- Associated Press - Saturday, May 2, 2015

ACCOMAC, Va. (AP) - No one grows crops or raises livestock on the Delmarva Peninsula quite like Stewart Lundy and Natalie McGill.

Their compost pile isn’t ready for their fields until it has been seasoned with preparations containing herbs such as stinging nettles, yarrow, chamomile, oak bark and valerian.

They pack manure inside a cow’s horn and bury it on the fall equinox. In the spring, they dig it up, mix the now-digested manure with water and spray it on their land.

They raise a smorgasbord of animals - geese, chickens, pigs, sheep, turkeys - and rotate their pens from one acre to another across the farm. They prefer the hodgepodge way the animals till and fertilize the soil.

And they welcome weeds, even dandelions.

“When we think of the soil as something alive and having habits, we’re more likely to be nice to it,” said Lundy on a breezy April afternoon on his farm, which is tucked behind a row of homes a short drive from downtown Accomac. “Farming only works inasmuch as it obeys nature.”

The husband and wife are biodynamic farmers. The growing movement goes a step beyond organic farming. Like its organic cousins, biodynamic farms eschew genetically modified plants and synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. But they differ by incorporating mysticism and an underlying philosophy that views all components of the farm as a single, living organism.

Farms certified in biodynamic agriculture have spread to 47 countries and 353,000 acres of farmland. Nearly half of the land devoted to the practice can be found in Germany, according to Demeter International, the Germany-based biodynamics certification body.

Demeter lists 132 certified practitioners in the United States. There are probably many more farms that consider themselves biodynamic but aren’t certified. Such is the case with Lundy and McGill’s farm.

No biodynamic farms are officially listed in Delaware, Maryland or Virginia. Lundy, 30, and McGill, 28, say that while they have met many organic farmers on Delmarva, they haven’t met a fellow biodynamic practitioner in the area since they started themselves five years ago.

At the time, they were new to farm life. McGill’s family had bought 49 acres of farmland outside Accomac and leased it to growers over the years, but it was little more than a vacation getaway for her.

The couple moved to the homestead in 2010, in part, to escape the high cost of living and treacherous traffic of their northern Virginia home.

She telecommutes as a paralegal at her father’s Frederick, Maryland-based law firm; Lundy is a website designer. Both have kept their day jobs even as their farm has expanded from a subsistence operation to a regular on the Eastern Shore of Virginia’s farmers market circuit.

Their initial goals were humble. They only wanted to grow enough to feed themselves.

“Part of it for us was economic uncertainty,” Lundy recalled. “If you can feed yourself, that can help you weather the ups and downs.”

They had first heard about biodynamics while on a tour of a winery in Italy. When they got started, though, they knew little about raising animals and crops. So they read as many books as they could and attended workshop to get up to speed. Of course, biodynamics added a wrinkle to their research.

The practice dates to the 1920s to an Austrian philosopher named Rudolf Steiner. He believed that modern farming techniques were degrading the quality of soils and foods themselves. The antidote: an adoption of what the Biodynamic Assocation calls “spiritual scientific methods.”

The movement has gained momentum in recent years as a reaction to industrial-size farms, hormones, genetic modification and pesticides. It also has attracted many critics, who equate its holistic approach to pseudoscience and so much hocus-pocus.

Reviews of individual scientific studies have yielded mixed results. A Washington State University analysis in 1995 showed that biodynamic farms typically had better soil quality, lower crop yields and equal or higher profitability.

Improving soil quality is at the heart of biodynamics. The eight preparations promoted by Steiner are all geared toward that goal. Lundy said its methods enable practitioners to irrigate less, spray pesticides less often while maintaining reliable yields.

Even if farmers focus on only the practical side of biodynamics, they can see results, he said.

Composting not only helps get rid of farm waste, but provides his fields with virtually all the nutrients they need. Allowing dandelions to grow unlocks important minerals, such as calcium, as their taproots splinter the often-hard soil surface. Rooting pigs coat the dirt with mucus, enriching the soil with beneficial microbes.

Each component of the farm works in concert with some other component to the benefit of the entire system, Lundy said.

Today they grow enough tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, lettuce and herbs to sell what they don’t eat at market and to a handful of local restaurants. They get meat and eggs from their livestock. All they have to buy to supplement their diet: coffee, milk and whole grain to mill into flour.

For Lundy and McGill, biodynamics means business. They have leased 4 more acres for their farm, which they call Perennial Roots, from a neighbor, and they’re looking to add cows within the next year or so.

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