s teachings. Lilje learnt that forty years ago, Malherbe had transformed the land into the first biodynamic farm in the country. She was largely outnumbered by the conservative, Afrikaans males churning the soil around her. Growing weaker with age and having no living relative to whom she could turn, Malherbe began to become Lilje’s mentor.
“It is quite a sad story,” says Lilje. “She has no one else in her life and so I bought the land from her. In her remaining years she stayed in a cottage on the property, making sure she left her home in good hands. It was difficult for me because she could come across as quite judgemental. I was different to her in the sense that I learnt most of my biodynamic farming methods through trial and error.”
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Besides for Lilje’s experimental farming methods, there are certain techniques practiced on Bloublommetjieskloof that have been and continue to be shared by like-minded farmers around the world. Some of these biodynamic cornerstones were born through Steiner’s clairvoyant visions.
Lilje’s 27-year-old son Ishaan explains what is termed “preparations”. He has descended from his clay house on the hill overlooking the crops, donning a single golden loop through his earlobe and wearing an outfit similar to Wendy’s. He speaks passionately about the way their farm functions, with inter-minglings of maturity and youthfulness.
“So the preparations are used to facilitate the coming together of the cosmic forces with the farming methods,” says Ishaan. “Preperation 502, for example, would involve stuffing a deer’s bladder with Yarrow flowers and then allowing this to dry in the sun during summer. We first order the bladder in from New Zealand. In autumn, the bladder is buried beneath the ground. When it is spring, the bladder is dug up and the fermented flowers are then sprinkled on the compost piles so that it can be cosmically processed.”
Perhaps hearing himself explain the preparations aloud allows Ishaan to perceive the peculiarity of it all with fresh ears. He giggles to himself and says: “We all sound like a bunch of loonies…If I didn’t understand it, I would think it sounded like a type of cult,” he says, attempting to dilute the oddity of his previous sentence.
Sensing her son’s slight discomfort, Lilje jumps in. “The thing is,” she says, “Anthroposophy is a spiritual science. It goes beyond the notion that everything has to be seen to be real.”
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Walking around the farm, Lilje explains how, before his death, Steiner was approached by conventional farmers who desperately pleaded for his advice. Their land was barren and their animals were unhealthy. The same suggestions Steiner offered then are still honoured by Lilje, Ishaan and the three other workers making up the entire staff of Bloublommetjieskloof.
“Genetically-modified organisms are a big no-no,” says Lilje. “Even a wiff of that near our farm and we would be declared un-biodynamic by Demeter, the certification board for biodynamic farmers. In fact, anything artificial is completely out of bounds whether it be pesticides, grains or fertilisers,” says Lilje.
She walks past the four, large piles of cow manure that are fermenting near the cows’ shed.
“Everything on the farm must go back into the farm: the cow manure is used for the plants and the remainders of the plants are fed to the cows. For our cheese we even use the enzymes found in the figs which grow in the garden.
And, of course, all planting must be synchronised with the appearance of specific constellations,” explains Lilje, matter-of-factly.
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The site, Demeter.net, lists the registered biodynamic farms worldwide. Over 150 000 acres of land are being farmed biodynamically by almost 5 000 farmers around the world. European countries, leading with Germany, see the largest biodynamic farming communities. India, Egypt and Brazil are hot on their tails.
Ishaan smiles and shakes his head when asked about the South African biodynamic community. “They probably don’t even have computers!” he laughs.
Lilje steps in to elaborate once again. “The farms are just usually quite isolated so they often won’t have internet,” she explains. “Every year all the farmers come together to make the preparations, but besides for that it can be quite lonely.”
Bloublommetjieskloof stock dairy and body products to over 60 shops in the country. They seem to make ends meet, with some months being harder than others. The distinct biodynamic regulations means large-scale production will never be a characteristic of anthroposophical farming.
For Lilje and her staff, they are not even tempted to try a more lucrative farming method, the farm is considered “a living organism” to them all. “I could not imagine farming in any other way,” says Lilje.
And so, the birth of Rupert Steiner in Austria on February 27th 1861 would shape the life of a mother and son, 152 years later, in Wellington, South Africa. He would probably say he saw it coming all along.