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