Basics of Biodynamic Farming
Biodynamic farming is not something easily described. It has so many intricate and unusual layers that differentiate it from chemical or organic farming, that most people are cautious to start peeling away towards its truth. At the end of the day, biodynamic farming is just that – a way of farming. Follow along, as we go on a basic step-by-step journey through the world of biodynamic farming, from its origin to its implementation.
History of Biodynamic Farming
Rudolf Steiner (1861 – 1925) is the founding father of biodynamic farming, and importantly, this wasn’t his sole focus in life. Steiner studied science, philosophy, drama, medicine, architecture, and more; he created the Waldorf School of Education in 1919. Steiner wrote and presented a series of eight lectures in 1924 which, as a whole, define biodynamic farming. To truly understand this way of farming, read the full collection of lectures in Steiner’s Agriculture Course: The Birth of the Biodynamic Method.
In the early 1900’s, farmers were noticing consistent issues on their farms, from weak seed vitality to diseased plants to a lack of nutrition in the harvested produce. Steiner believed these problems stemmed from the laboratory-created mineral fertilizers people had begun to use to nourish their farms. Soil health has always been at the forefront of farmer’s minds; it was discovered that nitrogen (most importantly), phosphorus, and potassium are the elements most lacking in soil, so when chemist Justus von Liebig created a nitrogen-based fertilizer (more well known as NPK), farmers believed this solved their deficiency problem and thus used the fertilizer with abundance.
Biodynamics offers a much different solution to the farmer’s problems, focusing on the spiritual connection to agriculture. Understand that the earth is a living and dying being within this solar system, that it is all interconnected and self-sustaining. We, as biodynamic farmers, are working to replenish the Earth. The way we replenish and heal the Earth is through biodynamic preparations and compost, which are very different than the widely-used mineral based fertilizers and pesticides.
Important Components of Biodynamic Farming
A key difference between farming methods is that organic and chemical farming are based in the material world and biodynamic farming incorporates aspects of the spiritual world. If you remember this principle, it will be easier to understand the reasoning behind biodynamic farming. Spirituality is often glossed over when people try to explain biodynamics, because listeners often make snap-judgements based on their own spiritual beliefs. Try to remove your prejudices, as we examine the three main practices that define and differentiate biodynamic farming.
- Your farm is a self-sustaining organism. What is found and created on the farm is integrated back into the farm, whether it be the physical materials or the energy of the farmer as he works with the earth and the plants. Other types of farming might share this sentiment, but it’s more of an attitude and less of something that is incorporated in the day-in, day-out operations. Biodynamic farmers apply this belief into actual practice through the use of preparations, among other things.
- Following the biodynamic calendar. Biodynamics takes into account that other parts of the cosmos have an effect on this planet. The farmer not only connects his work with the movement of our planet’s sun and moon, but with all members of our solar system and beyond to the entire cosmos. How is this different than the Farmer’s Almanac calendar, or the calendar that dictates astrology column’s horoscopes? This is where things get very technical and complex. An elementary explanation is that the biodynamic calendar is based on where the parts of our solar system are located, in the constellation that lies behind them, when viewed from Earth. It uses the astronomical system of constellation boundaries, as opposed to other calendars that asses the location of the Earth relative to its Sun and other planets within the solar system. The biodynamic calendar recognizes the cosmos’ forces affect four elements on this planet: earth, air, water, and fire. Those same forces then affect the four parts of plants: roots, flowers, leaves, and fruit/seeds. A calendar is used to track the strength of these forces, and helps the farmer determine which days are best for certain activities (applying preparations, pruning, tilling, harvesting, etc.).
- Applying biodynamic preparations and compost. The defining feature of biodynamic farming is the preparations used to nourish and replenish the earth. Chemical farming uses completely different ingredients to revitalize soil and plants; organic farming is focused on using benign substances and avoiding the toxic materials found in chemical agriculture. The biodynamic preps bring energy forces onto the farm, thus into the produce and into the animals and people who consume the produce. Preparations are created from herbs and animal manures and are applied to the farm in various homeopathic doses. For the sake of simplicity, these are the nine preparations:
- 500 Horn manure: applied to the vineyard soils
- 501 Powdered quartz: applied to the vines
- 502 Yarrow: applied to mainly biodynamic compost piles, and a little bit to the vines
- 503 Chamomile: applied to mainly biodynamic compost piles, and a little bit to the vines
- 504 Stinging nettle: applied to mainly biodynamic compost piles, and a little bit to the vines
- 505 Oak bark: applied to mainly biodynamic compost piles, and a little bit to the vines
- 506 Dandelion: applied to mainly biodynamic compost piles, and a little bit to the vines
- 507 Valerian: applied to mainly biodynamic compost piles, and a little bit to the vines
- 508 Horsetail herb: applied to vineyard soils to prevent fungus
Biodynamic farmers implement other practices besides the above three on their farms. For example: using cover crops, having animals, and keeping a source of water on the farm. Biodynamic farmers also farm proactively, thinking ahead to what problems might arise and taking preventative action to stop them, as opposed to taking reactionary farming measures once the problem has occurred. Using the biodynamic calendar helps with managing this, as well.
Biodynamic Farming at Beckmen
You can learn Why Steve Beckmen Chose Biodynamics in 2002, when we started biodynamic farming on a select 17 acres of Purisima Mountain Vineyard. The results were impressive. The soil changed drastically, retaining more moisture, greater biodiversity, and an increased level of nutrients. The vines grew straight up and the leaves were rich in color, shiny, and healthy. The quality of fruit growing on the vines was exceptional.
The defining result was an increased quality of wine made from the original biodynamic block. Block Six Syrah was created to highlight this increase in quality in 2003. What does this increase in quality mean, exactly? It means a clearer, more focused expression of the varietal and the vineyard. It means increased texture, nuance, and a higher quality of tannins in our wines. It helps to tame the inherent power of our Purisima Mountain Vineyard grapes, and balance that power with elegance and complexity which is now the hallmark of all Beckmen wines.
There are more concepts behind biodynamic farming – the different systems, levels, and natures of plants and human beings; the levels of subnature and estheric forces – that can be difficult to truly comprehend. For us, trusting biodynamics became a simple decision when the quality of the biodynamically grown grapes exceeded the “traditionally” grown grapes on all accounts. Sometimes you have to stop doubting why something works, and trust the results you see. Our goal is to continually improve, and in our mind biodynamics allows us to achieve the purest expression of Purisima Mountain terroir, the heart of our winegrowing philosophy.