I started working for a biodynamic winery in California after college, and my desire to learn more about the origins and philosophy behind this fascinating practice was born. During my wine MBA studies, I have backpacked around the world with a video camera, a wine glass and a thirst for knowledge about biodynamic farming. From Biodynamic prep seminars with Peter Proctor in New Zealand to Biodynamic compost lessons from Nicholas Joly in France, I’ve dedicated my travels to learning more about biodynamic viticulture in different areas of the world and it’s benefits in the wine industry. I’ve also read Steiner’s painfully boring literature along with other case studies on biodynamics and focused my wine MBA thesis on cost to quality ratios between organic and biodynamic viticulture.
Below is a brief summary of my learnings. If you would like more details about anything or are interested in learning more about biodynamics please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment at the bottom of the page. Cheers!
Biodynamic agriculture is an advanced organic farming system, developed from eight lectures on agriculture given in 1924 by Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), an Austrian scientist and philosopher, to a group of farmers near Breslau, Germany (Diver, 2010). Steiner gave a series of lectures entitled Spiritual foundations for the renewal of agriculture, with instructions on how to produce organic food supplying spiritual forces to mankind (Kirchmann et al., 2008). The Agriculture Course lectures were taught by Steiner in response to observations from farmers that soils were becoming depleted following the introduction of chemical fertilizers at the turn of the century. In addition to degraded soil conditions, farmers noticed a deterioration in the health and quality of crops and livestock (Diver, 2010).
According to Steiner, a biodynamic farm is viewed holistically as a living, self-contained system that functions in concert with the wider world within which it lives. Each farm’s goal is to be a self-sustaining entity responsible for its health and wellbeing without outside additions. It is the antithesis of commercial industrialized farming. Emphasis is placed on the integration of crops and livestock, recycling of nutrients, maintenance of soil, and the health and well being of crops and animals; the farmer too is part of the whole. Thinking about the interactions within the farm ecosystem naturally leads to a series of holistic management practices that address the environmental, social, and financial aspects of the farm (Diver, 2010). A biodynamic farmer has to intimately understand the rhythms of the farm, the dynamics of its location, soil structure, weather patterns, water needs, and overall strength and weaknesses (Sonya, 2010). Essentially, biodynamic farmers recognize there are forces that influence biological systems other than gravity, chemistry, and physics.
“Biodynamic farming aims to generate fertility and health from within the farming system,” Demeter-USA Executive Director Jim Fullmer said. Like organic farming, biodynamics prohibits synthetic chemicals inputs such as fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides and does not use genetically modified seed (Benziger, 2009). Composting, particularly done on site, is the foundation of the system and biodiversity is the lifeblood (Sonya, 2010).
In a nutshell, biodynamics can be understood as a combination of “biological dynamic” agriculture practices. “Biological” practices include a series of well-known organic farming techniques that improve soil health. “Dynamic” practices are intended to influence biological as well as metaphysical aspects of the farm (such as increasing vital life force), or to adapt the farm to natural rhythms (such as planting seeds during certain lunar phases) (Diver, 2010).
What sets biodynamics apart is the use of homeopathic “medicines” or “teas” called preparations, in addition to the biodynamic calendar that charts astronomical cycles and their relationship to the sun, moon and planets. Each preparation is composed of natural ingredients, such as quartz or chamomile that is incorporated into the farm through compost or water. The calendar, in turn, is a guideline recommending the optimal times to perform certain duties such as planting and harvesting. The preps, in conjunction with calendar, are meant to enliven the energetic forces already in play through good farming practices on the farm (Sonya, 2010).
The original biodynamic (BD) preparations are numbered 500 to 508 (Sonya, 2010). The BD 500 preparation (horn-manure) is made from cow manure (fermented in a cow horn that is buried in the soil for six months through autumn and winter) and is used as a soil spray to stimulate root growth and humus formation (Sonya, 2010). The BD 501 prepartion (horn-silica) is made from powdered quartz (packed inside a cow horn and buried in the soil for sex months through spring and summer) and applied as a foliar spray to stimulate and regulate growth (Sonya, 2010).
The next six preparations, BD 502-507, are used in making compost (Sonya, 2010). All of the compost preparations, with the exception of 507, are buried individually in a compost pile in holes about 19 inches deep (Proctor, 2010). All the holes should be within six and a half feet of one another (Proctor, 2010). Preparation 507 is stirred into a gallon or so of water and then sprayed over the top of the compost pile (Proctor, 2010). Biodynamic preparations are inteded to help moderate and regulate biological processes as well as enhance and strengthen the life (etheric) forces on the farm. The prepartions are used in homeopathic quantities, meaning they produce an effect in extremely diluted amounts. As an example, just 1/16th of an ounce (approximately a teaspoon) of each compost preparation is added to 7-10 ton piles of compost (Diver, 2010).
If this sounds a lot like homeopathy, in a way it is. The concepts are very similar to one another, they involve theories that science can’t even measure. Pest control is even more similar, the offending pest is burned and then the ashes scattered on the fields during specific periods of time (Steiner, 1924). Steiner also believed that the full moon, Venus, and Mercury influenced the fertility of living creatures, so pest control was a matter of blocking the fertility influences of those celestial bodies on the specified pest. Any angle you look at biodynamics, the concept is very strange, but then there are some aspects that could make sense.
Cover Crops and Green Manures
Cover crops play a central role in managing cropland soils in biological farming systems. Biodynamic farmers make use of cover crops for dynamic accumulation of soil nutrients, nematode control, soil loosening, and soil building in addition to the commonly recognized benefits of cover crops like soil protection and nitrogen fixation. Biodynamic farmers also make special use of plants like phacelia, rapeseed, mustard, and oilseed radish in addition to common cover crops like rye and vetch. Cover crop strategies include undersowing and catch cropping as well as winter cover crops and summer green manures (Diver, 2010).
Green manuring is a biological farming practice that receives special attention on the biodynamic farm. Green manuring involves the soil incorporation of any field or forage crop while green, or soon after flowering, for the purpose of soil improvement. The decomposition of green manures in soils parallels the composting process in that distinct phases of organic matter breakdown and humus buildup are moderated by microbes. Many biodynamic farmers, especially those who follow the guidelines established by Dr. Ehrenfried Pfeiffer, spray the green residue with a microbial inoculant prior to plow down. The inoculant contains a mixed culture of microorganisms that help speed decomposition, thereby reducing the time until planting. In addition, the inoculant enhances formation of the clay-humus crumb which provides numerous exchange sites for nutrients and improves soil structure.
Crop Rotations and Companion Planting
Crop rotation (the sequential planting of crops) is honed to a fine level in biodynamic farming. A fundamental concept of crop rotation is the effect of different crops on the land. Koepf, Pettersson, and Schaumann speak about “humus-depleting” and “humus-restoring” crops; “soil- exhausting” and “soil-restoring” crops; and “organic matter exhausting” and “organic matter restoring” crops in different sections of Bio-Dynamic Agriculture: An Introduction. If you have time to read this book, it’s a great foundation.
Companion planting, a specialized form of crop rotation commonly used in biodynamic gardening, entails the planned association of two or more plant species in close proximity so that some cultural benefit (pest control, higher yield) is derived (Diver, 2010). In addition to beneficial associations, companion planting increases biodiversity on the farm which leads to a more stable ecosystem. Surprisingly, most of these techniques have been lost in today’s farming world.
According to Steiner, lunar and astrological cycles play a key role in the timing of biodynamic practices, such as the making of BD preparations and when to plant and cultivate (Steiner, 1924). Recognition of celestial influences on plant growth are part of the biodynamic awareness that subtle energy forces affect biological systems (Steiner, 1924). For the last 23 years, Brian Keats has published an astrological calendar for the southern hemisphere based on theories developed by Maria Thun in 1956 (Thun 2000). Thun hypothesised that crop quality and yield could be directly affected by timing agricultural activities according to lunar position relative to the twelve zodiacal constellations (Thun 2000). The constellations were grouped according to four different ‘elements’: Earth, Water, Air and Fire. Crops were classified as Root, Leaf, Flower or Fruit crops, respectively according to these elements. When a crop was sown at a time which corresponded with a certain position of its element’s constellation in relation to the moon, yields were purported to increase comparative to other planting times. Such calendars are supposed to give indications of when best to perform agricultural activities such as planting, picking, and spraying (Keats, 2009).
A review of evidence for these lunar-sidereal rhythms was conducted recently, and it was found that “‘lunar factors’ may have a practical significance for agriculture” (Kollerstrom & Staudenmaier 2001). The lunar and astrological methodology remains scientifically untested (Smith & Douglass 2006), but overwhelming anecdotal evidence from some the world’s greatest viticulturists and winemakers suggest planting, harvesting and vine maintenance with lunar calendars proves extremely beneficial.
More recently, the public eye has turned toward the possible impact of lunar movements on wine flavour, with major supermarket chains in the United Kingdom adopting tasting policies based on Thun’s calendar (BBC, 2009). The science behind the theory has yet to be tested, and temperature, pressure differences, subjectivity or suggestibility are among possible other factors here for the differences in wines tasted on different days that have yet to be explored.
Biodynamics uses scientifically sound organic farming practices that build and sustain soil productivity as well as plant and animal health (Proctor, 2010). However, the philosophical tenets of biodynamics especially those that emphasize energetic forces and astrological influences are harder to grasp, yet they are part and parcel of the biodynamic experience.
That mainstream agriculture does not accept the subtle energy tenets of biodynamic agriculture is a natural result of conflicting paradigms. In mainstream agriculture the focus is on physical- chemical-biological reality. Biodynamic agriculture, on the other hand, recognizes the existence of subtle energy forces in nature and promotes their expression through specialized “dynamic” practices.
The fact remains that biodynamic farming is practiced on a commercial scale in many countries and is gaining wider recognition for its contributions to organic farming, food quality, community supported agriculture, and qualitative tests for soils and composts. From a practical viewpoint biodynamics is proven to be productive and yield nutritious, high quality foods.
Today, there are 4,200 biodynamic growers and producers in 43 countries from Germany to South Korea (Sonya, 2010). In the United States, that number is about 200 and growing, still a tiny percentage of the two million remaining farms left in the United States, of which 14,000 are certified organic, according to the U.S. Agricultural Census. Demeter International is the global certification organization that oversees the country certifiers to ensure strict upholding of requirements and regulations. Fullmer says, ‘We at Demeter-USA uphold a base minimum of international standards and then many countries move beyond that, which is what we do here in the United States. That is why in any given country you only find one biodynamic certifier and it has been that way for close to a 100 years” (Sonya, 2010).
Biodynamic > Organic ?
While biodynamics parallels organic farming in many ways, especially with regard to cultural and biological farming practices, it is set apart from other organic agriculture systems by its association with the spiritual science of anthroposophy founded by Steiner, and in its emphasis on farming practices intended to achieve balance between the physical and higher, non-physical realms; to acknowledge the influence of cosmic and terrestrial forces; and to enrich the farm, its products, and its inhabitants with life energy (Diver, 2010). These esoteric principles and the fact no biodynamic viticulture studies have ever been published in a peer reviewed science journal, create a lot of skeptics. Many organic viticulturists believe biodynamics is a marketing scheme and hoax, and need to find out if there is a correlation between biodynamic and organic production costs and quality.
Hope you enjoyed the reading, please let me know if you have any questions if you’re looking to learn more about biodynamics or use biodynamic viticulture. Bibliography available upon request.