When we arrive in Pokrzydowo, at the farm of Aleksandra and Mieczysław Babalski, it’s early afternoon. There’s no sun, and it’s cold. This is normal enough, as it’s January. I regret slightly that we didn’t come at another time of year. Then maybe I would have enjoyed some fresh fruit and smelled the scent of grass.
But for now, it’s just grey and cold.
I still don’t know how wrong I am.
“The mill’s not working today,” says a smiling Mieczysław when we arrive.
“Oh, nothing, the stones have gotten dull, we need to sharpen them. Our son’s already working on it. Come in.”
In the storehouse we pass gigantic sacks full of grain.
“In a thirty-kilometre radius, there are about one hundred organic farmers. This grain is actually from them. We’ll use it to make flour, pasta, cereal.”
“But you also raise crops?”
“Of course. And in addition, we breed from the gene bank. The Plant Breeding and Acclimatization Institute is in Radzików (near Warsaw) and that’s where you can find Poland’s largest gene bank. They keep old species and varieties of grains. So that they don’t lose the ability to sprout, they have to be sown every twenty years. Almost thirty years ago, they started sowing them here – we have fifty spring plots and fifty winter ones. When we see that something’s growing well on one of those plots, we can take a hundred seeds from it, meaning four ears. They harvest the rest, and take it back to the bank in storage jars. From these four ears, after five years I have a hectare. That is, if the mice don’t eat it. This equates to about three hundred kilograms of seeds. Then I give them to other organic farmers – this one for half a hectare, another for half a hectare. No, I don’t sell them. I just subtract what I gave them when they bring me the sacks of grain that you see, and I pay for the rest. Oh, here, for example, you have einkorn – a wild form of wheat, the most expensive. It’s the finest and it yields poorly, but the price is good – it gets up to seven thousand złotys [around £1400] a tonne. Here we have emmer and spelt, also species of wheat. Like einkorn, they’re different from ordinary wheat in that they’re hulled.”
“The grain sits in the hull, meaning the chaff. Later, farmers take this chaff for animal feed. And here’s some barley, ready to be processed. The whole grain is shelled and polished, making it cereal barley. You can also cut it, and then it’s village-style cereal. Or soak it, and make flakes. Oh, look, here’s some spring rye.”
Mieczysław takes some grains into his hands and sniffs.
“This rye has to be burned!” he tells a worker. “Here, smell – what a musty odour. It’s mouldy. It can’t be used as feed, either. It’s harmful. But the furnace will eat it. We have a special furnace just for this kind of waste. Smell this rye here, do you smell the difference?”
“Right, it’s like fresh straw. But what exactly do ‘spring’ and ‘winter’ mean?”
“Spring means we sow in spring and harvest in summer. Winter means we sow in autumn, because it has to spend the winter in the field. Then we harvest it as usual in the summer. They say that for grains to be more nutritious, they have to grow longer. So these winter forms are better for you.”
“Can you taste the difference?”
“It all depends on the year. For example, when there’s a lot of sun, the grain is sweeter. It’s just like with wine – they have different tastes in different years. This year was pretty poor, because the grains didn’t survive vernalization. Let me explain. The grain sprouts, it comes out, one blade, another three, and then the tillering phase begins. So from this one grain we already have five to eight blades, and now the sprouts shoot out from this cluster, and the ears from the sprouts. In the tillering phase, the period when vegetative blades are created, you need frost to stop this tillering and shift into shooting out blades.”
“The Ice Saints’ Days?”
“Yes, the ‘black-thorn winter’ period – vernalization. That’s why at the beginning of May there’s frost. This year there wasn’t, and the yields were very low. The drought didn’t hurt us as badly as the lack of vernalization.”
“What does ‘wholemeal’ mean?”
“That means it only goes through the mill once. You can have wholemeal rye, wholemeal barley, wholemeal wheat.”
“What is non-wholemeal flower called?”
“White. Or by types: 700, 650. 500 means that fifty percent of the grain husks have been discarded. And 450 is pure endosperm.”
“The wholemeal ones are the healthiest?”
“Yes, because you are what you eat. To build beautiful, pretty skin, we have to eat skin. It lets your body create what it needs. Another thing: in our intestines we have up to three kilograms of living microbes, bacteria. They feed on precisely the fibre that’s in the skins of the wheat kernels, and they produce what your body is missing. Let’s go on, to the chickens.”
“A farmer has to be self-sufficient. That’s why we have chickens, turkeys, guinea fowl. The leftovers from the mill, the waste that can’t be used for anything, they eat all of it. And we even have one wild goose! A customer found her on the road in May, a little bitty thing, so I put her with the turkey hen, who was sitting on a brood, and they grew up together. She’s friendly. Ge-ge, come here, ge-ge! She’s afraid because you’re here. Well, everything here lives in symbiosis. Here are the apple trees, an old variety that we grafted. The tree sparrows and blunts are darkening and flying down, they spend the night on these trees. They’re not here during the day, because that’s when the kestrel hunts here, she’s like a falcon. But she doesn’t bother the hens. Over there are two mulberry bushes, black and white. So there’s food here practically all summer.”
“But you also collect the mulberries for yourselves?”
“Yes, we dry them. But we didn’t close this year too well; the mkliki came in and ate them.”
“The moths. They love organic food! Apparently the future of human nutrition is moth larvae, they’re the best protein. If I dried and ground them, they’d make flour. Or honeybee drone larvae – old beekeepers would pull them out of the hive and fry them up with scrambled eggs. Today people are disgusted by them, but I think we’ll come back to them.”
“Are you from round here?”
“I was born here, my mum too. My parents and my granddad also cultivated grain. Granddad was a dairyman, he would buy milk and bring it to town. He also had his own cows, of course – that’s the basis for life. Everybody had them on their farm. We do too.”
“Will you tell me what it was like here when you were small?”
“Around 1950, an agricultural production cooperative was founded here. Everybody had to give up half their land and inventory to the cooperative and work for them. In 1956, when Gomułka came to power, the cooperatives all fell apart in one night. I remember how they banged on the window and called my father: ‘Jan, the cooperative is breaking up, everybody’s taking their stuff!’ My father brought our horse, hitched him to our cultivator, and told me – I was seven – to make sure nobody took them. It was as dark as I don’t know what. He went back for our cow, but he couldn’t find her and brought back a different one, and finally we went home. In the morning, the militia [the communist-era police] came and wanted everything back. But they couldn’t manage it. Right, I’ll show you my orchard.”
We pile into Mieczysław’s car. Along the way we pass the Babalskis’ fields.
“Oh, look here, we grew these winter fields from the gene bank. And here we’ve sown winter einkorn. Last year, there was a mixture here to plough under: phacelia, which is good for bees; peas and buckwheat, which enrich the soil with nitrogen. So we don’t sow grain after grain. When one species of plant grows, the bacterial flora of the soil is impoverished. Then the weeds come, which are voracious, like the wild oats, the windgrass. If you rotate your crops, the weeds have no chance.”
“So you don’t have any problems with weeds?”
“No. On every square metre of land there’s a million seeds; the life of the soil is in full swing. When the soil is lacking something or has too much of something, then it tells the plants that can repair it to grow. If you have a problem with weeds, it means that you made a mistake and the land is trying to defend itself. Weeds are plants that cure the soil, fix it.”
“What does ‘to plough under’ mean?”
“I don’t harvest it; it stays green till the end. Then I plough it under, and sow grains on it.”
“You sow the grains once, and the mixture the next time?”
“No, this rest period – when plants are ploughed under – is once every three to four years. That way the soil can rest and repair itself. Other than that, every year something different grows. So now there are grains here, and next year there will be the mix. Then comes spelt. For the spring, when the spelt is in the final phase of tillering, about ten centimetres tall, we sow in clover. The spelt keeps growing, and the clover sprouts. Then you cut the grain, at a height of twenty centimetres. The clover stays down below, untouched, and keeps on growing. Later, we either mow it for straw, or the cows come out to the fields themselves and eat it. In the autumn, I plough it under and sow, for example, einkorn. After the einkorn, again it’s time to plough that mix under. And that’s crop rotation. We’re here.”
On the left side of the road, long ranks of thickly-planted low apple trees; on the right, uneven ground with spreading trees. We go into this second orchard.
“Is your neighbour’s orchard organic, too?”
“Are you crazy? Look at those trees, poor chaps, lopped off. I told him: ‘Cut down every second row.’ The rows should be eight metres away from each other, and trees every five or six metres in each row. A tree needs relaxation, a place for its crown.”
“But when he sprays, doesn’t it get onto your trees?”
“This protects me,” Mieczysław says, pointing to a row of birches and a cherry plum hedge. “And besides, spraying is quite expensive, every farmer tries to spray only his own plants. Organic farms have strict inspections every year. At the edges of the fields, where there could be some problem, you take samples to test for the remnants of chemicals. The neighbouring farmers know that if there’s contamination of the soil, the organic farmer will get a lower subsidy, and the other farmer will have to pay a fine. Of course, the worst are these huge fields with one hundred hectares or more – corn, rapeseed, grains…”
We go deeper into the orchard. Branches, earth, dry leaves and traces of snow – everything, even the sky, is in shades of grey and brown. Only far away, by the fence, loom the colourful hives.
“Organic farming takes knowledge, but most of all understanding. Everything here is connected. Hey, look at the ground. There’s all kinds of seeds here, because this year a lot of cherries fell. That’s because the cherry tree was attacked by flies, whose larvae were in the fruits. The fruits fall along with the larvae, the larvae pupate, and in the spring they come out as insects. When these cherries ferment on the ground, all kinds of earthworms are drawn to them. They love alcohol. For them, it’s the best moment to reproduce. They feast here, and what passes through their digestive tracts is expelled in the form of these granules.”
Mieczysław picks up a handful of earth. You really can see small, compact clumps.
“The dirt that’s expelled by the earthworm is five times richer in nutrients for plants, it’s like medicine. And now the most important part: why don’t these seeds sprout? Because the tree protects itself! Otherwise there would be a forest here, and the tree would die. That’s why it creates special compounds in its leaves, and when the leaves fall on the ground, they don’t allow the seeds to sprout.”
“Are those your hives?”
“Of course. To have fruit, the flowers first have to be pollinated by bees. After all, they also love alcohol.” Mieczysław picks up a rotten apple with visible holes. “It’s actually a bee that did this. Then when it flies to the hive, the guards won’t let it in. Because this kind of bee, if it’s not having a good day, could cause chaos in the hive. It has to wait till it sobers up.”
“Why do you also grow apples in addition to grain?”
“When the power saws came out and everybody wanted to try them out, they went for the big pear or apple trees, which had always stood in their gardens. One moment, bang, and they were cut down. And I said: ‘Damn, we have to do something, or after a while we won’t have these old varieties of fruit trees.’ We made contact with Grześ Hodun, who took care of the old orchards in Skierniewice. He came and gave us a course on tree grafting; there were about twenty of us farmers. That’s how it started. Today I have here about eighty varieties; I grafted them all myself. Oh, and on one apple tree, I grafted four varieties. The fruit will come at different times.”
“How do you make these trees do so well for you?”
“I prune them, and sometimes I put down manure from our three cows. That’s it. They have to protect themselves against diseases and pests. These old varieties can do it. I don’t have any aphid problems, for example. Of course, there are places where something gets sick, but it passes. These new varieties are somehow handicapped. They can’t manage without spraying.”
“How do you care for the grain?”
“Crop rotation and manure. You don’t need a lot, just enough to give it this life.”
“But you used to farm biodynamically*.”
“From 1988 to 2000. When BSE came in, Mad Cow Disease, they banned biodynamic preparations. To make them, you needed various cow parts: the skull, the horns, the mesentery on which the intestines are suspended. Later, Maria Thun, who publishes a biodynamic calendar every year, changed the recipes, and, for example, instead of the skull, you could use tree bark. But we didn’t go back to it. I didn’t want to anymore, my daughters were getting older and they didn’t want to help either. It was very time consuming. For example, you had to pick yarrow flowers during the right phase of the moon. Earlier, you threw the cow’s head onto an anthill. When the ants ate the contents, in the place where the brain used to be, you put in this yarrow. Then you coated everything thoroughly with clay and put it into the mud. It lay there from the autumn; in spring, you took it out and dug out the composted yarrow. Then you mixed it in the right proportions with water for an hour, and the spray was ready. You had to do all of this during the right phase of the moon. Other preparations were made – each one in a different way – from dandelion and nettle. You added oak bark to the manure, which meant it was processed well and gave information to the plants about how to use the components of the soil. Would you like a kosztela?”
Mieczysław picks a small, wrinkled apple off the ground.
“But in primary school they taught me that if I eat an apple from the ground, I’ll get liver flukes!”
“What?! You’d have to eat a slug, not an apple. Come on! You’ll enrich your bacterial flora. It’s sweet, right?”
“It’s so hard and pretty inside, delicious!”
“Take a little Douglas fir, too.” Mieczysław rips a branch off a tall evergreen by the fence. “It’ll smell nice in your car.”
“And these flies won’t ruin all your fruit?”
“No. If I had chickens here, they wouldn’t be here at all. The fieldfares help me. You can’t see them right now. There’s some wind, maybe they went away.”
We sit in Mieczysław’s office. We’re drinking hot spelt coffee and nibbling on dried apples.
“Why did you switch to organic farming?”
“I studied zookeeping in Bydgoszcz. During university, I was fascinated by chemistry. I thought I was going to save humanity from starvation. I started working on a collective farm, not far from here. There I saw that the more chemicals you use, the more you need them. You’re threatened all the time by pests and diseases. In my home, we never had this – you went out to the field and enjoyed how things were growing. In the collective farms, you went into the field mainly to check: to spray, or not to spray? I worked with dairy cows. We had a problem with pneumonia; every other calf died. There wasn’t this peace and calm that you should have in farming. In ’78 they did research on our farm, and it turned out that seventy percent of the cattle had bovine leukaemia. So I said: ‘Damn, I’m poisoning people! That’s not the way forward. It’s high time to leave.’ I went to work in a farming advisory centre in Przysiek. At the same time, I started to run my own farm, because my dad said he’d had enough, and if he had to, he’d give the land back to the municipality. Back then if you had no one to farm, you gave the land back. So I said: ‘No, Dad, I’ll take it and farm it.’ But the whole time I was looking for new solutions. In ’83, I went to a meeting with the farmer Julian Osetek. That’s where I heard about biodynamic farming for the first time. That’s how it started. We began to organize training on biodynamics through the centre, then I met Professor Górny from the Central Agricultural School, who also worked on this. Two years later, in ’85, I started to shift my farm to this method. What did the neighbours say? All of them said: ‘What do you want? To go back to what used to be? Why?’ But I was already a local here, so everybody just thought that something was wrong in my head. Dad was already retired, and he said: ‘Do what you want, but does it make sense?’ But with time there were more and more of us in the area. The beginnings weren’t easy. For example, all the cherries got wiped out, because they couldn’t survive without chemical protection. That’s when I got interested in the old varieties of fruit trees.”
“When did you have the idea to turn to the gene bank?”
“That was after Switzerland. I was there in ’88 on a biodynamics course. They were just going into these old varieties of grains. I got a little spelt from them, I sowed it on my farm, but it didn’t take. In Switzerland, it was cultivated at 1500 metres, it had high precipitation, and here it just didn’t manage. In the end, I made contact with the gene bank in Radzików. I call up and say I want spelt. The head of the bank, Wiesław Podyma, happened to answer, and he asks: ‘Okay, but which kind?’ And I say: ‘Well, spelt, I mean, there’s only one kind.’ And he says: ‘You know, we have about eighty types of spelt, from various regions – spring, winter. Which one do you want?’ And then he says: ‘Listen, we have a problem. We have to sow these seeds and we do it here at the institution, with fertilizer, and they get really ill. Could we sow them at your place?’ That’s how it started with the old varieties of grains. Of course, you can farm them conventionally. But they don’t like it, they get ill.”
“You and your fellow farmers inspired the creation of the act on organic farming.”
“At the start of the 1990s, there were twenty-seven of us organic farmers in Poland. We wanted legal solutions, because we were often considered frauds. Everybody said: ‘You’re so organic, but you go out at night to put down fertilizer.’ So we decided that this kind of law would guarantee that a farmer is cultivating organically; it would issue certificates. We wrote to them together with scientists from agricultural schools; we took the criteria from IFOAM, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements. We chose a board made up of professors. And it worked: the act took effect in 2001. Later, it was amended many times. In 2004 we joined the EU, and we had to adopt the EU directives on organic farming. It turned out that the EU had less strict criteria. Earlier, we were required to test for heavy metals, but not anymore. Western Europe simply developed faster, and they had lots more lead and cadmium in their soil.”
“Is organic farming simple?”
“Maybe it is, but it takes knowledge and understanding. A different approach. We come to the orchard and we’re happy that there are apples. A conventional farmer is afraid to eat his own apples, because they’re sprayed. He walks around looking for diseases, pests. I don’t see that, because I’m looking for something else. For something to eat, to taste. But he won’t take anything into his mouth. There’s a saying: ‘The eye of the lord fattens the horse.’ You give the plants your good energy, and then everything is taste. If all you have is fear that a worm will eat your crops, then what?”
“But sometimes diseases attack?”
“Oh, of course, there have to be some! There has to be balance! To have good, we have to have bad. The birds breed when there are lots of insects. If they didn’t eat the insects and caterpillars, then the caterpillars would eat all the leaves. So in nature everything is connected, and the idea is not to disturb this balance.”
“When you have that kind of year, for example, where there are diseases, do you have to expect losses?”
“That’s why you do many varieties. If one gets wiped out, the other one will be there.”
“But there are years when your profit is lower?”
“It’s not about profit, but about having food for your family. If you have it, then somebody else does too. The main goal isn’t to produce and get profit from it, but to produce and have something good for others. Of course, profit is the basis of being able to function, but they say if you have fifteen families that are friends, you’ll produce for them, and they’ll keep you going.”
“Which means that I produce so that they’ll have something to eat, and in exchange they give me their products, or money, so I have something to live on. It’s a way to live, not to earn money. Because money is just a means of exchange. You can’t eat money.”
The building that houses the solar-powered electric mill is entirely covered in a light dusting of flour. The flour is as white as Mieczysław’s beard and moustache. I don’t know why, but I expected the smell of bread. Yet the air smells exceptionally fresh – a bit like grass or leaves crushed in your hands. Mieczysław climbs up the wooden stairs toward the huge stone wheels.
“Come on, I’ll explain what happened here today. Wait, one minute,” he says. Then, laughing, he grabs a hammer and bangs the platform of the mill. After a moment, right next to the hammer, I see a mouse.
“Are you trying to kill it?”
“No, why? I’m just scaring it off.”
It’s true, the mouse doesn’t even sniff at the hammer. Instead it strides off, dignified, as if it has known Mieczysław for a long time.
A note on biodynamic farming
In June 1924, the Austrian thinker and creator of anthroposophy, Rudolf Steiner, arrived at the estate of the Von Keyserling Counts in Kobierzyce (then Koberwitz), near Wrocław. He was asked to lead a course in natural farming – the kind that wouldn’t have a destructive effect on the environment. From 7th to 16th June he delivered a series of lectures in the palace, published in English as The Agriculture Course. He was heard by 111 people, including 30 women, from six European countries. Among them were mainly owners and managers of landed estates, but also artists, doctors, engineers. In his lectures, Steiner spoke about farming principles with presuppositions including recognizing and using the influence of the cosmos on the life of plants, animals and people. Steiner’s guidelines laid a foundation for the development of the first organic movement in farming, known as biodynamics. To stimulate the soil and give the plants an impetus to life, at various stages of the moon preparations are made (like the ones described by Mieczysław Babalski). Today, biodynamic farms from around the world sell food certified by the organization Demeter. Every year, a biodynamic calendar is published, listing the beneficial times to sow and cultivate plants, taking into account the alignment of the planets and the phases of the moon.
Translated by Nathaniel Espino
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