Barrel Compost with Maria Thun

By Nik Kramer, from the winter 2004/2005 edition of Biodynamics

Nik Kramer is a former intern at Stella Gardens and the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute. Two years ago he spent time on a biodynamic farm in Austria, returning to U.S. for the spring and part Of the summer before heading back to Europe to further explore biodynamics. He recently spent two weeks with Maria Thun and shared the following.

Barrel compost, as Maria Thun puts it, is the single most important substance the world has been given since 1924, when Rudolf Steiner first described the nine preparations we use in biodynamic farming. Little did she know when she began her work with barrel compost that her experimental preparation would become such a practical and useful for practitioners.

During the 1950s Russia and the United States began testing atomic bombs, exploding them in the earth's atmosphere. In monitoring the detonations, American and German scientists found the areas surrounding the test sites were saturated With strontium 90, a product Of radioactive decay present in atmospheric fallout. The greatest alarm came after strontium 90 was found in animal skulls and most disturbingly, mother's milk.

Researchers at the University Of Freiburg in Germany tested different plant species from regions Of varying soil types to find the degree to Which plants took up strontium 90 under differing soil conditions. The results showed that plants growing in sandy, siliceous soils seemed to be the most affected, while those growing in soils high in lime or calcium showed little or no trace of the radioactive element. If you look at the periodic table Of elements you will find that strontium and calcium are very similar. Therefore, it seems that in areas where calcium was available to the plants they chose calcium, while in areas With little available calcium the plants took up strontium 90 instead.

With this information in hand, Maria Thun began talks with Ehrenfried Pfeiffer, who was then working and conducting research in Spring Valley, New York. He too had looked extensively into the question of radioactive contamination, with results similar to those found in Germany. In 1958, Thun and Pfeiffer began experimenting with different plant species that showed susceptibility to radioactive contamination in an attempt to see whether they could use organic calcium substances to influence or perhaps block plant uptake of strontium 90. Maria Thun chose to work with oats, celery, and tomatoes grown in sandy soil that had been treated biodynamically for six years, although Dr. Pfeiffer was worried that the influence of the preparations might affect the experimental outcome. For the first experiment she chose nine different forms of organic calcium --- eggshells from ducks and chickens, bone meal, oak bark, wood ash, calcified algae, limestone, snail shells, and basalt meal.

The substances were spread in the seedbeds, and the plants sown and tended according to their nature. After harvest, the whole plants were analysed and it was found that those given the ground chicken eggshells and basalt meal showed no trace of strontium 90. At the time, these results seemed little less than miraculous.

Maria Thun next tried to find a means to supply both substances to plants in a way that would be practical for biodynamic farmers, She first made the material as one would make preparations 500 and 501, burying it in horns over winter and summer, mixing the finished substance with water, and spraying the resulting preparation after one hour of stirring. The spraying during vegetative growth had little effect, but when applied directly on the soil the plants reacted well. She knew she was on the right track. After further research, Thun chose cow manure as a carrier for the ground eggshells and basalt meal. She continued experimentation, trying out a range of mixtures for the compost preparations and different container shapes, finally settling on the approach given at the end of this article.

Thun finalized the resulting formula, still in use today, twelve years after her discussions began with Ehrenfried Pfeiffer. Sadly, he died before her research was completed in 1970, and could only enjoy the fruits Of his labour from another realm. In 1972, the recipe for barrel compost guidelines for its use were first given to the public in Thun's book, *Hinweise aus der Konstellationsforschung (Work on the Land and the Constellations)*, with a strong recommendation as to its usefulness, but without much mention of strontium 90.

Then, in 1986 came the nuclear reactor explosion at Chernobyl. Most Of Europe felt the effects Of the disaster. Even the biodynamic farms were found to be contaminated. Only those sprayed with barrel compost turned out to be clean.

The scientists monitoring the effects of the disaster couldn't or wouldn't believe their findings. They tried using different measuring instruments, with the same outcome. These results were never made public. Even in the early stages, Maria Thun knew her research would fall on deaf ears. A fellow scientist who had done the original plant and soil analyses burned the records of the results after Thun read them for fear of his name being attached to the research.

Her hypothesis regarding the use of calcium to counter uptake of strontium 90 had been proven. However, the full recognition of the wider effects of barrel compost in biodynamic agriculture was actually coincidental, and emerged over time. As research has continued through the years, barrel compost has begun to show its full potential as a tool for soil building. It has proven itself an excellent catalyst in the incorporation and subsequent breakdown of manure cover crops and other organic material. On Maria Thun's research plots, barrel compost is sprayed three times in conjunction with manuring and fall field cultivation.

Thun feels she cannot overemphasise the importance and effectiveness of spraying all of the preparations three times per year. Her son Matthias has developed a front-mounted spraying rig that runs off of a small pto-driven pump, which can be used in conjunction with their mouldboard plough. Since their fields are left in furrows over winter and only worked once, the spray rig is set up to spray a span of three passes at a time. Thus, each part of the field is actually sprayed three times during ploughing. Maria Thun emphasizes the fact that the breaking-down continues over winter and into spring. Unless one follows with a spraying of horn manure (BD#500), it is likely that this decay process can creep into the plant and cause fungus and disease problems. The numerous uses for barrel compost in a variety Of circumstances make it an excellent tool for biodynamic farmers.

Preparing barrel compost

Manure to be used for barrel compost should be of the same composition as that used in horn manure. A cow or two should be fed on good oat straw and hay for two weeks to produce well-digested manure with good solid form. Manure from pastures should not be used. Five buckets of manure are poured into a barrel large enough to accommodate stirring. One hundred grams of finely ground eggshells and five hundred grams Of basalt meal are added to the manure, which is then stirred for one hour. Half of the mixture is then poured into a barrel that has had both ends cut off and buried two feet (60 cm) into the ground. The first half is prepared with the five dry compost preparations with stinging nettle in the middle and the other four preparations surrounding it, as the sun is surrounded by the planets. Then the second half of the dynamized (stirred) manure is added to the barrel and again prepared as above. Finally, five drops of valerian are stirred in one litre of water for ten minutes and poured over the manure. The barrel is covered with a wooden board and left for four weeks, then given another quick stir. After two more weeks the barrel compost is ready for use. It should look like earth and should not smell Of manure. To prepare a solution for spraying one acre (~0.5 ha), twenty litres (five gallons) of water should be used. Maria Thun suggests that the barrel compost be added to water at a rate of sixty grams per acre (~120 g/ha) (double the rate used when mixing BD#500). The Thuns' research has shown that a stirring time of 20 minutes is ideal. Barrel compost is not a replacement for horn manure, which works directly with the plant. Rather, it stimulates soil organisms to break down organic matter. It should also be noted that it is not intended to be mixed with horn manure, because of their quite polar ("building-up" versus "breaking-down") effects.

For more on barrel compost, see Gita Henderson's article "Cow Pat Pit - Where Did It Come From" in Biodynamics #242-243/1. Late Summer/Autumn, 2002. The article was originally published in Harvests 55/2, Winter 2002.

From: Nik Kramer (2004) "Barrel Compost with Maria Thun" Biodynamics, Winter 2004-2005, pp. 17-19.