Seed to Table: An Introduction to Traditional Iroquoian Biodynamics
Traditional biodynamic agriculture describes the Iroquoian method of organic farming that emphasizes the holistic development and interrelationships of the soil, plants and animals as a self-sustaining system. These ancient ecological farming systems, emphasize a sustainable approach to agriculture.
Biodynamics has much in common with other organic approaches – it emphasizes the use of manures and composts and excludes the use of artificial chemicals on soil and plants. Methods unique to traditional Iroquoian biodynamics include an emphasis on integrating farm animals, the cultivation of crops, and the care of the land, the use of fermented herbal and mineral preparations as compost additives and field sprays, an emphasis from its beginnings on local production and distribution systems using local breeds and varieties and the use of an astronomical sowing and planting calendar.
Biodynamically cultivated fields achieve better energy efficiency of production, impact the environment positively, including increased biodiversity, have greater earthworm populations and biomass than conventional farms, maintain or slightly improve organic carbon levels, and result in higher microbial biomass carbon and dehydrogenase activity than those of either organically or conventionally farmed fields.
As of 2011, it is estimated that biodynamic techniques were used on 142,482 hectares in 47 countries. Paull, John (May 2011). “Organics Olympiad 2011: Global Indices of Leadership in Organic Agriculture”. Journal of Social and Development Sciences 1(4): 144–150.
In common with other forms of organic agriculture, biodynamic agriculture uses management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony. Central features include crop diversification, the avoidance of chemical soil treatments and off-farm inputs generally, decentralized production and distribution, and the consideration of celestial and terrestrial influences on biological organisms.
Traditional biodynamic farmers seek to integrate soil, crops, animals, and society as interdependent parts of a holistically conceived and self-sustaining ecological entity. Important features include the use of livestock manures to sustain plant growth (recycling of nutrients), maintenance and improvement of soil quality, and the health and well being of crops and animals. Cover crops, green manures and crop rotations are used extensively and the farms foster the bio-diversity of plant, insect, bird, and other animal life. They also work to enhance the biological cycles and the biological activity of the soil.
Biodynamic farms often have a cultural component and encourage local community, both through developing local sales and through on-farm community building activities. Our traditional Iroquoian biodynamic farming model uses community-supported agriculture models including community gardens.
Traditional biodynamic farming practices have been found to be more resilient to environmental challenges, to foster a diverse biosphere, and to be more energy efficient; factors of increasing importance in the face of climate change, energy scarcity and population growth.
Field preparations for stimulating humus formation, compost preparations, astronomical planting calendar, and seed production form the basic scientific elements of traditional Iroquoian biodynamic farming.
Grand River territory community food adviser, Ione Anderson teaches basic science and demonstrates best practices in the fields of biodynamics and traditional farming at her farm in Oshweken as well as at other traditional Iroquoian community garden locations at Kanata in Brantford. Contact us below to learn more.
Traditional Iroquois way of growing works for today’s farmers, providing valuable ecological lessons, says Cornell researcher – Feb. 15, 2004
SEATTLE — Most agronomists look to their laboratories, greenhouses or research farms for innovative new cropping techniques. But Jane Mt. Pleasant, professor of horticulture and director of the American Indian Program at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., has taken a different path, mining her Iroquois heritage for planting and cultivation methods that work for today’s farmers.
Mt. Pleasant studies what traditionally are known as the “three sisters”: beans, corn and squash. These staples of Iroquois cropping are traditionally grown together on a single plot, mimicking natural systems in what agronomists call a polyculture. Though the Iroquois technique was not developed scientifically, Mt. Pleasant notes that it is “agronomically sound.” The three sisters cropping system embodies all the things needed to make crops grow in the Northeast, she says.
She presented her work today (Feb. 15) at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Seattle. The talk, “Polycultural Cropping Systems From an Indigenous Perspective: Using Iroquois Worldview to Understand the Three Sisters,” was part of a symposium on research methods in native science. This is the second year that such a symposium has been held at the AAAS.
Corn and beans are used throughout the Western Hemisphere, said Mt. Pleasant. “Both do better when they are grown together.” Corn provides protection from weeds and insects and acts as a scaffold to support twining bean plants. The beans, in turn, produce nitrogen, essential for plant growth. Adding squash to the mix also controls the growth of weeds, and recycling crop residues (the “leftovers” of a harvest) back into the soil promotes fertility. A monoculture, in which only one crop variety is grown on a plot of land, is a relatively recent agricultural technique, noted Mt. Pleasant. Though it is suited to high-yield mechanized harvests, it leaves crops vulnerable to disease and insects. A polyculture reduces the risk of an entire harvest being wiped out in this way.
The role of the three sisters in the Iroquois diet is mirrored by the crops’ place in Iroquois worldview and culture, where they are visualized as three siblings with very different personalities. Corn is austere, standing straight and tall; shy Beans clings to her legs; Squash is the “wild and impish” troublemaker. In the Iroquois creation story, they are the seeds that issue life on Earth, and they are woven into the laws that bind the Iroquois Confederacy. The three sisters are thanked for the sustenance they provide in the Thanksgiving Address recited at the beginning and end of ceremonial Iroquois meetings.
Indigenous culture holds broader lessons for our relationship with our environment as well, said Mt. Pleasant. Iroquois people have always recognized that they are part of an ecological system, she observed. “As we watch a lot of the ecological problems coming,” like global warming and water contamination, “we recognize that we have a contract” with the Earth, “not domination” over it.
This realization, she said, has fueled an upsurge in interest in native science. “More and more young native people are … questioning conventional science” as tribal colleges include native teachings in their curriculums, said Mt. Pleasant. She noted, however, that only a few non-Native American scientists attended last year’s AAAS symposium on the subject.
As scientists begin to recognize the connections between systems they formerly studied in isolation, Mt. Pleasant hopes they will see what indigenous peoples have known all along: “We’re all in this web, and when you pull on one part and it breaks, the whole web falls apart.”
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