The upcoming centenary of the “Agriculture Course” in 2024 provided the motivation for the Section for Agriculture at the Goetheanum to take the initiative for a new edition. The publisher, the Rudolf Steiner Nachlassverwaltung, offered to help, and so this completely revised ninth edition has been created in a joint project. The aim was to provide an edition using the best possible sources. To this end, the previous publishing history was carefully reviewed, the existing shorthand notes retranscribed, recent finds from the archives added, the book’s layout reorganised and the comments section revised and expanded.
Almost 100 years after the Agriculture Course, it may be said that a powerful effect has resulted from those days in Koberwitz (Kobierzyce) from 7 to 16 June 1924 with around 130 participants. The biodynamic movement that arose from this is still experiencing a gratifying development. Holding Volume 327 of the complete edition in your hands, you may ask yourself how this is possible? After all, the body of texts made up of eight lectures, four sets of answers to questions and accompanying texts appears outwardly modest in relation to its ongoing impact. One factor is the content, the other is the characteristic style in which Rudolf Steiner speaks. This is characterised by the fact that wide-ranging viewpoints from anthroposophical spiritual science are closely woven together with practical considerations for the work in field and byre. Steiner described this style in the address to the youth on 17 June as follows: “I would say that, in this course, I have tried to find the words out of the actual experience. Nowadays there is no other way to find the spirit except by finding the possibility of clothing it in words given by nature: through this the feelings will regain their strength”
Rudolf Steiner did not lecture over people’s heads, but spoke to the hearts and hands of the farmers. It is still possible to experience this when working with the Agriculture Course. In the biodynamic movement, the expression “Koberwitz impulse” has arisen for this. An impulse goes deeper than a course of lectures, it appeals to the will. So from the historical distance of almost 100 years it can be said that the Agriculture Course represents a cultural impulse from anthroposophy in the area of agriculture.
This foreword will first examine the content of the first part of this volume by means of a few examples. Secondly, through the foundation of the Research Group that, in Part Two of this new edition is judged as essentially belonging to the Agriculture Course, attention will be given to the special relationship of research and practice, as it is revealed there. The third aim is to provide a short history of the impact of the Agriculture Course.
Substances as bearers of the spirit: nitrogen and silica
The Agriculture Course contains a unique study of substances. In the very first lecture, there is an introduction to the polarity of silica and calcium. They are the material representatives of the higher and lower forces between which agricultural life takes place. The third lecture then deals essentially with the substances that form protein as the material of life. Rudolf Steiner goes in detail into nitrogen, sulphur, carbon, oxygen and hydrogen and describes their interaction. Rudolf Steiner thus has the attention of his audience who, as educated farmers, were knowledgeable about the agrochemicals of their time. However, he portrays these substances like personalities, with each having its task in the ecosystem, and describes how they interact. For example, nitrogen is characterised as the carrier of life (oxygen) to the workings in the organic realm (carbon). Nitrogen acts from a delicate sensitivity to all the nuances of living processes in the agricultural organism. It is portrayed as a clever, sensitive fellow who knows where which forces are at work in the living processes of the farm. The farmer can come close to nitrogen, learn from it, become receptive to its knowledge of relationships by connecting to his farm meditatively, through inner experience.
In the way in which the substances are portrayed in the third lecture as carriers of the spirit, calcium or limestone appears as the fellow with cravings who wants to seize everything for himself and silica as the noble gentleman who wants nothing for himself. The crystalline silica in minerals and rocks is not actually the crucial factor: it is the silica nature that is present everywhere in nature in a fine homoeopathic dispersion. And in this form it is also entirely undemanding. For comparison, Rudolf Steiner takes our sense organs that do not perceive themselves, but are selflessly open to the outside world. “The silica-nature is the universal sense within the earthly realm.” From this more descriptive characterisation of silica, at the end of the fourth lecture Steiner moves on to the practical activity with the silica preparation. Following the horn manure preparation, Rudolf Steiner describes very succinctly how to make and apply the silica preparation. With reference to the effect, he merely says: “...how the dung from the cow-horn drives from below upward, while the other draws from above — neither too feebly, nor too intensely.”
It is quite remarkable what a key position Rudolf Steiner assigns to silica. Neither before nor after him did agronomy ever attach any relevance whatsoever to silica. However, silica has become very important elsewhere over recent decades, specifically in the semiconductor industry. Besides electricity, computer technology and artificial intelligence in general depend materially in large part on the raw material silica. Insofar as intelligence requires a physical carrier, then silica is well suited to the purpose. Rudolf Steiner discovered this fact in his spiritual scientific research. Silica is not a living substance, but a consciousness substance. That which can be described as outer consciousness or cosmic intelligence in the macrocosm, particularly what emanates from the planets beyond the sun, is mirrored by silica and acts in this way on life, even though it is not involved directly in the biological and physiological processes. This example illustrates something that applies throughout biodynamics: matter and substances are important especially from a spiritual viewpoint, because the spiritual or cosmic forces can only act on the earthly through matter. Matter is the bearer of the forces of life, feelings and consciousness.
On the preparations
The preparations can be described as the heart of biodynamics. Steiner even places them in the middle of the Agriculture Course in the fourth and fifth lectures. They are based on the broad and profound natural history of the first lectures where an agricultural view of nature is taught from the perspective of, “What is cosmic, what is earthly?” At the same time they are very practical agriculture, they are directly accessible to people who work as gardeners and farmers. Understanding tends to follow doing, rather than preceding it. Rudolf Steiner intentionally did not supply any kind of theoretical approach to the preparations, expressing it as follows: “...we shall draw the practical conclusions, which can only be realised in the immediate application and are only significant when put into practice.”
We can live manually, artistically, scientifically and meditatively with the preparations. The manual production of the preparations is no secret: the knowledge is passed on actively through courses. The preparations do not exist unless they are made: they do not occur in nature. They are cultural creations. By working with our own hands we are directly involved in their creation.
An artistic element can come about when applying the preparations if the application time is set with what might be called a musical sensitivity, whether in relation to the development of the plants, to the course of the seasons or to the star constellations. Scientifically, the effectiveness of the preparations can be found by means of simple or more complex comparative trials. Inner work with the preparations can be a path from a view of the earthly materiality to an idea of the faculties that can be awakened through them in the whole living processes of the farm.
Although their importance depends on their direct application, the significance of the preparations must not remain limited to their agricultural benefit. If the preparations are used at a place over many years, it is possible to feel that the farm or garden synchronises more and more with the conditions of the whole earth. Through this experience the question arises as to the significance of the preparations for the development of the whole nature of the earth. Could they not be beneficial for the evolution of the earth as a living being? Elements of an answer to this question can be found in the Michael Letter “What is the Earth in Reality within the Macrocosm?” by Rudolf Steiner (in: Rudolf Steiner: Anthroposophical Leading Thoughts, GA 26), a text that he wrote a few months after the Agriculture Course. There it describes how the initially very life-filled macrocosm gradually died, so that human beings could attain clear thinking and self-consciousness. The earth is now an end product of this development, like a seed. But at the same time it is also the seed of the future. As the seed of the future it has already started to germinate. Rudolf Steiner describes that an excess of germinating forces from the plant kingdom streams out into a future evolution of the cosmos. These germinal forces arising from the plants were formed from excess forces from the animal kingdom and are correctly guided by corresponding excess forces from the mineral kingdom. In this way a new macrocosm is emerging. The human being cannot participate in this with his thinking alone, but must engage his will. This description should be seen as a great future earth imagination in connection with the preparations in the Agriculture Course.
Thinking and manuring: on the question of nutrition
The question of nutrition runs through the whole Agriculture Course. For Rudolf Steiner it was clear that agriculture is carried on in order to produce foodstuffs. As a producer, the farmer is responsible for the quality of the products that he grows. Voicing the concern that product quality was deteriorating was one of the reasons that the Agriculture Course came about. However, nutritional physiology in the traditional sense is not part of the Agriculture Course. The viewpoint from which the issue of nutrition implicitly resounds through all the lectures is more broadly formulated: how should the life and ripening processes on the farm be guided so that the foodstuffs produced can provide the human being who eats them with the basis for his physical and emotional life?
Artificial fertilisers are rejected because “the mineral fertilisers are in fact the ones that contribute significantly to [...] this deterioration of agricultural products.” Accordingly, in the Agriculture Course, Rudolf Steiner develops a different type of fertiliser. After a broad discussion of composting, the fourth lecture culminates with the introduction of the horn manure and silica preparations. This new type of manuring is justified by the quality of the food that it produces. “The important thing is, when these products get to man, that they should be beneficial for his life. You may cultivate some fruit of field or orchard in its appearance absolutely splendid, and yet, when it comes to man it may only fill his stomach without organically furthering his inner life. [...] Nay more, as everywhere in Spiritual Science, here too we take our start above all from man himself. Man is the foundation of all these researches ...”.
The last sentence can also be read from a viewpoint that does not aim directly at nutrition, but makes man the basis for the description and establishment of a biodynamic agriculture. In fact agriculture is discussed as an individuality with an ego-potentiality, in other words with concepts that come from the study of culture rather than the study of science. The eighth lecture describes how the process of digestion incorporates the food absorbed in the stomach into the brain in particular. “The brain mass is simply an intestinal mass, carried to the very end.” Rudolf Steiner is very aware that this sounds bizarre, but for him it is simply a fact. This fact is now being confirmed by current research. The biome in our digestive tract acts formatively and constitutively on the brain and nerve tissue. This consequently affects the neurophysiological functions as the basis for our thinking, feeling and willing.
According to Rudolf Steiner the brain is the seat of our ego. You could also say, of our self-consciousness. This is highly developed in human beings. This is possible because there is a material basis for it in the human brain, as everything has been extracted from the food substance. A comparison is then made with the animal. The animal also eats, digests and has a brain. But it has no self-consciousness, at least not to the degree that the human being does. Its ego-potentiality remains in the digestive substance and this becomes manure. The manure as ego-potentiality reaches the plant root, the head pole of the plant. Because in the closed agricultural organism the feed comes from the farm itself and the manure is used again on the farm, there is a recurring meeting with itself every year, and the farm awakens to its ego and can be addressed as an individuality. It is like an outer person that contains all nature. From that point of view “...we take our start above all from man himself”. Food produced in a context like this is the kind suited to modern human beings.
From today’s viewpoint we could say that Rudolf Steiner was not concerned in the least with the teaching of hygienics. But the statement that, on the one hand the naturally occurring life forces of the earth are disappearing and, on the other that modern humankind is becoming increasingly individualised, leads to the insight that, “forces must be acquired from the spirit that are totally unknown at present and that do not mean that, for instance, agriculture will be improved a little, but which mean that even the life of human beings – the human being must live from what the earth bears – will be able to continue on the earth, including in a physical sense.”
Spiritual research and practice
The fact that the Agriculture Course has become a powerful impulse is closely connected to the founding of the Agricultural Research Group of anthroposophical farmers in Koberwitz. This foundation was difficult due to disagreements. The documents now published as part two of this edition give an explanation of this. Ernst Stegemann, who had more of an inner esoteric approach, and Graf Carl von Keyserlingk, who tended more to economic rationality, were unable to agree. A third group of younger people (the brothers Hellmuth and Erhard Bartsch, Almar von Wistinghausen, Franz Dreidax and Immanuel Vögele) were principally concerned with acquiring practical information for the day-to-day work. Despite these differences, progress was made and the joint research group founded. This achieved three things. First, everyone was formally united and therefore able to take action as an organisation and budding movement. Second, the practical work was able to start directly following the Agriculture Course. Third, the Research Group represented an independent partner to the School of Spiritual Science at the Goetheanum
This partnership was the subject of the address on 11 June after the founding of the Research Group. As the spokesman for the farmers, Graf Keyserlingk wanted the “stupid peasants” to merely carry out what they were told by the “wise section leaders” of the School in Dornach. Rudolf Steiner did not agree with this at all: “From the beginning, therefore, we shall need most active fellow-workers — no mere executive organs.” Rudolf Steiner then spoke about his admiration for the farmers’ knowledge, because this penetrated deeply into the very real cosmic-earthly relationships that exist at the place where the farmer works. In contrast, science easily runs the risk of generating abstract and dead knowledge. The emphasis on this type of practical know-how and practical research for fruitful work on the basis of “Spiritual Foundations for a renewal of Agriculture” truly belongs to biodynamic agriculture. It is not a case of simply putting a theory into practice. It is only through the execution in practice, in other words in the existential situation through the course of the year and also in the local economic, social and cultural contexts, that an understanding of what is said in the Agriculture Course can gradually develop. Rudolf Steiner even went so far as to want farmers’ knowledge for Dornach. “We shall have to grow far more together; in Dornach itself, as much as possible of the peasant-farmer must prevail, in spite of our being ‘scientific’. Moreover, the science that shall come from Dornach must be such as will seem good and evident to the most conservative [...] farmer.” If you remove the attitude that is explicitly expressed here from the historical situation, then you can see how progressive it is. The question of how the scientist and practician in agriculture can work together is still relevant. It is often an area of conflict. New knowledge, for example about ecological relationships, is not applied in practice, the farmers do not want to be told what to do and carry on as before. What the practitioners know from their work does not count as “real” knowledge for the scientists. It is not accepted and remains an individual experience. However, to meet the challenges that lie ahead in the farming and food sector, mutual acceptance and support between practice and science are crucial. It can be viewed as a challenge for the biodynamic movement to develop the potential of this combination of practice and research.
The history of the impact of the Agriculture Course and a look forwards
Directly after the Koberwitz course the Research Group started its work, so a network of people and farms was soon created where the information from the Agriculture Course was being used in a practical or advisory way and also in simple comparative trials. There was a lively exchange of views with the Natural Science Section at the Goetheanum. The Section leader, Guenther Wachsmuth, was able to make the Agriculture Course available as a printed book that same year, based on shorthand notes by Kurt Walther. The leaders of the movement came up with the name “biodynamic” as a compromise or combination of two viewpoints that wished to emphasise the more “biological” or the more “dynamic”.
Only a few years later in 1928, the Demeter trademark was registered as a label for products from biodynamic farms for urban consumers. In the 1930s Erhard Bartsch, who farmed the Marienhöhe in Bad Sarow east of Berlin, became a dominant figure. After the National Socialists seized power in 1933, he and his fellow campaigners even sought to work with those in power in an effort to keep the young biodynamic impulse alive, but in 1941 all biodynamic organisations were finally banned.
In other countries, individual pioneers were also quick to convert the first farms and estates to biodynamic methods. Mention should be made of the farms of Loverendale in the Netherlands (1926), Oswaldhof in Switzerland (1930) and the Wurzerhof in Austria (1926). In some other countries such as Norway, England and the USA, a pioneering biodynamic movement arose in the 1930s as a result of charismatic advisers.
The work had to be re-established after the Second World War. The backbone of this was now formed by rural family farms. In the 1970s in many Europe countries a generation of farms was established by idealistic young people from the cities. With an urban rather than rural background, good agricultural practice often had to be learned through many mistakes. As a result, the social fetters of traditional agriculture did not affect these farms, and varied new social forms arose in and around the farm communities. In a third wave currently underway, it is mainly highly specialised farms – primarily wine growing, fruit growing and vegetable farming – that are integrating biodynamic methods into their practice. The rapid development in viticulture is driven by quality: biodynamic wines often come out very well in the compulsory tasting. The same applies to the upcoming coffee and tea growing. In the case of other special crops such as vegetables, fruit and particularly bananas at the moment, it is market demand for Demeter products that provides the driving force for conversion. In addition there are also many thousands of micro enterprises, particularly in India, which are encouraged into community projects on biodynamics and so achieve a better quality of life for the whole family. Biodynamic cotton growing in Egypt, India and Tanzania should also be mentioned. This has succeeded in creating complex value added chains from the seed via cultivation to the finished clothing manufacture. The biodynamic movement is now very international: biodynamic activities take place in all cultural areas and all climatic zones. Every type of farm, whether large or small, poor or rich, mixed or specialised, certified or not, is welcome and contributes to the richness of the global movement. Putting it in rather general terms it can be said that the biodynamic impulse is universal, with the distinction that its central principle is the individualising of the farm.
The movement that arose from the Agriculture Course did not remain restricted to agricultural enterprises, but has given rise to a wide range of scientific, legal and economic initiatives. The Research Institute at the Goetheanum under the leadership of Guenther Wachsmuth and Ehrenfried Pfeiffer can claim to be the first research institute for organic farming. Intensive research activities were also set up in other countries. In the 1970s the first dissertations were written on biodynamic subjects. The DOK study is one example of many research projects. This is a long-term study in Switzerland that compares the three agronomy systems dynamic, organic and conventional. Now after 40 years of research, it is clear that biodynamics lies in first place for sustainability parameters and its carbon footprint.
In the legal area new forms of ownership for land and property were developed and introduced, an area where intensive work is carried out with anthroposophical groups involved in social science. The development of the market for organic products that was and continues to be energetically promoted by Demeter groups was also inspired by associative economics as described by Rudolf Steiner. After all, the organic share of the food market in some countries is around ten per cent. The CSA (community supported agriculture) movement, in which the customers create a directly supported agriculture for the farm, also has its roots in the movement that arose from the Agriculture Course in Koberwitz. This also applies to the broad environmental movement that received a major boost from the book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, published in the USA in 1962. Carson had received important suggestions from the Agriculture Course via her friend Marjorie Spock, a biodynamic gardener and eurythmist. Amongst the wide range of practical areas that are part of the biodynamic impulse are an independent plant breeding programme, a veterinary approach, many types of inclusive socio-pedagogical work, political lobbying, very varied educational initiatives and worldwide networking. This extensive movement is like a confirmation of the comment by Rudolf Steiner in the Agriculture Course, “how intimately the interests of Agriculture are bound up, in all directions, with the widest spheres of life. Indeed there is scarcely a realm of human life which lies outside our subject. From one aspect or another, all interests of human life belong to Agriculture.”
On the morning of 17 July 1924, after the end of the Agriculture Course, in an address to the young people printed in summary in the appendix to this volume, Rudolf Steiner spoke clearly to the hearts of the upcoming generation. He fully supported their longing of wanting to submerge themselves and their profound feelings in nature. But he also said that the earth needs courageous dedication from active people. He spoke imaginatively of Michael’s sword that is to be sought and found under the earth. “Have the strong but modest self-confidence as young people to grasp your task on earth, for your own biography but also for the life of the earth.”
For nearly 100 years, quite a few younger generations have followed this first one. And there is no reason to imagine that today’s younger generation will be the last that will be inspired in the depths of their hearts by the Agriculture Course for a lifelong commitment. Today’s generation could be followed by many others. The power of the Agriculture Course is by no means exhausted, time and again it demands and enables a new approach. Further generations of young people on all continents will be inspired by this source, and will help to develop an agriculture of the future.