The term Biodynamic seems to creep into the conversation more and more often these days when we discuss natural farming. It tends to fascinate us because it has some aspects that are unconventional to say the least. You can think of it as beyond organic with a bit of a mystical side to it. The movement is based on theories presented in a series of lectures by Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner in the 1920s. It’s an extremely healthy, if unusual, way to farm because it takes a holistic approach. We’ve been reminded the hard way, repeatedly, in Napa Valley that a monoculture is not nature’s way. The biodiversity angle makes a lot of sense. But, some of the practices raise a few eyebrows. Let’s start with the philosophy behind it.
The ideal is that each farm or vineyard is self sustaining, meaning that as little as possible is introduced from outside of the farm. Taken literally, it means that Biodynamic vineyards include a diversity of plants other than grapevines, especially plants native to the area, and also farm animals in order to be self sufficient.
The Biodynamic farmer recognizes that his cultivated plants are the invader in an otherwise self-sustaining environment and interprets the presence of undesirable weeds or pests as indicators of some kind of imbalance in the ecosystem.
The planet, each farm and the soil itself are all viewed as living organisms that respond to the phases of the moon and cosmological cycles so we’ll get the best results if we time certain farming practices to coincide with the appropriate rhythm. The goal of the Steiner philosophy is to create a harmonious relationship between man and the soil, the native and cultivated vegetation and the animal world as a basis of sustainability. There’s also a moral-ethical perspective or, you might say, a spiritual approach to our responsibility for the land and its creatures. It’s believed that an increased reverence for life and greater sensitivity to the environment will produce a by-product of healthier plants, higher-quality produce and an enriched lifestyle. Some practitioners of Biodynamics embrace the whole of the Steiner philosophy. Others are not as interested in the abstract as they are the actual practices and their potential for superior results.
Nicolas Joly, who has a winery called CoulÃ©e de la Serrant in the Loire Valley of France, is perhaps the best-known practitioner. He’s known for his compelling story about his transition from financier to grower on his family’s estate after the death of his mother. He was a novice and relied on his advisors, who felt the vineyard was behind the times. They recommended that he modernize his operation with the use of herbicides and pesticides to save money and Joly followed their advice. After a few years he noticed that the soil looked dull and all the ladybugs and wild game birds were gone. To him, it seemed like a perpetual winter, even in summer. He happened to pick up a book on Biodynamics and quickly became a convert with a very healthy vineyard to show for it. When asked about the difference between organics and Biodynamics he likened it to connecting the vine to the frequencies it needs, like tuning a radio. He said that “Organics permits nature to do its job; Biodynamics permits it to do its job more.”
So, if the soil is a living organism, then adding synthetic fertilizers or pesticides and herbicides is counter-indicated, which leads us to the Biodynamic remedies, which break down into field sprays, foliar sprays and treated compost.
Sprays And Composts
There are two main sprays that are made respectively of cow manure and silica, which is ground quartz. The manure is concerned with the lower part of the plant, underground. It’s sprayed on the soil late in the day, as the sun goes down, to stimulate microbial life, maintain soil structure and organic content, thus encouraging deeper roots. This is usually done at the beginning of the growing season and/or just after harvest and should be done at least once a year. The silica is valuable to the upper part of the plant, the shoots and leaves, and is meant to enhance their use of heat and light and to aid in photosynthesis. It’s sprayed on the vines in the early morning in an effort to control plant metabolism, enhance shoot development, improve fruit quality and keep fungus at bay. It’s applied in the spring, at what the grower sees as the right stage of development, and at least once a year. The preparation of these applications is very specific and just a little weird.
It becomes apparent that these nutrients have to be used rather sparingly because, before use, they’re buried in a cow’s horn, preferably from a farm-grown cow, for 6 months – the manure in the fall and the silica in the spring. The belief is that the horn encourages humus formation for the soil in the manure application and energizes plant growth in the silica spray.
There’s a tea made of the horsetail plant that’s an additional defense against fungus, a major consideration almost anywhere wine grapes are grown.
Composting is extremely important. While these composts may be a bit peculiar, we know that composting the vineyard on a consistent basis is extremely beneficial. It improves the soil structure and drainage, and adds nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and other soil nutrients. Plus, there’s evidence that vineyards that are host to phylloxera, a terrible soil pest, suffer less damage if they have been composted regularly over a period of years. It’s also known that nematodes, another common soil pest, don’t thrive in soil that’s high in organic matter.
Biodynamic compost is made from waste materials gathered from the site, just like any other compost, but then is treated with special preparations that are applied for various purposes. For instance, the flower heads of yarrow are fermented in a stag’s bladder and added to the compost together with juice from valerian flowers and chamomile flower heads that have been fermented in the soil. This is done to activate the compost and to regulate the breakdown of the manures and compost, making the trace elements more available to the plant. A foliar spray of stinging nettle tea can be used to perk up low-vigor vines.
Whether it’s a stag’s bladder or a cow’s cranium, the animal vessels used to ferment the composts are selected for specific purposes. Demeter International, the best known among Biodynamic organizations, explains the general concept by saying “The organs used are chosen for the unique properties they possess as a result of their former function within the animal organism. Their function is to concentrate the constructive and formative living forces into the substances of the preparations.” Another source went on to suggest that this, in turn, helps to connect the vines with the cosmic forces. All of these preparations are diluted and then activated by a special stirring process known as ‘dynamization’. The solution is stirred in one direction first, then the other, which is meant to increase the influence of the earthly and cosmic rhythms.
The Cosmic Forces
The purpose of the Biodynamic compost is to make the soil particularly receptive to these rhythms that the grower, in turn, uses to time his management activities. For instance, as the moon makes its elliptical orbit of the earth, when it comes closest we enter the winter mood because the moon is cooling the effect of the sun and it’s believed that the sap is concentrated in the roots. At this time, as the earth is said to breathe in, it’s best to plant vines or to prune and otherwise concentrate on what happens below ground.
When the moon is furthest from the earth, the summer mood is invoked and, theoretically, the sap rises so it’s a bad time for pruning but a good time to gather cuttings for grafting and to sow seeds for cover crops. It’s also believed to be the optimal time for harvest, as the earth breathes out and the upper part of the vine fills with sap.
Additionally, for optimum effect, the application of these preparations should be timed for when the moon is in front of appropriate signs of the zodiac. For instance, treatments that encourage root growth should be done when the moon is in front of an earth sign. For shoot development, a water sign; for harvest, a fire sign. So there’s not just seasonality, but also weekly and monthly rhythms to take into account. All of these conditions can create a scheduling and labor labyrinth for a grower with a sizeable vineyard. So, you can see why some growers go all the way with Biodynamics and others pick and choose the elements. Of course, true believers will say that an organic, vs. a Biodynamic vineyard will not display the added benefits of being linked favorably to the cosmos because they haven’t been sensitized to them. There’s a surprisingly good selection of Biodynamic calendars if you search online. Some are more detailed than others, but they can save farmers hours of research because the best of them map out what to do when and why.
As far as pest control goes, is seems Biodynamic farmers are trying to send a message to insects or even rabbits by collecting some of them, burning them and then spreading their ashes in the affected area.
The Biodynamic Year
Here’s an abbreviated summary of seasonal Biodynamic activities:
Fall: After harvest, horn silica should be sprayed on the vines to seal the wounds left by the dropping leaves. The soil should be plowed to open it up for the composts, and for vineyards converting over to Biodynamics, applications should start with something called barrel compost, which is especially beneficial in repairing soil damaged by chemical sprays. This should be done before applying the horn manure and solid compost. Winter cover crops should be sown and various compost preparations need to be prepared for burying.
Winter: The pruning may begin when the sap has descended into the vine’s root system according to earth-sun position and should be timed to match the bi-weekly cycle of the descending moon, if possible. Silica should be ground and readied for burying in the spring.
Spring: This is the time to plant new vines and it should be done as the moon moves closer to the earth. Horn manure should be sprayed on the soil in the late afternoon to maximize deep root growth; horn silica should be sprayed on the vines in the early morning to maximize absorption of the sun’s energy.
The vines will need to be protected from mildew with Biodynamic sprays like sulfur, perhaps in combination with horsetail or stinging nettle and the grower should be on the lookout for pest problems and respond accordingly. It’s time to dig up various compost preparations from the previous year and prepare new ones for burying.
Summer: Topping the shoots about every 2 weeks is recommended, depending on the situation; Biodynamic sprays, such as nettle tea, to discourage pests and chamomile tea to avoid heat stress should be applied. Making compost preparations is ongoing.
Harvest: Machine picking is permitted and it’s recommended that the picking be timed for when the moon is in front of Leo, Aries and Sagittarius for longer lasting wines. It’s time to make new horn manure and dig up last year’s.
Just as there is with organic farming, there’s a certification process for the aspiring Biodynamic farmer. Demeter International is the organization most go to for certification; in fact, they have the trademark on the word Biodynamic. The basic requirements are that the whole farm has to be managed with Biodynamic methods for at least two years. It requires the use of the two main sprays and treating the compost with at least 6 of the special Biodynamic applications such as the stinging nettle tea or the heads of yarrow. Some of these solutions can be purchased. Livestock aren’t absolutely required, but are strongly recommended. The timing isn’t strictly enforced, but it is made clear that the farmer will have much greater success by coordinating his practices with the cosmos. It usually takes at least three years to become certified, but those farmers who were already farming organically, may make the transition more quickly. There are those who feel that Demeter is too lenient and are forming their own certification programs.
It’s natural to wonder how an organization expects to gather a following by publishing these recommendations. But, in spite of the unorthodox practices, the phenomenon is growing. The Fetzer family, in Mendocino, has been a trailblazer in California, but they’re far from being an isolated case. France has been the global leader with some rather prestigious names such as LeFlaive and Domaine Leroy in Burgundy and Charpoutier in the Rhone going Biodynamic. In fact, LeFlaive decided to go 100% Biodynamic after doing some in-house research with organic vs. Biodynamic practices. They found that, even though the yields were a little lower with the Biodynamically farmed vines, consumers preferred the Biodynamic wine vs. the organic almost every time.
It’s hard to reconcile any of this with science, because most scientists are very skeptical. But, in the few studies that have been conducted, they’ve found the soils are higher in organic and microbial activity and that the roots seemed to be thicker and longer and also higher in microbial activity at greater depths in Biodynamically farmed vineyards.
Studies done for Demeter International claim to prove that the Biodynamic preparations promote humus formation to feed the vines, increase water-holding capacity and prevent the soil from becoming exhausted.
Stalwarts are convinced that vineyard diseases aren’t isolated problems, but symptoms of a pervading weakness in the vineyard that can be righted by this holistic approach. In fact, there was a fascinating interview in Wine Business Monthly with Greg Willis, the founder of a company called Agri-Synthesis, Incorporated. He’s carried out research that Steiner wasn’t able to do before he died and claims that he can “.cure any insect, disease, yield or quality problem on any crop, anywhere.” That includes battling phylloxera, eutypa die-back (a common fungus) and possibly even Pierce’s disease. Of course the health of the soil squares nicely with what we already knew about the benefit of composting and Biodynamics takes composting into a whole new realm. The studies also concur with LeFlaive on the slightly lower yields, but Mr. Willis disagrees and believes he can increase yields substantially.
Proponents remind us that all of this needs to be coupled with sound, attentive farming practices which should go without saying, given the attention to detail required to farm Biodynamically. And, there are those who believe that we can and should take it a step further and time our cellar practices to the moon phases or the signs of the zodiac to further enhance wine quality. For instance, the best time to rack (move the wine off of the sediment) is when the moon descends, invoking the winter mood, because the sediment should be nicely settled at the bottom of the barrel. With its downward emphasis, it’s also believed that this is when the aromas are least likely to rise and escape.
It will be interesting to see where this goes, because if more mainstream, high-profile wineries get into the act, and cite improved wine quality as the reason, it gives the movement credibility in spite of its eccentric image. Quintessa Winery, a big name here in the Napa Valley, claims that each of the blocks in their Biodynamic program has improved in fruit quality and that blocks that were eliminated from their blend in prior years can now be included. Because of that they’ve gone 100% Biodynamic, as have a few of our other neighbors.
For more specifics on this very complex topic, demeter.net and a book by Monty Waldin, called Biodynamic Wines, are among many excellent resources.