Recently, Man of La Muncha and I have been seeing an increasing number of wines on the shelf of our local grocery store touted as biodynamic–far more than are labeled as organic. When we ask wine vendors about the difference between biodynamic and organic, we typically are told that biodynamic wines are “beyond organic”. Intrigued, I decided to investigate.
As it turns out, biodynamics predates organics by about twenty years. It is based on the teachings and writings of Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher (1861-1925) who believed that the introduction of chemicals to farming were degrading the quality of food produced. However, Steiner also believed that the addition of chemical pesticides and fertilizers not only made the food produced less healthy and the farmland less productive; he also believed that the use of chemicals represented a spiritual failing on the part of the farmer and a failure to keep in touch with the rhythms of the moon and the seasons.
Biodynamics focuses on maintaining a natural ecological balance between the farmer, the crop, and other organisms living within the ecosystem–from helpful insects to damaging fungi and foraging mice. So far, it sounds pretty much like organic farming. It differs from organic farming insofar as attention is paid to Steiner’s concern of spiritual failing.
Steiner created eight different numbered (500-508) prescriptions for fertilizers that could be used in biodynamic farming; inorganic or mineral fertilizers were not permitted with the exception of quartz. Two of the prescriptions were to be used in preparing the fields, while the remaining six were to be used for making compost. The prescriptions were provided with highly specific instructions for creation and implementation. Basically, they were broken down as follows:
500: Field Preparation. In the fall, cow manure is stuffed into the horn of a cow and then buried for the winter. The contents of the horn are then stirred into water (between nine and 14 gallons) for an hour, changing the direction in which the contents are being stirred every other minute. The contents of one horn will be sprayed over 10 acres of farmland.
501: Field preparation. In the spring, crushed powdered quartz is stuffed into the horn of a cow then buried. It is taken out in the fall and mixed as above. It is then sprayed under very low pressure onto the crops during a cloudy or rainy day to prevent fungal diseases.
502: Compost Preparation. In the summer, bladders from red deer are stuffed with yarrow blossoms and placed in the sun. They are then buried in the earth for the winter and then retrieved in the spring.
503: Compost Preparation. In the fall, the small intestine from a cow is stuffed with chamomile blossoms and buried in the earth. It is retrieved in the spring.
504: Compost Preparation. Blooming stinging nettle plants are buried underground surrounded by peat for a full year.
505: Compost Preparation. Finely chopped oak bark is placed in the skull of a domesticated animal, then buried for a full year surrounded by peat, in a place where a lot of rainwater runs by.
506: Compost Preparation. In the winter, dandelion flowers are stuffed into the peritoneum of a cow, then buried and retrieved in the spring.
507: Compost Preparation. Valerian flowers are steeped in water.
508: Compost Preparation. Horsetail.
All of the compost preparations, with the exception of 507, are buried individually in a compost pile in holes about 19 inches deep. All the holes should be within six and a half feet of one another. Preparation 507 is stirred into a gallon or so of water and then sprayed over the top of the compost pile.
If this sounds a lot like homeopathy, it is–the concepts are very similar to one another. Pest control is even more similar, insofar as the offending pest is burned and then the ashes scattered on the fields during specific periods of time. Steiner believed that the full moon, Venus, and Mercury influenced the fertility of living creatures, so pest control was a matter of blocking the fertility influences of those celestial bodies on the specified pest. All of the preparations above can be purchased ready-made–there is no requirement that they be created on the farm on which they will be used.
So is biodynamics indeed “beyond organic”? The world of biodynamics has its own certifying agencies. In much of the world, that agency is Demeter International, while the US has the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association. In France, wine is certified biodynamic by Biodivin. For both organic and biodynamic products, particular attention is paid to fertilization and pest management, specifically focused on how to manage these tasks in sync with the land and the seasons and without resorting to chemicals. Organic farms don’t have the same focus on phases of the moon; however, if a certified biodynamic farmer were to miss the full moon in applying a particular mixture, he would not be decertified for doing so.
In the end, I believe that biodynamics and organics are two sides of the same coin. Biodynamics has more of a focus on what I think of as “woo-woo” practices, while organic growers are solely focused on avoiding chemical inputs. But the focus of both is to grow healthy food in a sustainable way, and that is a goal that I can get behind, regardless of the label.