Biodynamics — Part 2

by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte Rosé)

jeff-smIn my last post, I looked at some of the views of Rudolf Steiner, the father of Biodynamics, outside of the field of agriculture.  Now, I’ll turn to his agricultural teachings.

According to Wikipedia:

The development of biodynamic agriculture began in 1924 with a series of eight lectures on agriculture given by Rudolf Steiner at Schloss Koberwitz in what was then Silesia, Germany, (now in Poland east of Wrocław). The course was held in response to a request by farmers who noticed degraded soil conditions and a deterioration in the health and quality of crops and livestock resulting from the use of chemical fertilizers.

Biodynamics has a number of facets. Perhaps the most notorious is the use of various preparations to, at least in theory, enhance soil quality.  Many of you have probably heard of burying a cow’s horn filled with cow manure.  I must admit, this thought would never have occurred to me, and I can’t imagine why he thought the cow horn would accomplish much.  But he did.  Some of his other preparations, though probably of dubious merit, bear some resemblance to compost teas, which are beneficial in many circumstances.

I will give Steiner this much credit-he did feel that his ideas should be tested in the field.  His current followers don’t seem to feel bound by his advice in this regard, however.

Another aspect of Biodynamics that I personally find particularly kooky is the belief that crops should be planted and harvested in accordance with the phases of the moon.  I can’t imagine waiting to harvest a grape crop that’s reached its peak until the moon was in a particular phase (and the crop now, by definition, overripe).

But some of his other beliefs weren’t so crazy.  He believed that pest and disease control should be based upon trying to have a balanced ecosystem (that’s my term, but it is his idea).  Some of his prescriptions for obtaining that balance seem pretty off base, but the basic idea is largely accepted in modern agriculture.  I know that I, and many if not most other farmers these days, seek to have a complex biosystem in their farms.  Where there is a complex and active ecology, it becomes more difficult for any one pest or disease to become so dominant as to pose a problem.  Not impossible mind you, but more difficult.

While doing comparisons of one farming technique versus another are fraught with problems, I think it’s fair to say that Biodynamics, to the extent empiricists have tried to test it, hasn’t fared well, at least against other farming systems (e.g., organic) that attempt to treat the farm as a complex organism, as opposed to something to  be controlled through chemical means.  I personally believe a system rooted in a more natural system of cultivation (i.e., little or no tillage, cover crops, etc.), but supplemented where appropriate with judicious use of chemicals, would outperform a Biodynamically farmed vineyard.  In fairness, if in general thrust if not in detail, the organic movement descends in some part from Steiner’s impetus.

I know I would certainly advise obtaining nitrogen in the soil through the planting of legumes rather than use of chemical fertilizers, other things being equal.  At the same time, while they shouldn’t be overly relied on, chemical fertilizers have their place, albeit a much smaller place than in a farm where they are the first and only means of fertilization.  I think it’s a good rule of thumb to try the more natural course first, and resort to chemicals when the more natural means aren’t getting the job done.  It’s a pleasant thought that the more natural way is always the better way, but in practice it doesn’t always work out that way.

Next post, my personal conclusions about Biodynamics.

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5 Responses to “Biodynamics — Part 2”

  1. Chris says:

    Jeff:
    When introduced to something oblique or mysterious, you may be overlooking the fact that the general public craves it. They require little proof or facts to accept anything. Consumers must be fed something new. Don’t deprive them of thier Y2K’s or Santa Claus. It may make you unpoular.
    I am very grateful that the people who are drawn to biodynamics apply this odd science to vineyards…were they can do little harm… rather than say, aircraft maintenance.
    C.

  2. Oak says:

    Given your rapture with Steiner, how can you justify using his name and Biodynamics to sell wine when the man was clearly against the consumption of alcohol of any sort?

  3. Mike says:

    Jeff,
    Why all the hate? As a winemaker and vineyard manager myself, my time is spent doing that. I am assuming your experience with BD farming is taken from what you have read. My experience has come from implementing BD practices. As far as your assertion that there is no data supporting the benefits of BD farming there are several studies confirming its effectiveness one being a study done by UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor Glenn McGourty. Another being a 21 year study by The Forschungsinstitut für biologischen Landbau (FiBL), or Research Institute of Organic Agriculture in Switzerland. Steiner did make some horrible statements on several fronts race being one of them. Several figures in the worlds history have made these types of statements. By using Steiner and Hitler in the same sentence you are most likely trying to elicit an emotional responce from the reader of your post. You should also add to your list of people that have made anti-Semitic or racist statements: Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, Thomas Edison, Voltare, Goethe, and many, many more. Lets not forget “the good book” itself. I would be happier to get your opinion on wine, specific viticultural techniques or something you have directly participated in.

  4. St. Vini says:

    Mike -

    I believe the study in Switzerland (by Paul Mäder, 2002) is of dubious worth, and was not peer-reviewed.

    Sadly, Steiner made many misstatements about basic agriculture in his lectures…and it is those that cast the most doubt upon his theoretical formulae for crop and farm management. That it is all presented in a dogmatic format, with no effort made at the time to confirm his wild philosophic ranting leads one to conclude that his teachings are more “religious” than “scientific”. Which is why he termed it a “spiritual science” (Anthroposophy), and not agricultural science.

    His statements about sulfur, nitrogen, oxygen, etc, are monumentally misinformed, and can do nothing but lead any respectable farmer down a path of ignorance.

    I have participated in lectures and symposia by BioD “experts”, as well as have sought out producers directly for their insight on the topic. No one has the same answer as their neighbor…and it is all conjecture. Even the “experts”, though pleasant to be around their “folksy” attitudes and mannerisms, quietly explain that there is no real answer to any questions about how it works….just that it works. That in itself should raise more questions about their objectivity and the benefits of the system as a whole. In the end the conclusion is that the trappings of BioD are nothing more than wasted effort parading on the coat-tails of successful organic farming.

    If you want to discuss specifics, lets start with his “peppering” method for pest control, or the suggestion that applying “finely divided lead” to soil will combat mildew [yes, that's elemental Lead (Pb)!] . We can tackle other subjects after those.

    Any takers?
    Cheers,
    St.Vini

  5. Very interesting article. Couldn’t of written any better. Browsing this post reminds me of my old chum. He always kept speaking about this. I will forward this post to him. Am sure he will have a good read. Thanks for sharing! :)

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