Steve Beckmen has broken down the complex subject of biodynamic agriculture into five essential tenets. Each of these aspects is a fundamental principle of the biodynamic method.
- Closed System of Fertility
- Holistic Thinking
Biodynamic systems connect the earth and sky. It connects plant with animal. It connects people with the land that hosts and supports them.
The biodynamic system of agriculture unifies bold concepts of time, place, philosophy, and plant biology in an effort to create a naturally fecund environment. A biodiverse environment is a place that is connected to nature. The biodynamic calendar informs the timing of your workflow by translating the rhythms of the universe. Preps are the alchemy of treating and invigorating plants without using extraneous chemicals. A closed system protects what you’ve built, and holistic thinking gives you the point of view to appreciate the interconnected life forces behind a natural agricultural setting.
Closed System of Fertility
In Volume One of this series, we explore the biodynamic ideal of a closed system. We use the term “ideal” because it is practically impossible for a modern farm to function as a totally independent system, an island of ecology. This would require forgoing the use of all modern equipment unless you extracted oil and metal from your farm and built your own tractors on site. Modern biodynamic farmers are generally satisfied with achieving a closed system of fertility. This means fertilizing your plants with waste created from your own farm. We achieve this by making compost and compost tea from our own animals’ manure and applying it on the soils of our vineyard.
Industrial farming practices monoculture. These farms dedicate their land and energy to growing a specific crop as a commodity. Of course, this isn’t how plants grow in nature. Take a walk through the woods, and you’ll see various plants and animals living in harmony. A biodynamic farm draws its inspiration from the diverse, interconnected ecosystems of the natural world rather than imposing a factory’s productivity on the land. The benefits are clear. Blights that wipe out an entire year’s harvest are far more common on farms that practice monoculture. Biodiversity protects plants and farmers.
Since the Santa Ynez Valley doesn’t get much rain, our lands wouldn’t naturally foster as much biodiversity as we’d prefer without effort, so we take measures to encourage a wide variety of plant and animal life on our farm. We plant orchards and gardens on site and lavender at the end of our rows to encourage biodiversity. Our ponds host a wide variety of plant and animal life that wouldn’t exist here without that step. We also take care to preserve the plant life and natural ecology that was here before us, like the mighty oak tree on Purisima Mountain that is our logo and inspiration.
Biodiversity is essential to biodynamic farming. Without our animals, we couldn’t achieve a closed system of fertility. Without planting beneficial herbs, we couldn’t create our own biodynamic preps. Without the various life forces mingling on our farm, we would not create a holistic environment.
Biodynamic agriculture prescribes the use of at least eight “preps” to encourage plant vitality. Two of these are “horn preps.” They are made by stuffing cow manure (BD-500) or silica (ground quartz) and rainwater (BD-501) into a cow’s horn and burying it to mature. The resulting mixture is unearthed and applied to the vineyards. The BD-500 goes into the soil and the BD-501 gets sprayed on the vines. Preps 502 – 507 are the compost preps. They are made from beneficial herbs and support the composting process and plant vitality. Perhaps the most crucial difference between organic farming and biodynamic farming is the use of these preps to treat your plants and compost. The use of these preps supports and enlivens the life of our soils and vines.
There is one additional biodynamic prep, prep 508, which is accepted by some biodynamic practitioners but not by others. This fermented tea of the horsetail herb (Equisetum arvense) helps prevent plant fungus.
Biodynamic agriculture is a system that is guided by the flow of the cosmos, not by daily whims or a schedule of what is most convenient. Biodynamic farmers use an astral calendar to guide their decisions, similar to what you might find in a Farmer’s Almanac. The position of the moon and constellations effect what Rudolph Steiner referred to as “ethers,” which are forces of nature that become heightened on different days depending on which constellation the moon is in. Originally earth, water, fire, and air, these four forces were interpreted to farmers as root, leaf, flower, and fruit.
Since we farm grapes, we try to do a lot of our work on fruit days, but farming 150 acres means we work every day. Our field sprays of the preps are always done on fruit days. Additionally, the most important work on our smaller-production wines and best vineyard blocks are also performed on fruit days. We have found we prefer to work with our white grapes on flower days and have good success with tilling and weeding on both root days and water days depending on the vineyard block.
Harvesting on a fruit day won’t change the way that the wine tastes (neither will drinking it on a fruit day; this is a myth). Harvesting on fruit days will increase the longevity of the wine, which allows our small-production wines to age longer in your cellar, drink longer while they’re open, and evolve in more interesting ways over those happy years. The reason that the wisdom contained within Farmer’s Almanacs has been consulted for so long is that it works. Making decisions according to the cycles in the biodynamic calendar helps us ensure that our wines last decades in the bottle. On root days, when we might be plowing, the biodynamic potato farmer is picking to ensure that his crop lasts longer in your root cellar!
Modern scientific thinking tends to view systems at a granular level. It breaks the universe down into separate molecules and sees these as building blocks that can be taken apart and rearranged. This isn’t an incorrect way of thinking, and obviously it has led us to incredible scientific progress. However, it is not the only way to perceive the universe. Holistic thinking is an alternative way of viewing the natural world. Holistic thinking focuses on connections rather than individual parts. The emphasis is placed on life rather than matter and relationships rather than component parts. On a holistic farm, richness of life takes priority. Soils are supposed to be teeming with worms.
A spiritual leap of faith is required to fully accept holistic thinking. You have to stop seeing farming as a series of mechanical and chemical interventions and begin to re-envision agriculture as the promotion of life and the strengthening of life forces that bond all living things. The interdependent nature of different life forms requires a big picture view of your farm, and indeed the universe. We are all connected. Food and wine come from life, and they enrich ours when they are grown in a sustainable manner and crafted with intention.
In future installments of Beckmen on Biodynamics, we will go into further detail on each of the remaining core biodynamic concepts. Stay tuned!