Ayr, N.D., family starts biodynamic apple orchard
AYR, N.D. -- A Cass County family is expanding an apple orchard, to be cared for with organic biodynamic methods, for hard cider.
Biodynamic farming is a method based on a philosophy by Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner in 1924. He was the inventor of "anthroposophy" -- a spiritual science -- which led to a system of homeopathic farming.
Stacy Nelson-Heising, 42, is the orchard manager. Her husband, Dan Heising, 40, will be the head cider maker for what will be Cottonwood Cider House in Ayr, N.D.
The orchard is named Cottonwood Farm, which is owned by Nelson-Heising's parents, Chuck and Roberta Nelson. The family planted 100 apple trees in 2012, added 900 in 2013 and 600 in 2016, for a total of 1,400 on 11 acres of land. They also have 45 cherry trees.
In 2014 the family had a feasibility study conducted by University of Mary students and decided to pursue hard cider for the craft market.
"There's a lot of room for new ciders," Nelson-Heising says. "It's just starting to develop in the United States."
Stacy and Dan have visited cider houses around the U.S. and are trying to plan for a facility they won't soon outgrow. They plan to start marketing in North Dakota and Minnesota, but expand more widely later. Being certified organic will help, but the biodynamic aspect isn't well known enough to be an immediate benefit.
"We're looking for funding, searching for grants and bank loans," to build the facility, which they plan to have operational for the 2017 crop, and plan to start marketing cider by 2018, she says.
Organic and more
Both organic and biodynamic practices emphasize no synthetic chemicals or fertilizers, and the Nelson family is familiar with the notion.
The Nelson farm has been in the family since about 1900. Chuck started farming in 1973, and his brother, Larry, converted it to organic in 1982, eventually becoming one of the larger certified organic grain operations in the region. In 2006, the brothers retired.
They couldn't find organic farmers to rent their land, so they rented it to conventional farmers. But about 65 acres near the farmstead were kept in alfalfa and were untreated by conventional chemicals, which is where the apples were planted.
Chuck says he began learning about biodynamic agriculture in the mid-1980s when Walter Goldstein, a national biodynamic authority, spoke in Carrington, N.D.
"It's a lot more (management) intensive than organic, which is a lot more intensive than conventional," he says. It emphasizes crop diversification and perennial plantings, and involves celestial and terrestrial influences on biological systems.
Roberta supports the idea. She holds a doctorate in counseling education from North Dakota State University in 2007, writing a dissertation that included some of Steiner's other ideas. She now teaches anthroposophic psychology through a national association.
Stacy graduated high school in 1993 and went to school for culinary arts, later becoming a pastry chef in Fargo, N.D. Dan graduated from Fargo South High School and works as a correctional officer in Clay County.
For the past decade, the two have been making hard cider as a hobby. They initially planted their orchard as a U-Pick operation, but eventually saw potential in the cider business.
As the biodynamic story goes, Steiner responded to farmers who were concerned about a loss of "life force" in their seeds. In a series of lectures, Steiner said farms should be viewed as an entire organism. He advised his adherents to confirm their practices through research, which initially made the group seem secretive.
In forming his ideas about anthroposophy -- wisdom of the human being. Steiner drew on phenomonology -- a German philosophy from the early 1800s that emphasized human empathy and observation as a way to understand the phenomena of "natural forces" in plants and nature.
At Cottonwood Farm, a small garage holds a stirring machine that is used to stir the "biodynamic preparations" into teas, which are applied to plants and soil. They make some of them, but purchase some.
The most commonly used tea is BD500 -- cow horn manure. To make this, Stacy takes organically produced cow manure and stuffs hollow cow horns with it. The horns are buried in the ground, about 20 inches deep, on or near the autumnal equinox, and are overwintered. In spring, they remove the cow manure that "has turned into beautiful, sweet-smelling humus," she says.
"The cow horn silica is transferred into the manure," Stacy says. "You'll see these beautiful beads of actual silica. It transfers the cosmic forces from the heavens into the horns so that it's then transferred into the manure, and that is what makes "500."
The BD500 is applied to the soil at extremely small homeopathic quantities, preferably during the descending phase of the moon. It is meant to help with root development, she says, and it has helped lower the pH of the soil to the 6 to 6.5 range, which is ideal for apples.
There is also BD501, in which quartz is ground up and placed in a deer bladder.
Other herbal preparations include BD502 to BD507 -- using the flowers of yarrow, chamomile, dandelion and valerian; oak bark; and stinging nettle plants.
Stacy harvests plants before they go to seed and puts them in a ferment, a 35-gallon drum. The decomposing nettles eventually smell like cow manure and the water is applied to plants as a fertilizer and pest control. Stinging nettles can be used as a compost preparation.
Finally, there is BD508 the preparation from Equisetum, or female horsetail plants, which is also known as a weed and includes a silica. This helps combat fungus -- scab, powdery mildew -- that otherwise would attack the apple trees or fruits, Stacy says.
Roberta says there has been a lot of curiosity in the Ayr and Arthur, N.D., communities about the project.
"Giving back to the earth -- agricultural practices that are enlivening for the earth -- that's very important to myself and my family -- that we don't just take from the earth," Roberta says. "We also give back something, and facilitate a generation, rather than a depletion" of the earth.
"It isn't astrology," or a religion, she adds. "We're referring to cosmic forces that emanate from each of these cosmic spheres and the influence they can have on human beings and nature."
"You use the cosmos when you're farming," Chuck says. "You plant during certain time periods, you go by when planets are in certain alignments. It's all based on the atmosphere around you and the cosmos. It's proven itself to us and many people who are doing it."
Planting the orchard on organically cared for soil has been a "tremendous gift," Stacy says. "When you're out there digging you're seeing earthworms, and the earth is sweet-smelling and moist."
The method emphasizes the use of dandelions within alfalfa, both of which attract bees, which will be helpful in the pollination of the orchard. They are pleased to have "more monarch butterflies than we know what to do with," Chuck says.
The young couple will take this year's apples and experiment with their hard cider recipe. They plan to sell extra apples at a farmers market or for baby food companies especially interested in biodynamic production.
"You have to believe in it, that you're doing something important," Stacy says. "You feel when you're out there, it's alive -- there's a lot of life out there."
For information on biodynamic farming, visit Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association at biodynamic.org.