The story of biodynamics in America is deeply intertwined with the biographies of Ehrenfried Pfeiffer and of the Threefold Community, home of the Pfeiffer Center for Biodynamics and the Environment.
The Community’s story begins in 1926, when the members of New York City’s Threefold Group bought a farm in rural Rockland County, about 30 miles northwest of New York City. These American anthroposophists (students of Rudolf Steiner) ran a laundry, a furniture-making shop, a rooming house, and a vegetarian restaurant near Carnegie Hall. Many of them had encountered anthroposophy and even met Rudolf Steiner personally in Europe, and were at or near the origins of many anthroposophical impulses in the arts, education, medicine, and agriculture. They shared a heartfelt obligation to bring anthroposophical ideals to life in the social fabric of the New World, and Threefold Farm was integral to this impulse.
On July 8-23, 1933, the first Anthroposophical Summer School took place at Threefold Farm. The faculty included three European anthroposophists making their first-ever visits to North America, one being Ehrenfried Pfeiffer. Pfeiffer’s seven lectures included two with the title, “Dr. Steiner’s Biologic Dynamic Agricultural Methods Practically Applied in Farming.”
Pfeiffer, who was born in 1899, first met Rudolf Steiner at the age of 19. Pfeiffer’s mother and stepfather were both anthroposophists and knew Steiner personally, but they never spoke to Ehrenfried about Spiritual Science, leaving him to find it on his own. Pfeiffer was in university at the time, and Steiner immediately set to work designing Pfeiffer’s education. The course load was extremely heavy, and strongly weighted to the sciences: as Steiner told Pfeiffer, to overcome materialism, we must know its means and methods as well as we know our own.
Within a few years, Pfeiffer was living in Dornach and working closely with Steiner. Pfeiffer wrote that “In 1922 Rudolf Steiner described for the first time how to make the biodynamic preparations, simply giving the recipe without any sort of explanation – just ‘do this and then do that.'” It was Pfeiffer, with Ita Wegman and Gunther Wachsmuth, who made and applied the first batch of Preparation #500, years before the Agriculture Course of 1924. Pfeiffer was one of a small circle of people entrusted with putting biodynamics into practice, to get as much land as possible under biodynamic care so that, in Steiner’s words, “in future everyone will be able to say, ‘We have tried it, and it works,’ even though some of these things may still seem strange right now.”
In 1928, Pfeiffer took charge of Loverendale, a farm of over 500 acres in the Netherlands. To the massive task of converting a conventional farm to BD, and making it economically self-sufficient, all in the difficult economic conditions of the inter-War years, Pfeiffer added considerable obligations as a speaker, teacher and consultant, traveling extensively throughout Europe and North America. This established a lifestyle that persisted to the end of Pfeiffer’s life, through all manner of adversity and illness: complete dedication to furthering the work begun by Rudolf Steiner, encompassing agriculture and many other fields as well.
Pfeiffer lectured in the States regularly during the 1930s, and was a fixture at the Threefold summer conferences, which grew in length and scope with each passing year. In the late 1930s he was invited to work at Philadelphia’s Hahnemann Medical College, where he experimented with using the crystallization patterns of blood for the diagnosis of cancer. This work resulted in Pfeiffer’s being awarded an honorary Doctor of Medicine degree from Hahnemann in 1939. When the war came, Pfeiffer brought his family to Kimberton, Pennsylvania, where Alaric Myrin offered Pfeiffer the opportunity to create a model biodynamic farm and training program. Pfeiffer also led the initiative to found the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association, and to start its journal. While at Kimberton, Pfeiffer met J. I. Rodale, a relationship that gave biodynamics a little-known place in the history of the American organic movement.
Interpersonal difficulties – a motif of Pfeiffer’s life – brought to a close the Kimberton Farms chapter. Aiming to continue his work training biodynamic farmers, Pfeiffer bought a farm in Chester, New York, where a small colony arose focused on farming, education, and the administration of the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association. In the mid-1940s, tuberculosis caused Pfeiffer’s confinement in the New York State sanatorium in Pomona, not far from Spring Valley. Pfeiffer’s wife, Adelheid, and their children Christoph and Willi kept the farm running, but Pfeiffer’s illness made it impossible for him to work his milk cows. Upon his discharge from the sanatorium, Pfeiffer was offered living quarters and work space at Threefold Farm. The Bio-Chemical Research Laboratory, which opened in 1946 and operated until 1974, worked to perfect the mass production of the biodynamic preps, among many other projects.
In the 1940s, Pfeiffer developed and brought to market commercially viable compost “starters” that helped make biodynamics accessible to home gardeners and conventional farmers. Between 1950 and 1952, he developed and directed an innovative municipal composting program in Oakland, California, in which Oakland’s household garbage was composted and pelletized for use as agricultural fertilizer.
Pfeiffer died in 1961, his life shortened by multiple illnesses and also no doubt by the massive workload he took upon himself, the scope of which is barely suggested in this brief account.
The Threefold Community itself holds a unique place in the history of biodynamics in America. Threefold Farm was the first piece of ground in America to be worked using the biodynamic method, and Threefold land has been farmed and gardened biodynamically continuously since 1926. The Biodynamics Conference was held at Threefold every year from 1948 until 1980.
Ehrenfried Pfeiffer’s 28-year association with the Threefold Community greatly enriches this heritage, so when the Threefold Educational Foundation created a center for biodynamics in 1996, it was only natural to name the center after Pfeiffer. The Pfeiffer Center’s One-Year Part-Time Training in Biodynamics has hundreds of alumni, and dozens of interns have passed through the Pfeiffer Center’s garden. Mac Mead, who became the Center’s Director in 2007, learned biodynamics in the 1970s from Fellowship Community co-workers who had studied and worked with Pfeiffer. All of this is a fitting tribute to a man who was present at the very beginning of biodynamics, who dedicated his life to fostering biodynamics, and who once wrote, “My innermost loyalty belongs to Rudolf Steiner. For him and his work I wish to continue to live.”
This article was published in slightly different form in the Fall 2008 issue of Biodynamics, the journal of the Biodynamic Association.