Tags

, , ,

HAPPY 150th!

Depending on your source, Rudolf Steiner was either born in Austria on February 25th or February 27th, 1861 (he died March 30th, 1925).

Rudi was blessed with amazingly active mind and imagination. Throughout the course of his life he made enormous impacts into fields as diverse as education, economics, architecture, spiritual mysticism, esoteric philosophy, and agriculture. For a biographical introduction to Rudi, this is a great resource.

As Stewart Easton wrote in Rudolf Steiner: Herald of A New Epoch (Anthroposophic Press, 1982):

“If Steiner had been nothing but a philosopher, or theologian, or educator, or authority on Goethe, or agricultural expert, or architect, or knowledgeable in medicinal plants, or dramatist, or gifted artistic innovator, inventor of eurythmy, an age that respects specialization would have reserved a special niche for him. But Steiner was all these things at the same time.” (Easton, 9)

Some of his ideas and theories are easier to grasp than others.

Biodynamics is not one of the easy ones…

THE GENESIS OF BIODYNAMICS

In the early 1920’s, he was approached by a contingent of practicing farmers concerned with soil health. What followed was the genesis of biodynamic agriculture.

“It ought to be clear to anyone that people have no right to talk about agriculture, including its social and organizational aspects, unless they have a sound basis in agriculture, and really know what it means to grow grain or p0tatoes or beets.”

Rudolf Steiner, Spiritual Foundations for the Renewal of Agriculture, First Lecture, June 7, 1924

An important point to take into consideration at this juncture is that Steiner was not a farmer. But yet he spoke about farming. And for many people, his philosophy regarding the spirituality of agriculture resounded deeply. One hundred fifty years later, his ideas have matured and to this date, they have never been as popular or as contentious.

WHAT ARE BIODYNAMICS?

The “simplest” manner in which biodynamics may be understood may revolve around these few tenets:

1) View the soil as a living organism; bring life to the soil with high-quality compost and without the use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides.

2) Allow oxygen to penetrate the soil strata. Repeated use of heavy machinery tends to compact the soil. Using light machinery only during certain periods is advised. Certain growers go as far as hand hoeing and utilizing draft horses for tilling.

3) Help the soil digest the oxygen and fresh organic matter by utilizing various preparations made of cow dung and plants during specific periods of growth in order to build a hearty microbial population in the soil.

QUICK REVIEW…

By viewing the soil and farm as living organisms, a farmer can improve the entire ecosystem’s vitality, thereby conceiving higher likelihood of a robust, ‘natural’ crop.

Biodynamic agriculture aims to make the farm a closed system; all inputs ideally come from the farm or close to it.

No chemical fertilizers or pesticides are used, instead biodynamic preparations are employed to assist the plant or vine during specific periods of growth, many times in tune with the lunar cycle and/or to address the root issues of certain maladies or deficiencies.

The preparations are simply to help show the vine in what direction to focus it’s energy.

The different biodynamic preparations
Preparation Contents Mode of application
500 Cow manure fermented in a cow horn, which is then buried and over-winters in the soil Sprayed on the soil typically at a rate of 60 g per hectare in 34 litres of water.
501 Ground quartz (silica) mixed with rain water and packed in a cow’s horn, buried in spring and then dug up in autumn Sprayed on the crop plants
502 Flower heads of yarrow fermented in a stag’s bladder Applied to compost along with preparations 503-507. Together these control the breakdown of the manures and compost, helping to make trace elements more available to the plant
503 Flower heads of camomile fermented in the soil Applied to compost
504 Stinging nettle tea Applied to compost. Nettle tea is also sometimes sprayed on weak or low vigour vines
505 Oak bark fermented in the skull of a domestic animal Applied to compost
506 Flower heads of dandelion fermented in cow mesentery Applied to compost
507 Juice from valerian flowers Applied to compost
508 Tea prepared from horsetail plant (Equisetum) Used as a spray to counter fungal diseases
Note: All these preparations are diluted and then activated or energized by a special stirring process known as ‘dynamization’.

As a result of the listed tenets, biodynamic viticulture usually requires more labor than conventional and organic viticulture. This labor means more time nurturing a visceral connection to the plants and place.

Wonderful theory.

Application and execution are another bag of worms.

For further reading, an in-depth yet rather quick read on the fundamentals of biodynamics is here.

Then there is the contentious debate as to whether or not the grapes farmed in this matter actually taste better. Moreover, there is a ‘moral high ground’ taken by some Biodynamic vignerons/growers. Hey, they might just deserve it…

This ‘moral high ground’ is just as much a reality of a powerful philosophy such as biodynamics as religious zealotry is a reality of the world’s major religions.

Stuart Smith, of Smith-Madrone Winery, has many years of experience as a grape grower and wholeheartedly supports sustainable and organic viticulture. Yet for him, the ‘moral high ground’ is difficult to swallow because, as he points out in his blog Biodynamics is a Hoax, biodynamics lacks any real scientific proof:

“People today make all sorts of assertions with little or no connection to the truth, and biodynamics is no different. Show me the scientific experiments that prove biodynamic soils and vines are healthier and biodynamic wines are better. If these folks can prove their assertions, then I’m sure many of us would consider converting to biodynamics. Unfortunately, the supporters of biodynamics cannot provide scientific studies proving the efficacy of biodynamics, because none exists.”

THE PROOF IS IN THE PUDDING, OR SOIL RATHER…

Simple soil analysis has shown that biodynamic soils contain 10 times more micro-organisms (measured in weight) that normal organic soils.

See the studies from Biodyvin here.

There have also been other studies, which, generally, come out in favor of biodynamics. See this article, here.

But, firm proof that biodynamic soils are better?

Nope.

Does it matter to most biodynamic vignerons that science may not ever prove they have it right?

Nope.

Jamie Goode is quite succinct in summing up the difficulty of Bringing Together Biodynamics and Science:

“… rigorous research on biodynamics faces a number of obstacles. First, because biodynamics sees the whole farm as a single ‘organism’, the idea of separate, adjacent plots being farmed by different methods, in a trial-type scenario, doesn’t really fit. A second difficulty is persuading research funding agencies to pay for these studies. Professor John Reganold, a scientist at the University of Washington (Pullman) who is one of the leading authorities on organic agriculture, told me that some of his research proposals have been vetoed by funding agencies because they have contained the word ‘biodynamics’. ‘Many scientists who won’t even look at biodynamics’, he reports.

SQUARE PEGS IN SQUARE HOLES. ROUND PEGS IN ROUND HOLES.

The fact that biodynamics is largely unquantifiable by modern science is why people like Stu Smith have such a hard time accepting it.

Regardless, most Biodynamic vignerons (who make some of the most well-renown wines  in the world) swear by the general methods and guidelines, though each usually has their own special take on preparations, lunar cycles so on and so forth based upon experience, site needs and fervency.

IS THERE A TRUTH IN BIODYNAMICS?

Biodynamics, via a spiritual and biological approach to farming, utilizes natural inputs, labor and knowledge of ecological and lunar cycles to grow crops. Practitioners swear by it, otherwise, they wouldn’t go to such lengths.

Is it a bad thing to create more sustainable crops by understanding, utilizing and optimizing nutrient pathways and natural forces to maintain balance and improve capacity of farm ecosystems?

I certainly don’t think so.

But to be certain, I fly to New Zealand today and will find out how the practical application is going. I’m spending some time visiting wineries and talking with winemakers, viticulturalists and other folks involved in grape farming in order to understand how Biodynamics is doing in New Zealand.

I dedicate my efforts to Rudi’s legacy, because his overall contribution to the world is astounding and his foresight into some of our current issues was spectacular.

Happy belated 150th Rudi.

Disclaimer: I am not a farmer. I do not have a degree in agriculture. I am just a student of wine trying to make sense of Biodynamics. Thanks to the resources (websites I link to) and to all the passionate drinkers, growers and winemakers who I’ve spoken to, and those I have not yet had a chance to talk with. Sorry if I offend anyone. Please feel free to comment or correct me.

Cheers!

Advertisements