What We're Reading: "Barefoot Biodynamics" by Jeff Poppen

Barefoot Biodynamics: How Cows, Compost, and Community Help Us Understand Rudolf Steiner's Agriculture Course

A new book written by long-time Biodynamic farmer Jeff Poppen

Review by Deb Soule


"Barefoot Biodynamics" by Jeff Poppen


The principles of Biodynamic agriculture are outlined in a series of eight agriculture lectures given by Dr. Rudolf Steiner in Koberwitz, Silesia (eastern Europe) June 7-16, 1924, one hundred years ago. Dr. Steiner agreed to lecture on agriculture after a group of farmers approached him for advice regarding the diminished viability of their seeds and decreased vitality of the farm animals they tended — observations that coincided with the end of World War I when left-over munitions were beginning to be used as agricultural chemicals.

Steiner viewed Earth as a living being and believed that the environmental damages caused by chemical fertilizers, toxic pesticides, and intensive farming methods could not be easily remedied. The ideas he presented in the Agriculture Course were influenced by his early life in rural Austria, where he grew up around people who followed the rhythms of nature and relied upon herbal medicine for healing. Indigenous peoples worldwide have long practiced caring for Earth. Biodynamic agriculture is a practice that came out of the old European wisdom that Steiner connected with.

I was first introduced to Biodynamic agriculture through the Stella Natura Biodynamic Planting Calendar in 1986. As an herbalist who had already begun closely following the moon’s monthly rhythms and was growing and preparing herbal medicines from the six herbs that make up the Biodynamic compost preparations, the principles of Biodynamic agriculture resonated with me. I am grateful that long-time Biodynamic farmer Jeff Poppen has given us another book, one rooted in over 40 years of farming alongside studying and practicing the principles that Steiner outlined in the Agriculture Course. (An updated version of the Agriculture Course is currently underway by Malcolm Gardener).

As I began reading Barefoot Biodynamics, I found myself smiling a lot as Jeff describes in creative and humorous ways his life as a barefoot Biodynamic farmer. I appreciate his chapters titled Nitrogen and Her Sisters (carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and sulphur), and his chapter titled Humus, both offering clarity of these important elements for soil health alongside key quotes of Steiner’s. Jeff clearly understands how enlivened soil and humus is essential for healthy plants. From his understanding of soil science, he then takes the reader to the next level in chapter 8, describing the different Biodynamic preparations.

In the book’s introduction, he writes, “Much of what is wrong in agriculture today can be traced to following the wrong advice, and I wanted to emphasize that I listen to farmers, not professors and economists.” Jeff acknowledges three long-time Biodynamic practitioners Hugh Lovel, Harvey Lisle, and Hugh Courtney, all of whom he studied with for many years before they passed away. It was Hugh Lovel that helped Jeff edit his initial draft of this book that began as a booklet titled Agriculture Abridged. A great gift Jeff has given to us by expanding Agriculture Abridged and having Chelsea Green publish Barefoot Biodynamics. The last chapter of the book titled Agriculture, Simplified makes Steiner’s eight agriculture lectures more easily accessible to people new to Biodynamic agriculture and even to more seasoned practitioners like myself. Barefoot Biodynamics is a useful introduction to Biodynamic agriculture for farmers, gardeners, and anyone curious about it.

At the beginning of the last chapter, Agriculture, Simplified, Jeff writes, “Reading Rudolf Steiner lectures is not easy, so I set out to simplify them. In this chapter, as I go through each lecture and put the concepts into plain language as best I can, I shift between a direct description of what I think he’s trying to say and brief reflections of my own.” While Jeff states that he sticks with the more practical aspects of Biodynamic principles, he does remind the reader that Biodynamic agriculture is founded in a spiritual cosmology which Steiner called Anthroposophy.

I wish that Jeff had mentioned that he is farming on land that has been “stolen” from the original Indigenous peoples that lived in Tennessee. He also makes no mention of the complexity of the South’s long history of slavery. While land acknowledgements often appear “performative,” I also think that, as white farmers who are benefitting from the land we now tend, conversations about history and land reparations are part of the mending and healing needed in these times. I am aware that I farm in Maine on land that belongs to the Penobscot peoples. I continue to educate myself about the historical and current harm being done to Indigenous peoples here and globally and converse with Indigenous peoples about land reparations.

May all of us who are privileged to farm gain greater knowledge and respect for the original peoples who inhabited the areas in which we live and engage with conversations about how we can give back in meaningful ways. If you are unfamiliar with the Indigenous people who live and/or have lived where you do, see this map.

Thank you Jeff for sharing your years of farming and your devotion to Biodynamic agriculture as a healing method for restoring soil, soul, and spirit. I hope your book encourages the next generation of young farmers to study and practice Biodynamic agriculture and for seasoned farmers and gardeners to also engage with Biodynamic principles and practices.

Avena Botanicals
Avena Botanicals


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