Basics of Biodynamic Agriculture

At first glance, biodynamic farming can come across as a bit…odd. Sure, you have to bury cow’s horns filled with fermented cow dung, preferably from a lactating cow (BD 500), 18 inches below the surface during the cooler months. And, of course, you have to bury finely ground quartz crystals (BD 501) in the cow’s horns during the hot time of the year to prepare the soil. Don’t you worry, though, plenty of companies will cater to your needs!

Fortunately, biodynamics is much more than that. It’s about taking land that isn’t healthy and infusing it with energy and life force. It’s about composting and strengthening the soil. After all, the word biodynamic derives from the Greek bios (life) and dynami (energy).

Basics of Biodynamic Agriculture

In 1924, Dr. Rudolf Steiner held a series of lectures presenting the farm as a living organism – self-contained and self-sustaining, responsible for creating and maintaining its health and vitality. These lectures were eventually transcribed into the book, “The Agriculture Course,” and led Steiner to created a method of biodynamic farming that is overseen today by the U.S. Demeter Association.

The basic principles of Biodynamic farming are:

1.) Enrich the organic matter in the soil to retain the fertility in the form of humus (the organic component of soil, formed by the decomposition of leaves and other plant material by soil microorganisms).
2.) Enhance and maintain the living system by increasing the macro and microbial activity in the soil.
3.) Improve the quantity of organic matter in the soil, and use it skillfully as the essential factor of soil life.
4.) Restore the balance between the living and non-living within the system by recognizing that the function of plants and animals are dependent upon one another for survival.
5.) Advocate greater attention to the importance and role of hormones and enzymes in the system, in addition to major mineral elements and trace elements.
6.) Ensure proper crop rotation with exhausting and fertility restoring crops. Consider the use of cover crops, green manuring and mulching.
7.) Focus on water balance and control of soil erosion, deforestation and industrial product pollution.
8.) Soil is not only a chemical, mineral or organic system, but also has a physical structure. The maintenance of a crumbly, deep, well-aerated structure is an absolute must for proper soil fertility.

If a commercial farm or product wants to label themselves biodynamic, they must get certified through the Demeter Association. This certification ensures the protection of biodynamic agriculture and the ultimate vision of healing the planet through agriculture.

The Vineyards

Many vineyard owners come to biodynamic farming when trying to make improvements. Peter and Rebecca Work of Ampelos Cellars in Lompoc, California believe that wine is made in the vineyard. After their second harvest in 2005, they asked their vineyard consultant what they could do to make their vineyard and clusters even better. He recommended that they look into organic and biodynamic farming. So, that’s what they did. They read the works of Dr. Rudolf Steiner and decided this philosophy agreed with theirs. By spring 2006 they were ready to move forward, and have been practicing this method ever since.

Rudy Marchesi of Montinore Vineyards in the Willamette Valley in Oregon is the nation’s second largest estate producer of wines made from biodynamic grapes. He first experienced the farming method in vegetable farming. Working with a small vegetable farm, Marchesi implemented biodynamics and saw dramatic results. After experiencing such an effective change, he decided to move forward and bring it to the vineyard. This led to a year-long training course at the Pfeiffer Center in New York. There he joined a study group with other local growers and winemakers who were on the same path.

“We had regular study group meetings to help each other learn and advance. It was a small group, but it was very helpful in the beginning. Of course, we were a tiny minority, and many people thought that we were a little crazy or just looking for a marketing advantage. More than once I was accused of putting ‘fairy dust’ on my vineyards,” Marchesi said.

The biggest challenge Marchesi found was taking what he had done on a small scale and adapting it to the much larger Montinore Estate.
“With 240 acres of vineyards it took some time, creativity and perseverance,” Marchesi said. “We needed to mechanize certain operations, like the stirring process for the vineyard sprays, without losing the potency of personal attention and engagement. We had to make larger quantities of preparations than I had before and learn how to apply them in an efficient manner. We started building compost piles producing hundreds of tons of material, so there was a learning curve and refinement in that process. We were greatly helped by a great biodynamic consultant, Philippe Armenier from Santa Rosa CA, who had done a lot of work in Chateauneuf du Pape and California.”

The grapes seem to respond well to the esoteric farming system.

“No one variety seemed to respond better than another. By 2007, we started following the Demeter Biodynamic guidelines in the winery. Not only did we see a change in the health of the vineyard but also we saw an evolution in the character and quality of our wines,” said Marchesi.

A Year in a Biodynamic Estate

Like any other vineyard, the focus is on growing healthy, well fruiting plants, on the plant’s schedule, but in a biodynamic system, nature and energy take center stage.

“We are growing grapes like everybody else, so the cycle of the plant is determined by the plant, not the method. That being said, we see the significance of the annual cycles a little differently. We will work on nutritional aspects during dormancy in expectation of the growing season. We work to stay attuned to the seasonal cycles of solstice and equinox and use the ebb and flow of plant growth energy at those times to the best advantage of our vines,” Marchesi said.

January – “In the beginning of the month we spray the perimeter of the farm with a special mix of herbs to mark our boundaries and in a way signal to the life forces our intent for the year and thanks for the help. We also start the pruning.”

February – “This month is for pruning and tending to our compost to make sure it is developing appropriately.”

March – “Root activity starts again as the soils warm. This is when we spray BD500, which is a tea of composted cow manure, on the soil below the vines. We usually do two applications about two weeks apart, but sometimes three if needed.”

April – “We observe bud break and new shoot growth and make additional applications of compost if we see a need. This is also when we dig up our composted BD500 from the previous fall, clean and store it for the next spring. We also start vine leaf sprays to enhance vine health and help fend off mildew. This is also a time when we do a deep cultivation in every other vine row to break up soil compaction and let oxygen permeate the soil, allowing for the growth of the desired aerobic soil organisms. Lastly, we prepare the BD501 silica spray for the following year.”

May – “This month is a usual month with grape-growing tasks of cultivation around the vines and the hand work of removing extra shoots.”

June – “This month is a critical time when our vines bloom and we apply our first spray of BD 501. Timing of this is weather dependent, and earlier sprays of BD 501 can help in cooler years. This is also the time of the summer solstice, so we need to ensure that our vines are in peak health to take full advantage of the long days of sunlight and bloom and set fruit in a way that gives us a good crop.”

July & August – “Here we focus on keeping the vines clean and healthy and the fruit developing. Depending on weather and the character of the vine growth for that year, we may need additional sprays of BD 501.”

September – “By this time the vines are well on their way toward harvest. We should be seeing color change in the grapes and sugar development. In cooler years this would be a time to apply Valerian or even more BD501 to try to accelerate color change and the process of ripening. This is when we prepare and start the composting of the BD 500.”
October – “This month is devoted to harvest and winemaking.”

November – “We begin building our compost piles using a mix of pressed grape skins, collected leaves, straw and other plant materials and manure from our neighbors’ animals. Once the piles are built, we monitor the internal temperature to ensure they aren’t getting too hot and killing off the beneficial organisms. Turning is necessary to bring in air and cool off the piles. At this time, there is also a last flush of root activity when root hairs grow, and the vines are storing nutrients for the following spring. This is when we do our fall soil spray of BD 500. This is also the time we apply the previous years’ compost to the vineyards.”

December – “Once the compost piles have slowed down their initial burst of activity, we add the BD preparations 502 through 507 to the piles as “starter” substances to help in the production of the various nutritional components needed for healthy vine growth.”

“I think the biggest difference in farming with biodynamic practices is that we train our observation skills to be highly attuned to all aspects of the vines physical character, i.e. color, gesture, growth, general physical posture. We taste different parts of the plant to determine the ‘quality’ of the growth. Our own senses are our best tools once they are refined for the task,” Marchesi said.
Ultimately biodynamic agriculture will benefit the land, the crop, and for vineyards, the wine, all with the added benefit of taking care of Mother Earth.

“Biodynamic farming is a very proactive, very deliberate activity in which you engage in additional action to bring life and health to your farm. Vineyards grown with biodynamic practices tend to have less variation in wine character than chemically grown, irrigated vines. With deeper roots and balanced growth, they are somewhat more resistant to the extremes in weather. Biodynamic vines do, however, tend to express more of the place they are grown as opposed to a vintage.”