My Personal Thoughts on Biodynamics

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

jeff-smI started off this series by saying I’m not a fan of Biodynamics, and that certainly hasn’t changed.  If Steiner was something of a nut (which he certainly was), he had a certain bizarre genius to him as well.  And if he had some views about race (e.g., Germans were superior to Blacks, Jews, etc.), at least he wasn’t mean-spirited about it.  I would rather be considered inferior (Steiner style), than vermin (Hitler style).

But in the end I think we need to be critical of Biodynamics.  In the political realm, we’ve come to realize that setting policy based on ideology divorced of empiricism is a recipe for disaster.  Yet those same people who would criticize our former president for his ideological proclivities for some reason praise Steiner for doing the same thing.  If Steiner had developed his program based upon some sound data from observations in the real world, tested his program, and then having found it a success, brought it to the world’s attention, I wouldn’t have the same problem with him as I do.  But as far as I can tell, he made up much of his system out of whole cloth, leaving it to others to see if his bizarre principles would hold up.  Since then, the whole thing has taken on some of the qualities of a cult, where no questions need be asked, and whether it works is something to be taken on faith, rather than something to be proven up.

It is said that some of Biodynamics adherents produce wonderful wine grapes, and I do not doubt that that is true.  Most, if not all, of Steiner’s prescriptions shouldn’t be at all harmful.  A waste of time and effort, yes, but harmful, no.  A buried cow’s horn doesn’t seem like it would do much to a vineyard, good or bad.  Certainly, a farmer who practices Biodynamics along with utilizing good farming techniques is probably going to achieve good results.  But that’s because he’s using good farming techniques, not because he’s following Biodynamics.

So, if we put to one side some of his crazier ideas (whether related to agriculture, race or the occult), and pay heed to some of his more general theories (such as avoiding excessively monocultural farms overly reliant on chemicals), then there is something to like in Steiner.  But his views are best viewed as a generalized contribution to what is now largely accepted as good farming practice, rather than a step-by-step “how to” guide for farming.

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8 Responses to “My Personal Thoughts on Biodynamics”

  1. Socco says:

    Not sure that this is true:), but thanks for a post.

  2. St. Vini says:

    Excellent conclusion!

    The only thing I would do is to clarify the statement that:
    “Most, if not all, of Steiner’s prescriptions shouldn’t be at all harmful. A waste of time and effort, yes, but harmful, no.”

    Not harmful to the environment for the most part, but if you read Steiner, there are many outright falsehoods embedded in his teachings which certainly ARE harmful to health and environment (see my comment in your previous article about his suggestion that adding “finely divided lead” to the soil of a rose garden would combat mildew…or go directly to the source and read it on pg 165 of his lectures as published by the Rudolf Steiner Press, 2004 printing).

    The man certainly was a wacko, and made his armchair philosophical statements in a near vacuum with regard to practical agricultural experience and common sense.

    Cheers for your expose!
    St. Vini

  3. cellarman says:

    It is kind of tiring to see blogs after blogs ranting against biodynamy, when it is one of the most natural and sustainable (if you know what you are doing, not just following Steiner’s book to the letter) way of cutivating crops.

    The overused example of the buried horns to “change the nature of the soil” (as in producing manure that is compatible with the Clay humic complex’ electronic charge) has been misrepresented by medias since the very beginning of the advertisement for Biodynamics. Mostly because most journalist do not have the agronomic background required to grasp our technical terms and we, winemakers, tend to over-simplify our technical jargon.

    Maybe it would be good for you to set-up a technical trial on a short lot, well segregated from the rest of your vineyard and apply those biodynamics and see if the heath of your ecosystem does not benefit from it?…

    And of course there are always gonna be some crazies that will do whatever comes to their minds and put some label on it with no experimental background and call it the truth… Galileo was right and paid the price for it. And so did Darwin (still today - but Evolution is still a theory, lol)… Biodynamics are principles, not rules that are meant to be applied blindly, by which you try to understand the ecosystem of your vineyard, THEN try to reach an equilibrium between farmed crops and nature.

    A biodynamic winemaker should always understand that… if not, then he’s part of the crazies… If you have any questions about biodynamics practices and their scientific justification, I’d love to help!

  4. “…most journalist do not have the agronomic background required to grasp our technical terms and we, winemakers, tend to over-simplify our technical jargon.”
    In my experience, this is not the problem. I’ve found that biodynamic practitioners cannot really explain why they do what they do in any sort of causal way–even when talking to fellow winegrowers. The only explanations I’ve gotten that ever ring true are that “you’ve got to have a little faith” and that they have achieved better outcomes since adopting biodynamics. However, it is the faith of the practioners that makes me skeptical about their objectivity in evaluating outcomes.

  5. Biodynamism is a belief system. To call it “Bad Science” would be an insult to the phrase.

  6. MSL says:

    Thank you Jeff for your excellent summary on Steiner and biodynamics. I personally feel that yes, biodynamics has some good take-home points that are reasonable and implementable in the field. But, then again, so does organic farming.

    Besides certain parts of it seeming far-fetched, my frustration with biodynamics is the confusion it has caused with organic farming. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the explanation: “Well, biodynamics is basically organic farming, based (or organized) on the lunar calendar” As biodynamics gains more press, organic farming seems more difficult to explain (amongst the public and grapegrowers alike). It seems that organic farming (and certification) is no longer a standalone, easy to understand concept. Ultimately, I worry that, as a result, organic farming stands to lose some of its value.

  7. Ron Saikowski says:

    Science does not have all the right answers because we are not finding out what negative impacts fertilizer chemicals and other types of agricultural industrial chemicals are having in the world. We are producing beatiful fruits and vegetables with our industrial chemicals and negatively impacting their nutritional quality. We have also added hormones to our meat products. We are now seeing in the USA higher rates of Autism, less functionality in our immune systems, and less of our toes as our bloated bellies cantilever out. Getting in tune with our environment is great and very beneficial, but that is NOT the ONLY answer. Each be true to your own! As a Civil Engineer, I use engineering principles in my everyday endeavors. What I have found out is that you should work with “Mother Nature” or she will cost you dearly. Be in tune with her and determine what she has in store for you. Find the best type of soil, orientation, climate conditions, and grape varietals to achieve great grapes and an opportunity to make great wines. Work with and in conjunction with God’s creation to produce great results. Work in opposition to His Creation and find the disasters!

  8. St. Vini says:

    @ MSL - I agree, but I hear something worse almost every week: “…BioD is BEYOND organic…”
    That is what really ticks me off!
    Also, I have posted on the most recent local BioD meeting a year back or so, and my experience was similar…even the “experts” couldn’t explain what they were doing, but were happy to charge you huge fees for consulting and “preparations” needed for certification…

    @ Ron S. - Science doesn’t claim to have all the answers. In fact “Science” is merely a method of investigation….but it can only produce answers as good as the researcher involved and their dedication to an objective process. One issue I take with BioD is that the movement as a whole presents itself as one which HAS been proven by studies & the scientific method, which is not true. Also, do you have any link to autism & current farming methods? (maybe it is being recognized earlier/more often now, rather than the rate increasing…? definitions of disease do change and diagnosis rates are directly linked to that….)
    Perhaps a link between current farming methods and nutritional value? (that last one has been linked to “freshness” rather than method of production, so perhaps the “slow food” crowd can rejoice in this…but not much has been demonstrated other than that.)

    Perhaps you could do us all a favor & publish a link which we could examine ourselves rather than just running about and shouting that the sky is falling….?

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