By Stephen Briggs, Farm Manager
Camphill Village Minnesota (CVM) is part of a worldwide movement of more than 100 intentional communities which strives to initiate social change through living and working with people with special needs. An intentional community is a planned residential community designed from the start to have a high degree of social cohesion and teamwork. Most Camphill communities have some form of Biodynamic farm or garden in their midst, and CVM embodies this. CVM was founded over 30 years ago, and CVM has grown to include over 50 people living family style in seven houses on 510 acres of land. The farm includes three acres of intensive vegetable production, 110 acres of cultivated fields in rotation, 100 acres of marginal permanent pasture, and 300 acres of swamps, ponds, streams, rivers and forests.
The farm and garden function under the associative economic CSA model where the members of the community (consumers) meet annually with farmers and gardeners (producers) to decide what should be produced, how much should be produced, and what the financial limitations are to meeting these production goals. Excess production is processed in our licensed processing kitchen for future use or sold through local co-ops, wholesale and direct market channels. Currently, the CVM farm and garden supply between 50% – 60% of the food consumed by the community.
The main goals of the community farm are fourfold: to provide meaningful, therapeutic work for the people of the community, to heal the land, to grow farmers and gardeners for the future, and to strive for financial viability. The farm and garden provide the opportunity for the people of the community to co-create with their environment in producing healthy, nutrient dense food. The nature of the work and the consumption of the healthy food are part of the greater therapeutic environment in Camphill. The CVM community strives to operate according to the fundamental social law put forth by Rudolf Steiner where, “the healthy social life is found when in the mirror of each human being the whole community finds its reflection, and when in the community the virtue of each one is living”.
The farm and garden crews provide meaningful work for about ~25 people with a wide range of skills and abilities throughout the year. Animal husbandry, tractor work, milking, weeding, mucking, reeling polywire, and fence repair are just a few of the many things we do on any given day. Rhythm, pace, and social dynamics between crew members are kept in mind to help maintain a positive nature to the land work.relationship between the people, the land, and the work.
Over the past 30+ years many different farm enterprises have come and gone depending on the needs of the community and the interests and/ or skills the people working the land. Currently, we have a cow-calf forage fed beef herd, three dairy cows, 120 laying hens, two sows and one boar for farrow to finishing, turkeys, geese, a horse, and a goat. The farm also grows eight different types of grain for feed, all the hay for the ruminants, and the garden produces over 40 different types of fruits and vegetables.
Biodynamics provides the framework for the CVM farm organism., The method includes bringing in the often times overlooked rhythms of the cosmos that have their subtle effects on living elements of the farm. The zodiac, the sun, the moon, and the outer and inner planets all play a role. Planting and harvesting are done according to the Stella Natura Calendar as much as possible, weather permitting. The Calendar is a detailed schedule for growing Biodynamically and more information can be found at their website. The Biodynamic method also provides us with a series of homeopathic remedies to help improve our soil and produce quality. The 500 and 501 preps are sprayed over all pastures and cultivated land at least twice per year and the compost piles are infused with the homeopathic remedies. Rudolf Steiner provided the Biodynamic method as a set of suggestions to seasoned farmers almost 100 years ago. Though his teachings have become the basis of our methodology, we also try to incorporate newly evolving and old, sturdy biological farming techniques. We view Biodynamics as an amplifier for these new techniques.
The fertility of the farm is the end-all-be-all for the productivity today and determines what the future will inherit, not as simple as just Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium (NPK). This is a multi-prong approach. The soils have been more or less Ph balanced out according to the cation Albrecht-cation method for more than 30over the past 30+ years, using non-synthetically derived amendments approved by the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI). Because of the light, sandy soils that we are on with low organic matter levels (∆~1.5%), it didn’t take much compared to what it might take to achieve theis same cation (Ca, Mg, K, Na) balance on a heavier soil. Trace elements and/ micronutrients, especially the essential boron and sulfur, are depleted. This is typical in sandy soils where those elements tend to leach without a large grounding clay or humus to help hold them. These elements are being brought in through the animal’s free choice mineral rations and also with trace mineral packs bound with humates broadcast out onto the fields and gardens.
Compost, the true fertility driver, is the farmer’s gold of the operation that is worth its weight in gold to the farmers, and we are constantly trying to improve ours here. During our long winters (sometimes over 6 months) the livestock are housed in deep- bedded, loose housing with outdoor access. We constantly layer in straw from the small grains and sawdust from a local Amish sawmill. These, provide bedding, heat, carbon and nitrogen capture during these cold months. Pigs were brought into the system this year to help with the compost aeration process. This will hopefully produce superior compost, and reduce the fossil fuel bill needed for compost management. Compost wind rows (long rows of compost piled up) and bedding packs are prepped with the Biodynamic preparations in the spring, let to compost over the summer and spread in the late summer and/ early fall as part of the crop rotation. This helps to bring the nutrient cycle full circle. We also currently build small heaps by hand to experiment with different ratios of materials, moisture, and oxygen levels.
Nitrogen is the paradox of our time. Four tons naturally exists above every acre and yet a typical, conventional farm in our area, buys costly synthetic Nitrogen and applies it at an average rate 140 lbs / acre / year. Much of this leeches into groundwater or volatilizes back into the atmosphere. We strive with our legumes and nutrient cycling to help us bring some of this nitrogen sink down to earth and keep it cycling in a living form, but it needs much improvement though. Quicker legume plow-down cycles before they die, additional carbon in the bedding packs, and intermediate catch crops in the crop rotation are methodsways in which we try to grab more nitrogenN from leaching into the groundwater or from volatizing back into the atmosphere. No synthetic nitrogenN is ever brought onto the farm as it is seen as damaging to soil, plant, animal, and human health.
The carbon that the plants and nutrient cycles put into the soil is the fuel for the microbial processes of the soil life and the antithesis of climate change. They make everything available and are the lynchpin for life on the farm. Holistic management, intensive grazing, and biomass plow or graze downs are the chief tools we utilize to return carbon to the soil when it comes to making this happen. Bale grazing on depleted pastures, tall grazing (mob stocking), and mobbing cover crops are ways in which we are trying to bring large amounts of carbon and other nutrients down to the microbes, which in tuern build it into the humus, the nectar for future generations. Cereal winter rye planted in fall and mob grazed down in spring has proved to be a boon for keeping the soil covered over the winter and also in providing the cattle and microbes with an early spring treat. This coming season we will be experimenting with a 20+ species warm season cover crop as a buffet for the cattle and soil microbial life.
Drought is by far our biggest challenge. Over the past 15 years about 10 have been some sort of drought. In ten of the last fifteen years, we have encountered some form of drought. We are trying to focus on the things that we can control with this. Since we can not control the weather, we are trying to focus on the parts of the farm we can control. The farm’s proper stocking rate is constantly being looked at in contrast to the variable of drought. We are trying to focus on building carbon up in the soils, keeping litter and thatch on the ground with the understanding that for every 1% increase in organic matter in the soil there is a two-fold increase in water holding capacity. Yeoman keylines were put in this year to help catch rain on some of the more erodible slopes in the permanent pastures. Through the implementation of as many water conservation strategies as possible and on planning on drought every year, we will be able to be more resilient when confronted with the in evitable forces of drought into the future.
Camphill Village Minnesota is a landscape made by glaciers where the tall grass prairie from the west meets the coniferous forests from the north and the deciduous forest from the south. We are a place that strives for agricultural and social renewal through living and farming in community with people with special needs. We are always looking for short and long term volunteers and farm and garden apprentices. Give us a Call!