Are we growing biodynamic wine in Southern Virginia? No, not yet — but we’re trying.
What is Biodynamic agriculture? Biodynamic agriculture is a system with its roots in a series of eight lectures given in 1924 by Dr Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), an Austrian scientist and philosopher. These lectures were taught by Steiner in response to observations from farmers that soils were becoming depleted following the introduction of chemical fertilizers at the turn of the century. In addition to degraded soil conditions, the farmers noticed deterioration in the health and quality of crops and livestock. What was to be done? In his Preface to Steiner’s lectures, collected and published as The Agriculture Course (London: Wilding & Son Ltd., 1958) Ehrenfried Pfeiffer, M.D. wrote:
In the Agricultural Course … Rudolf Steiner set forth the basic new way of thinking about the relationship of earth and soil to the formative forces of the etheric, astral and ego activity of nature. He pointed out particularly how the health of soil, plants and animals depends upon bringing nature into connection again with the cosmic creative, shaping forces. The practical method he gave for treating soil, manure and compost, and especially for making the bio-dynamic compost preparations, was intended above all to serve the purpose of reanimating the natural forces which in nature and in modern agriculture were on the wane.
Biodynamic practices are an interpretation by Steiner’s followers of the prescriptions contained in the Lectures, for Steiner spoke of the preparations in the most general terms. Dr Pfeiffer wrote:
In 1923 Rudolf Steiner described for the first time how to make the bio-dynamic compost preparations, simply giving the recipe without any sort of explanation — just “do this and then that.” Dr Wachsmuth and I then proceeded to make the first batch of preparation 500 [Horn Manure]. This was then buried in the garden of the “Sonnenhof” in Arlesheim, Switzerland. The momentous day came in the early summer of 1924 when this first lot of 500 was dug up again in the presence of Dr Steiner, Dr Wegman, Dr Wachsmuth, a few other co-workers and myself. It was a sunny afternoon. We began digging at the spot where memory, aided by a few landmarks, prompted us to search. We dug on and on. The reader will understand that a good deal more sweating was done over the waste of Dr Steiner’s time than over the strenuousness of the labour. Finally he became impatient and turned to leave for a five o’clock appointment at his studio. The spade grated on the first cowhorn in the very nick of time.
Dr Steiner turned back, called for a pail of water, and proceeded to show us how to apportion the horn’s contents to the water, and the correct way of stirring it. As the author’s walking-stick was the only stirring implement at hand, it was pressed into service. Rudolf Steiner was particularly concerned with demonstrating the energetic stirring, the forming of a funnel or crater, and the rapid changing of direction to make a whirlpool. Nothing was said about the possibility of stirring with the hand or with a birch-whisk. Brief directions followed as to how the preparation was to be sprayed when the stirring was finished. Dr Steiner then indicated with a motion of his hand over the garden how large an area the available spray would cover. Such was the momentous occasion marking the birth-hour of a world-wide agricultural movement.
What impressed me at the time, and still gives one much to think about, was how these step-by-step developments illustrate Dr Steiner’s practical way of working. He never proceeded from preconceived abstract dogma, but always dealt with the concrete given facts of the situation. There was such germinal potency in his indications that a few sentences or a short paragraph often sufficed to create the foundation for a farmer’s or scientist’s whole life-work; the agricultural course is full of such instances. A study of his indications can therefore scarcely be thorough enough. One does not have to try to puzzle them out, but can simply follow them to the letter.
Dr Steiner begins the Lectures (Lecture No. 1, 7th June, 1924) by explaining the role of silica and its interaction with the plant life and the cosmos. In Biodynamic practice, this substance is called Horn Silica, or BD-501:
In the Medicine that proceeds from Anthroposophical Science, silicious substances are an essential constituent of numerous medicaments. A large class of illnesses are treated with silicic acid taken internally, or outwardly as baths. In effect, practically everything that shows itself in abnormal conditions of the senses is influenced in a peculiar way by silicon. (I do not say what lies in the senses themselves, but that which shows itself in the senses, including the inner senses — calling forth pains here or there in the organs of the body).
Not only so; throughout the “household of Nature,” as we have grown accustomed to call it, silicon plays the greatest imaginable part, for it not only exists where we discover it in quartz or other rocks, but in an extremely fine state of distribution it is present in the atmosphere. Indeed, it is everywhere. Half of the Earth that is at our disposal is of silica. …
Now we can go still farther. Everything that lives in the silicious nature contains forces which comes not from the Earth but from the so-called distant planets, the planets beyond the Sun — Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. That which proceeds from these distant plants influences the life of plants via the silicious and kindred substances into the plant and also into the animal life of the Earth. On the other hand, from all that is represented by the planets near the Earth — Moon, Mercury and Venus — forces work via the limestone and kindred substances. Thus we may say, for every tilled field: Therein are working the silicious and the limestone natures; in the former, Saturn, Jupiter and Mars; and in the latter, Moon, Venus and Mercury. …
On the other hand, when plants become foodstuffs to a large extent — when they evolve in such a way that the substances in them become foodstuffs for animal and man, then Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, working via the silicious nature, are concerned in the process. The silicious nature opens the plant-being to the wide spaces of the Universe and awakens the senses of the plant-being in such a way as to receive from all quarters of the Universe the forces which are moulded by these distant planets. Whenever this occurs, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn are playing their part. From the sphere of the Moon, Venus and Mercury, on the other hand, is received all that which makes the plant capable of reproduction.
To begin with, no doubt this appears as a simple piece of information. But truths like this, derived from a somewhat wider horizon, lead of their own accord from knowledge into practice. For we must ask ourselves: If forces come into the Earth from Moon, Venus and Mercury and become effective in the life of plants, by what means can the process be more or lese quickened or restrained? By what means can the influences of Moon or Saturn on the life of plants be hindered, and by what means assisted?
Steiner concluded in Lecture No. 1 that “The more intimate influences which are at work in the whole Universe are no longer understood. These must be looked for again along such lines as I have hinted at to-day. I have only introduced the subject; I have only tried to show where the questions arise — questions which go far beyond the customary points of view. We shall continue and go deeper in this way, and then apply, what we have found, in practice.”
Dr Steiner’s prescriptions have been adopted by a number of winegrowers, and is rooted in viewing viticulture in a more fundamental way than conventional practice, by acknowledging and working in tandem with the influence of the cosmos. As David Ridgway, 1st Sommelier at La Tour d’Argent in Paris, France acknowledged in the Preface to Nicholas Joly’s Wine from Sky to Earth: Growing and Appreciating Biodynamic Wine (Austin, TX: Acres USA, 1999):
Biodynamics is often considered to be a marginal, even eccentric way of doing things. However, biodynamics is almost entirely based on ancestral methods. For example, we acknowledge the influence of the moon, sun and stars on the tides, but at present we deny that the same effects extend to grapevines, which we treat like machines that are turned on or off according to our wishes. There are many reasons for which biodynamics could be applauded, but central among them is its abandonment of all chemical fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides.
This statement isn’t entirely true, for Biodynamic winegrowers must still rely on the fungicides that are allowed in organic viticulture, namely sulfur and copper sulphate. François Bouchet gives precise recommendations on their use while balancing their use with practical recommendations in his book, L’Agriculture Bio’Dynamique: Comment l’appliquer dans la vigne (Paris: Deux versants éditeur, 2003).
While writing these lines, I must be honest and acknowledge that even in biodynamic practices, and despite very encouraging results coming from trials run as we speak, we still depend on copper and sulfur treatments, though certainly biodynamics practiced correctly, along with the contribution from various teas, allows us to decrease the amount of these chemicals used by ten or more times. We have almost reached our goals, and the kinds of treatments used now, I must grant, will doubtless be altered within the next three or four years.
Application of preventive treatments has to be thought through, and their rhythm must be very tightly controlled, because the chemicals used (copper and sulfur), are merely contact elements. In order to considerably diminish the doses and lessen phytotoxicity, we should take care to follow these treatments by the application of teas or decoctions.
In order for us to become truly Biodynamic, we must fully understand the interaction of the preparations and their effectiveness in practice. We do shun broad-spectrum insecticides, for we prefer to allow the web of beneficial insects to thrive in a balanced environment without poisons, with the exception of our most intractable foe, the grape berry moth (Paralobesia viteana (Clemens)) which is endemic to Virginia due to the prevalence of wild grapes throughout the mid-Atlantic. We control this pest with Intrepid, a selective insecticide that targets only the grape berry moth by acting as a growth regulator, thereby preventing it from completing its’ lifecycle. We would prefer to give this insecticide up as well and allow bats and parasitic wasps to control the pests, but we must first make the vineyard hospitable to these beneficial creatures.
We are slowly weaning ourselves from conventional fungicides, but have not yet given them up. Happily our vineyard consultant has told us that since we began our biodynamic program three years ago that our vineyard is the cleanest of all his clients, with virtually no phomopsis, downy mildew, powdery mildew or black rot. “Whatever it is you’re doing, keep it up,” he says. Until we learn how to make them ourselves, we obtain our biodynamic preparations from The Josephine Porter Institute for Applied Biodynamics in Woolwine, Virginia. So we apply the teas and decoctions Dr Steiner, Dr Pfeiffer and Mr Bouchet recommend, and look to the planets, the moon, the sun and the stars — and let those heavenly bodies guide our actions in the vineyard. We’ll write more on that later.