Expert’s dynamic secret to rich soil

May 19, 2010

THE man known as the father of biodynamics in Australia has spent his life developing a method of farming without synthetic fertilisers and chemicals.

Alex Podolinsky, who has been developing biodynamic practices in Gippsland for about 60 years, offered an introduction to the principles of biodynamic farming at the Fawcett family farm at Campbelltown near Clunes late last month.

Renowned for his reticence to spruik the principles to “tyre-kickers”, the incurious and the insincere, Alex instead opened the day to the public.

About 150 people attended to hear the octogenarian explain the importance of humus, biological life in the soil, air and sun to healthy and sustainable agriculture.

A fierce critic of conventional chemical agriculture, he said the suggestion that applying elements such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium to soil would correct soil imbalances safely, purely because they were in a water-soluble form, was misleading.

The German chemist Justus von Liebig’s discovery that plants can use elements such as N, P and K in a water soluble form, had sparked the modern style of agriculture.

However in reality this application by itself “did not abide by the laws of nature,” Alex said.

“That has been done very much in Australia but it causes very big growth and a lot of sickness (in animals).”

He said many of these often costly fertilisers leached through soils and emerged as pollutants in waterways.

He urged farmers instead to consider that N, P and K are held in the roots of plants and only with the right biology in the soil, could the roots produce a humus capable of holding water containing soluble salts (fertiliser) and release them as needed to the plant.

The water is held in the “colloidiness” of the humus in much the same way that water-soluble salts remain separate in cheese or butter when mixed with water.

“Humus is a colloid. Butter and cheeses are colloids.

“If you take some cheese and cut it into little cubes and put it in cold water, what is inside the cheese as water soluble salt will not mix with the water. It is held in the colloidiness.”

Alex was at pains to explain that humus was not merely organic matter but a living pliable soil.

It can also be made by packing manure into cow horns and burying them over winter, a practice that has attracted derision from some sectors of agriculture.

Also vital to the effective take-up of nutrients, was the two-root system in plants.

One system was for water intake, the other comprised fine root hairs which grow into humus to extract nutrients as needed.

During the field day Alex passed around a sample ball of humus. It bounced back into shape when pressed and felt quite moist but not wet.

Each year, disciples of the Podolinsky farming principles go to his farm at Powelltown in the upper Yarra Valley to learn how to make the humus and other preparations used in biodynamic farming.

They prepare and apply them according to the season.

Field day host, grain and sheep producer Ben Fawcett, switched his family’s farm to biodynamic farming in 2000.

His family farms 1200ha and grows and mills grain (wheat, spelt, rye, and sunflower) to make flour and pasta marketed under their Powlett Hill label.

“The soil from conventional farming was becoming really solid almost like bricks when you worked it up and now it’s friable and it’s open and it’s dark and the water penetrates and it seems to hold more moisture,” Ben said.

Ben said he stumbled across the Biodynamic Agricultural Association of Australia at a time when the family was dissatisfied with chemical farming.

“We could see the damage we’d done and we were looking for alternatives.

“I had a conversation with Alex on the phone and it seemed to make sense so he came and visited and demonstrated very clearly to us.”

Ben said they then visited three biodynamic farms.

“On the way home the old man and I looked at each other and we said well that’s it. We never applied another chemical on the farm.”

Alex warned people at the field day that their rate of success would depend on how closely they applied the principles of biodynamic farming.

Second generation biodynamic farmer Linton Greenwood of Merrigum says he’s never known any other way of farming.

“I haven’t found it wanting.

“It’s just as exciting and interesting and I’m still learning.”

Alex Podolinsky, now 85, came to Australia in 1949 after escaping communist Russia.

And now, sadly for Australian agriculture, Alex is returning to his homeland to live out his final days.

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