Staying True

Date May 14, 2009 at 10:00 PM

Categories Health & Beauty


Living in harmony with the land and your personal philosophy – many dream of it, few achieve it. The Gundersens are one of those, and they’ll tell you that it’s demanding, it’s unpredictable, and it won’t make you rich. But oh yes, it’s worth it.

Gary and Natashya Gundersen have put 20 years into gaining the gardening expertise that makes Mr. G’s Organic Produce one of the most popular stalls at the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market. How do they do it? It’s not magic; it’s based on a method called “biodynamic French intensive” gardening, which Gary studied in the early 1980s at U.C. Santa Cruz, with students of the method’s famous founder, Alan Chadwick. The names Chadwick and Steiner are well known to most organic gardeners as not farmers, but philosophers. Their beliefs and methods directly paved the way for the Gundersens to do what they do.

Philosophy of Farming

Chadwick’s mentor, Rudolph Steiner, was a philosopher and mystic whose ideas covered everything from education to farming to medicine. In addition to giving the world what he termed “biodynamic farming,” Steiner conceived of the philosophy behind Waldorf schools and the transcendentalist belief system known as Anthroposophy. Chadwick adopted Steiner’s ideas, as well as those behind traditional European gardens, to develop the biodynamic French intensive method.

Home gardeners may be familiar with Chadwick’s work through the gardener’s bible, How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine. This manual, by John Jeavons, brought the ideas of Chadwick and Steiner to small-scale gardeners more than 30 years ago, and is still in print today. Jeavons used Chadwick’s method to figure out how to feed one person the average U.S. diet with just 4,000 square feet, or less than one tenth of an acre. That, my friends, means your back yard.

The Biodynamic Years

“I did go on to farm in Hawaii after a few years in California,”, Gary relates. “I was certified. It’s called Demeter, when you’re certified biodynamic.” There, the couple used the homeopathic-style preparations that Steiner developed in the early 1900s by a method termed “clairvoyant research.” These are the least understood and most esoteric of the biodynamic methods.

“We did the sprays and the preparations and innoculated the compost,” recalls Natashya. “We did the compost where you put the cow’s skull in the compost pile….” she adds. Another of Steiner’s nine unusual preparations requires stuffing a cow’s horn with manure and burying it for a specific period of time, then combining the contents with water and stirring for one hour. This is the more mystical side of biodynamics that requires a certain amount of faith. Eventually, the couple decided that their ability to move forward with biodynamics was limited, so they decided to start farming straight organic. Gary points out they still aren’t far from their biodynamic training. Steiner spent time observing European peasants and adopted many of their methods, so organic farming and biodynamics share techniques such as cover cropping, using natural manures as fertilizers and planting complementary crops in order to decrease pests.

Gary makes the point that Steiner’s system was the first formal method developed for organic farming, so many of the methods used in organic farming today are actually biodynamic methods, whether or not their practitioners are aware of it. The most esoteric aspects of the philosophy have gone by the wayside for all but the most dedicated adherents, but the core of biodynamics is the soul of most organic farms in existence today. The ideas of cover cropping, using natural manures as fertilizers, and planting complementary crops in order to decrease pests–those all originated with Steiner’s biodynamic philosophy.

There is one aspect of biodynamics, however, with which Gary and Natashya never felt comfortable, and that was the idea of raising cows. Producing the manure used for fertilizer on one’s own land is a big part of what makes a farm the “complete organism” that Steiner envisioned, but as Natashya stated, “That was part of what brought us here from Hawaii. In Hawaii, it was twelve months of the growing season…here you get the winter off! But with animals, there’s no taking off. Also, we don’t have enough land for animals.”

Farming “French Intensive”

When they began farming two small acres of trust land in the Pojoaque valley, the Gundersens had to make do with fewer acres, so they concentrated less on the biodynamic side of Chadwick’s philosophy, and more on the space-saving French intensive side of the philosophy. Originating over a century ago, around the same time period as Steiner’s work, French intensive gardening emerged from the market gardens clustered around Paris. One of its essential ideas is that by digging deeper into soil, loosening up the soil for a good two feet below the bed, one can plant vegetables much closer together, where their own leaves overlap and provide shade that prevents weeds from growing.

Gary notes, “French intensive gardening does not use tractors and plows…you keep the subsoil where it should be, down below, but loosen it up…whereas with plowing, you flip the soil and bring the bad stuff up to the top.”

Natashya adds, “We don’t have room on the periphery for a big tractor to turn around. We have a roto-tiller, so he can literally use every bit of this land. If you have a tractor, you need a wide space to get around the property.”

French intensive gardening is just that: intensive. The raised beds are wide and walking paths are narrow, only enough to proceed with one foot in front of the other. A myriad of techniques are used to ensure that every inch of land is cultivated and improved, producing the incredibly bountiful harvest for which Mr. G’s is known.

Staying True

Farming requires nothing if not adaptability, and the Gundersen’s farming methods tend to shift and change as the seasons and conditions require. While they used to farm several acres, they now thrive on just two. Thinking about a need to fund their daughter’s college education, they are considering putting in an extra acre of crops. Such is the farming life. Adherence to a farming philosophy is only as good as Mother Nature allows it to be, but in other ways the couple has stayed very true to Chadwick’s and Steiner’s original visions of sustainability. Their daughter attends Santa Fe’s Waldorf school, which they feel truly embodies Steiner’s holistic “head, heart, hands” philosophy of education. Even more than that, Gary believes that his background in Steiner’s most esoteric work has helped make him the farmer he is today.

Gary states that in making the biodynamic preparations, he was required to conscientiously walk over the land, attentively stir the preparations for an hour, maintain awareness of the phases of the moon. Although he doesn’t use the preparations anymore, he says, “It’s trying to make you go inward a little bit. It’s about trying to contemplate, learning to be observant, really paying attention. That’s definitely what I’ve learned to do. How I perceive things.” 

One of his latest observations, not regarding his farm, but of the world in general, is that there seems to be a lot of buzz about small-scale farming. More people are seeing food as the lowest common denominator of existence and, whereas there was once a big movement for young people to leave family farms, now more and more of them are getting interested in starting them.

Gary jokes, “I get a kick out of the 25 year-old guys picking my brain at the market. I always try to discourage them! I tell them it’s a disease. It gets in your blood, then you got the disease!”

The Gundersen’s have learned to make the most of the spring and summer, then accept that the workload abates as cold weather comes on. It gives their family a chance to rest and renew themselves, just as nature intended. And, while farming is unpredictable, there is a unique form of insurance inherent in the lifestyle. Natashya states, “There is the assurance that the earth is always there, the sun is always there. Once you get used to the lifestyle, your land does provide a certain amount of security.” The Gundersens have lived and farmed through hurricanes, droughts, and hail storms, so if they still have faith that the land always provides . . . they must know something.