Our View from the Tractor.

The View from the Tractor.

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

– F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Great Gatsby (1925)

Ah, working the tractor.  What do we see when we’re up there?  Sure, the mind wanders, and you might think it dull work, but its an opportunity to scrutinize each vine while traveling at 3 miles an hour.  Here’s one lacking flowers, another that’s dead, still another covered with shoots, all looking fruitful, so positive and full of hope.  You make a mental note and inexorably move on, at once going forward and looking back.

We spent Saturday at the Central Virginia Wine Festival in Glen Allen. a northern suburb of Richmond, then high-tailed it out of there to be able to get a fungicide spray in the vineyards on Sunday.  It was the perfect day for it — not windy, mild, pleasant to be outdoors, though sitting on the terrace with a Mint Julep in hand while watching the dogs chase squirrels across the lawn and idly thumbing through a magazine would certainly have been preferable.

The vines are at a stage where all appears possible, that great things could happen, or a tragedy.  All stages in the life of a vine seem critical: bud break and bloom especially.  At bud break, the possibility of frost threatens catastrophe, with the potential loss of the entire crop.  Another threat is the climbing cutworm, which if unchecked can be equally destructive.  An ill-timed rainstorm during bloom causes its own kind of havoc, which may result in irregular berry set, though in the scheme of things, this isn’t too bad because the resulting loose clusters can avoid disease.

The worst of the winter is behind us (unless you are reading this from Colorado and Wyoming, which just had up to three feet of snow in some parts earlier this week), and It is too early to speculate about the hurricane season, so all there is to do is keep disease at bay and hope for temperate spring weather.

Viognier Tag.With the new vineyard, we want to get the vines off to a good start with at least three sprays that incorporate the foundation Biodynamic preparation known as B.D. 500, otherwise known as horn manure.  Its application is believed promote microbial activity in the soil, which in turn allows the plants greater access to nutrients in the teeming life below ground.  Practitioners recommend spraying the ground, but we see no reason not to have a foliar feeding of the vines, so we spray everything.  We also add fermented horsetail tea, which is a powerful antifungal agent.

Horsetail (Equisetum arvense) is a plant source for silica, which is believed to harness solar forces, thereby discouraging mildew.  It sounds crazy and the fermented tea smells very bad, but we swear by it. The plant is made up of silica, potassium and calcium.   Shortly before bloom we will add to our standby fungicide spray mixture of sulfur (which helps protect against powdery mildew) and Manzate (a magnesium based fungicide, which combats downy mildew) B.D. 501, horn silica, which is powdered quartz, and is believed to improve photosynthesis.

This was our first pass through the new vineyard on a tractor.  A first visit is always cause for anxiety, because you don’t quite know the “lay of the land.”  In time you come to appreciate and anticipate every dip and furrow and can adjust accordingly, but in a new vineyard its all vigilance and caution.  It didn’t help that our trusty New Holland vineyard tractor was in the shop, so we had to manage with a full size loaner that came equipped with a front-end loader, so navigating is extra tricky.  We usually navigate every other row, but not in this monster, which lacked the turn radius of our tractor.  Its a wonder we haven’t taken out any posts maneuvering this thing.

And with that, we are left wishing for even more time to accomplish everything we set out to do, and need to do.  Going forward, looking back, re-assessing and planning.

Down the Grow Tube.




A Cool, Wet Spring Means Phomopsis.

Bud Break

Bud Break, 12 April 2013.

Ah, spring!  Winegrowers have a different spin on that old ditty:  “April showers bring May . . . Phomopsis.  More specifically, Phomopsis viticola, otherwise known as Phomopsis cane and leaf spot.  The weather this spring has been perfect for it — cool, wet days with relatively cool temperatures in the range of 59 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit.  We haven’t seen it in our vineyards for about four years, but this past week the tractor was being serviced so we had to miss spraying fungicides one week.  The infection seemed relatively small — just a few patches — but it must be controlled.  One can expect to see it anytime after bud break, which this year occurred around April 12 in our part of the world.

Readers of this space probably don’t care for the ugly details, but those interested in learning more can turn to any of several sources: Virginia Tech’s Online Guide to Grapevine Diseases and the University of California’s Integrated Pest Management Program are excellent, Cornell University has theirs, as do most every other university agriculture program.  The bottom line is it ain’t pretty, and if not controlled, it can ruin your crop.

How do you fight it?  You treat it the same as all of our other loveable fungal infections: downy mildew, powdery mildew, botrytis, black rot — with a fungicidal spray, applying once a week or so or after a heavy rain, being mindful of the limits specified on the label for the application of that particular product in a particular growing season.  There are a range of products effective against it, such as copper and sulfur (for those focused on organic production), but our personal favorite is a Dupont product called Manzate, which contains manganese and zinc.  The rules for its application vary by location and crop.  In California, for example, it is illegal to apply Manzate to grapes after bloom, yet east of the Rocky Mountains you can apply it up to 66 days before harvest (referred to as the “pre-harvest interval,” or PHI), yet for squash and melons, the PHI is 5 days.  Go figure.

However, all of these are contact products and need to be re-applied after the next heavy rain, and need to be applied again anyway to protect the growing shoots.  The inoculum overwinters in the vineyard, so a dormant application of lime sulfur is probably in order this fall and again before bud break next year.  This is also effective for botrytis and powdery mildew. Our usual practice is to combine two products in each tank mix — one that targets powdery mildew and the other downy mildew.  Fortunately the products that fight both of these are good for Phomopsis.  And for good measure, we include a tea of fermented Horsetail, as prescribed in Biodynamic practice for fungal diseases.  Whether it works or not is of course subject to debate, but it definitely can’t hurt.

No doubt Phomopsis is making an appearance in vineyards up and down the eastern seaboard this year.  This is certainly not the end of the world — we just need to be extra-diligent with our spray schedule this year to make sure we contain the infection so the disease doesn’t infect the fruit, and be prepared to spray in the dormant season to keep it from becoming established in the vineyard next year.

Six Inch Shoots, 3 May 2013.

Six Inch Shoots, 3 May 2013.

Bud Break!

Sometimes its like a race.  The anticipation builds, you see stirrings of life as the buds swell and pucker, then when you aren’t looking, the vines spring into life and unfurl their leaves in all their chartreuse glory.  It’s life affirming: yes, a fresh start is possible, in spite of the travails and difficulties of last season.  Perhaps it was drought, or the relentless rain of back to back hurricanes — all is forgotten and forgiven, for we are in a new year.

Before bud break we have, as François Bouchet so eloquently notes in L’Agriculture Bio-Dynamique (Paris: Deux versants, 2003), “The cycle begins with the weeping, almost like the birth of a child.  This is the time when the sap climbs and weeping can be noticed where the shears passed over during trimming season.  Not only does weeping produce a hint of healing, but it also presents an opportunity for an internal cleansing and a mechanical expulsion of all pathogenic spores, including the eutypoise, which could endanger the well-being of the vine.”

Meanwhile, deep within the earth the soil teems with the fungi that site symbiotically with the roots.  Now is the time in biodynamic practice to to apply the Horn Manure.  The usual recommendation for BD 500 is to spray it directly onto the soil, but we prefer a foliar application.  We make a decoction with the BD 500 Horn Manure and apply it to the vines with our first spray; this increases the vegetative reproduction of the vine, and is actually recommended by Franςois Bouchet as a method to combat the dreaded climbing cutworm.

Every year we are warned by our vineyard consultant to be on the lookout for the climbing cutworm, which are the larvae of lepidopterous species in the family Noctuidae.  This is an insect that can devastate a vine by climbing the trunk and devouring the buds from bud swell through bud break; one wonders if vineyards may have escaped the effects of this pest by commencing growth out of step with the lifestyle of the insect.

We have yet to spot climbing cutworms at Annefield.  They don’t appear to be established here.  Nevertheless, This is applied in addition to our first fungicidal sprays — micronized sulfur to combat powdery mildew, and Manzate, a broad-spectrum fungicide whose active ingredients are Manganese and Zinc, which is effective against downy mildew.  Happily the day we sprayed, March 25, is a Fruit day on the Biodynamic Calendar.

Make no mistake – we are in an early season.  The Viognier is furthest along, followed by the Cabernet Franc, then the Pinot Gris and Vermentino.  The Cabernet Sauvignon and Vidal Blanc are just now pushing.  In years past growth would have reached this stage after about April 7, which means we are at least two weeks early this year. Which is worrisome, for there is a 50 percent chance of another frost before April 4 in the vicinity of Charlotte Court House (our county seat), according to the University of Virginia Climatology Office.  Frost is particularly deadly for wine grapes because what you see here bears the entire season’s growth in miniature.  Take a microscope to the growth tips and you will find the nascent leaves and berries.  If frost takes these out, all may be lost — though some varieties have fruitful secondary buds, many do not.

Early in the morning of Tuesday, 27 March a cold snap affected parts of Northern and  Central Virginia, with temperatures dipping getting as low as 31° Fahrenheit.  As of this writing we haven’t heard of the consequences.  Lots of variables come into play here — cloud cover, wind speed, relative humidity, the peculiarities (or virtues) of an individual vineyard site — this is where cold air drainage comes into play.  We read someplace that one should look for a spot where there is a 25 foot difference in elevation between the vineyard and the lowest land nearby.  Here in the Southern Piedmont we escaped the worst of the freeze, because it was a quiet, still night, and the temperature did not dip below 37° Fahrenheit.  It feels like we dodged a bullet.

“Bury Cow Horns, You Say?”

Word Cloud of Rudolf Steiner's Lecture No. 4.

If you pursue agriculture in this way, the result can be no other than to provide the very best for man and beast.” – Rudolf Steiner

In 2010 we started a series of posts exploring the lectures of Rudolf Steiner now known as The Agriculture Course. There was no schedule and three have appeared so far: 1 December 2010, Biodynamic Wine in Southern Virginia?; 2 February 2011, Manure in Biodynamic Viticulture; and the last entry was posted 27 April 2011,  Delicious Primordial Soup.  We were reminded of it when our dear friend Frank Morgan wrote an introductory post on biodynamic viticulture for his blog, Drink What You Like, called Cow Horns, Manure, Planetary Alignment and Biodynamic Viticulture in Virginia and Other Eastern States?

Frank inspired us to continue the series, so today we had a look at Lecture No. 4, which presents his thoughts on the more controversial practices he espoused: the creation and use of what he called “horn manure.”  Steiner summarized the subject in the first paragraph: “You have now seen what is essential in the discovery of spiritual-scientific methods for Agriculture, as it is for other spheres of life. Nature and the working of the Spirit throughout Nature must be recognized on a large scale, in an all-embracing sphere.”  His concern, then, being the unification of the spiritual and nature.

How does the Spirit work through nature? Steiner describes a how all the spheres of farming life must gain insight into the working of the substances and forces that affect and permeate all of nature. He asks the assembly to consider the tree: so much more than a herbaceous annual, with its core, bark and leaves. Now consider a mound of dirt, presumably rich in humus – containing vegetable matter in a process of decomposition, and perhaps containing animal decomposition products too. Steiner asks that they imagine the hillock, now with a hole pushed into it; look at it side-by-side with the tree, ever growing outward. Both living in their way, the mound of humus bing “earthly matter [which] contains etherically living substance.” The two are essentially the same:

I am telling you all this to awaken in you an idea of the really intimate kinship between that which is contained within the contours of the plant and that which constitutes the soil around it. It is simply untrue that the life ceases with the contours — with the outer periphery of the plant. The actual life is continued, especially from the roots of the plant, into the surrounding soil. For many plants there is absolutely no hard and fast line between the life within the plant and the life of the surrounding soil in which it is living.

We must be thoroughly permeated with this idea, above all if we would understand the nature of manured earth, or of earth treated in some similar way. To manure the earth is to make it alive, so that the plant may not be brought into a dead earth and find it difficult, out of its own vitality, to achieve all that is necessary up to the fruiting process. The plant will more easily achieve what is necessary for the fruiting process, if it is immersed from the outset in an element of life. Fundamentally, all plant-growth has this slightly parasitic quality. It grows like a parasite out of the living earth. And it must be so.

All this leads up to his assertion (and it sounds slightly comical) that “ We must know how to gain a kind of personal relationship to all things that concern our farming work, and above all — though it may be a hard saying — a personal relationship to the manure, especially to the task of working with the manure.”

So here we have the introduction to what we have come to know as biodynamic compost. How can we ensure that our compost captures these etheric forces so that the plants it is applied to can most benefit?

Manuring and everything of the kind consists essentially in this, that a certain degree of livingness must be communicated to the soil, and yet not only livingness. For the possibility must also be given to bring about in the soil what I indicated yesterday, namely to enable the nitrogen to spread out in the soil in such a way that with its help the life is carried along certain fines of forces, as I showed you. That is to say: in manuring we must bring to the earth-kingdom enough nitrogen to carry the living property to those structures in the earth-kingdom to which it must be carried — under the plant, where the plant-soil has to be. This is our tack, and we must fulfil it in a scientific way.

In compost we have a means of kindling the life within the earth itself. We include in compost any kind of refuse to which little value is attached; refuse of farm and garden, from grass that we have let decay, to that which comes from fallen leaves or the like, nay, even from dead animals … These things should not by any means be despised, for they preserve something not only of the ethereal but even of the astral. And that is most important. From all that has been added to it, the compost heap really contains ethereal and living elements and also astral. Living ethereal and astral elements are contained in it — though not so intensely as in manure or in liquid manure, yet in a more stable form. The ethereal and astral settle down more firmly in the compost; especially the astral.

How concentrate the ethereal and the astral? This is where the notorious (and controversial) cow horns come in.

“What happens at the places where the horns grow and the hoofs? A locality is formed which sends the currents inward with more than usual intensity. In this locality the outer is strongly shut off; there is no communication through a permeable skin or hair. The openings which otherwise allow the currents to pass outward are completely closed. For this reason the horn-formation is connected with the entire shaping of the animal. The forming of horns and hoofs is connected with the whole shape and form of the creature.”

“The cow has horns in order to send into itself the astral-ethereal formative powers, which, pressing inward, are meant to penetrate right into the digestive organism. Precisely through the radiation that proceeds from horns and hoofs, much work arises in the digestive organism itself. Anyone who wishes to understand foot-and-mouth disease — that is, the reaction of the periphery on the digestive tract — must clearly perceive this relationship. Our remedy for foot-and-mouth disease is founded on this perception.”

“Thus in the horn you have something well adapted by its inherent nature, to ray back the living and astral properties into the inner life. In the horn you have something radiating life — nay, even radiating astrality. It is so indeed: if you could crawl about inside the living body of a cow — if you were there inside the belly of the cow you — would smell how the astral life and the living vitality pours inward from the horns. And so it is also with the hoofs.”

Here is why cow manure is superior to that of other animals:

“This is an indication, pointing to such measures as we on our part may recommend for the purpose of still further enhancing the effectiveness of what is used as ordinary farm-yard-manure. What is farm-yard-manure? It is what entered as outer food into the animal, and was received and assimilated by the organism up to a certain point. It gave occasion for the development of dynamic forces and influences in the organism, but it was not primarily used to enrich the organism with material substance. On the contrary, it was excreted. Nevertheless, it has been inside the organism and has thus been permeated with an astral and ethereal content. In the astral it has been permeated with the nitrogen-carrying forces, and in the ethereal with oxygen-carrying forces. The mass that emerges as dung is permeated with all this.”

Horn Manure

This perceived property of combining and concentrating the astral and the ethereal in a cow’s horn is what prompted Steiner to recommend the method of creating horn compost. He’s quite specific in the procedure:

We take manure, such as we have available. We stuff it into the horn of a cow, and bury the horn a certain depth into the earth — say about 18 in. to 2 ft. 6 in., provided the soil below is not too clayey or too sandy. (We can choose a good soil for the purpose. It should not be too sandy). You see, by burying the horn with its filling of manure, we preserve in the horn the forces it was accustomed to exert within the cow itself, namely the property of raying back whatever is life-giving and astral. Through the fact that it is outwardly surrounded by the earth, all the radiations that tend to etherealise and astralise are poured into the inner hollow of the horn. And the manure inside the horn is inwardly quickened with these forces, which thus gather up and attract from the surrounding earth all that is ethereal and life-giving.

And so, throughout the winter — in the season when the Earth is most alive — the entire content of the horn becomes inwardly alive. For the Earth is most inwardly alive in winter-time. All that is living is stored up in this manure. Thus in the content of the horn we get a highly concentrated, life-giving manuring force. Thereafter we can dig out the horn. We take out the manure it contains.

Dynamization & Application

Before application, it is diluted in water and “dynamized” – I don’t see this term used by Steiner, but that is the term used by today’s practitioners:

To give an impression of the quantitative aspect: I always found, having first looked at the area to be manured, that a surface, say, about as big as the patch from the third window here to the first foot-path, about 1,200 square metres (between a quarter- and third-acre) is adequately provided for if we use one hornful of this manure, diluted with about half a pailful of water. You must, however, thoroughly combine the entire content of the horn with the water. That is to say, you must set to work and stir. Stir quickly, at the very edge of the pail, so that a crater is formed reaching very nearly to the bottom of the pail, and the entire contents are rapidly rotating. Then quickly reverse the direction, so that it now seethes round in the opposite direction.”

Do this for an hour and you will get a thorough penetration. Think, how little work it involves. The burden of work will really not be very great. Moreover, I can well image that — at any rate in the early stages — the otherwise idle members of a farming household will take pleasure in stirring the manure in this way. Get the sons and daughters of the house to do it and it will no doubt be wonderfully done.

Our next task will be to spray it over the tilled land so as to unite it with the earthly realm. For small surfaces you can do it with an ordinary syringe; it goes without saying, for larger surfaces you will have to devise special machines. But if you once resolve to combine your ordinary manuring with this kind of “spiritual manure,” if I may call it so, you will soon see how great a fertility can result from such measures. Above all, you will see how well they lend themselves to further development. For the method I have just described can be followed up at once by another, namely the following.

Horn Silica

Horn silica addresses the same problem of concentrating these forces from the “other” direction — how do you capture the astral forces to maximize their benefit for the plant?

Once more you take the horns of cows. This time, however, you fill them not with manure but with quartz or silica or even orthorclase or feldspar, ground to a fine mealy powder, of which you make a mush, say of the consistency of a very thin dough. With this you fill the horn. And now, instead of letting it “hibernate,” you let the horn spend the summer in the earth and in the late autumn dig it out and keep its contents till the following spring.

So you dig out what has been exposed to the summery life within the earth, and now you treat it in a similar way. Only in this case you need far smaller quantities. You can take a fragment the size of a pea, or maybe only the size of a pin’s head, and distribute it by stirring it up well in a bucket of water. Here again, you will have to stir it for an hour, and you can now use it to sprinkle the plants externally. It will prove most beneficial with vegetables and the like.

I do not mean that you should water them with it in a crude way; you spray the plants with it, and you will presently see how well this supplements the influence which is coming from the other side, out of the earth itself, by virtue of the cow-horn manure. And now, suppose you extend this treatment to the fields an a large scale. After all, there is no great difficulty in doing so. Why should it not be possible to make machines, able to extend over whole fields the slight sprinkling that is required? If you do this, you will soon see how the dung from the cow-horn drives from below upward, while the other draws from above — neither too feebly, nor too intensely. It will have a wonderful effect, notably in the case of cereals.”

So there is the rationale for the two substances: Horn Manure draws etheric forces from below, while Horn Silica draws and concentrates astral forces from above.  In practical terms, the Horn Silica is believed to enhance photosynthesis in the leaf and complements the action of the Horn Manure, which is believed to work primarily in the root zone.

Horn Manure is now commonly referred to as BD (Bio-Dynamic) Preparation 500 (BD-500), and Horn Silica as BD-501.   Details of the best times of day and which days of the month have been worked out; generally it is best to spray BD-500 during the descending phase of the moon, preferably in the late afternoon, and BD-501 in the early morning when the moon and Saturn are in opposition.  The interaction of days, time and the working of the soil has been studied by Maria Thun, who we wrote about in an earlier post.


It’s a curious thing how critics and naysayers of these methods react so violently.  Is it because they are contrary to the precepts of scientific research, lacking double-blind studies and the resulting product patented by massive corporations?  The Internet is rife with critics who object to Steiner’s theories, calling him among other things a charlatan, fakir or just simply deluded.  Recall the purpose of that gathering in Koberwitz in 1924, which was described in the Preface to The Agriculture Course by Ehrenfried Pfeiffer:

The agricultural course was held from June 7 to 16, 1924, in the hospitable home of Count and Countess Keyserlingk at Koberwitz, near Breslau. It was followed by further consultations and lectures in Breslau, among them the famous “Address to Youth.” I myself had to forgo attendance at the course, as Dr. Steiner had asked me to stay at home to help take care of someone who was seriously ill. “I’ll write and tell you what goes on at the course,” Dr. Steiner said by way of solace. He never did get round to writing, no doubt because of the heavy demands on him; this was understood and regretfully accepted. On his return to Dornach, however, there was an opportunity for discussing the general situation. When I asked him whether the new methods should be started on an experimental basis, he replied: “The most important thing is to make the benefits of our agricultural preparations available to the largest possible areas over the entire earth, so that the earth may be healed and the nutritive quality of its produce improved in every respect. That should be our first objective. The experiments can come later.” He obviously thought that the proposed methods should be applied at once.

This can be understood against the background of a conversation I had with Dr. Steiner en route from Stuttgart to Dornach shortly before the agricultural course was given. He had been speaking of the need for a deepening of esoteric life, and in this connection mentioned certain faults typically found in spiritual movements. I then asked, “How can it happen that the spiritual impulse, and especially the inner schooling, for which you are constantly providing stimulus and guidance bear so little fruit? Why do the people concerned give so little evidence of spiritual experience, in spite of all their efforts? Why, worst of all, is the will for action, for the carrying out of these spiritual impulses, so weak?” I was particularly anxious to get an answer to the question as to how one could build a bridge to active participation and the carrying out of spiritual intentions without being pulled off the right path by personal ambition, illusions and petty jealousies; for, these were the negative qualities Rudolf Steiner had named as the main inner hindrances. Then came the thought-provoking and surprising answer: “This is a problem of nutrition. Nutrition as it is to-day does not supply the strength necessary for manifesting the spirit in physical life. A bridge can no longer be built from thinking to will and action. Food plants no longer contain the forces people need for this.”

A nutritional problem which, if solved, would enable the spirit to become manifest and realise itself in human beings! With this as a background, one can understand why Dr. Steiner said that “the benefits of the bio-dynamic compost preparations should be made available as quickly as possible to the largest possible areas of the entire earth, for the earth’s healing.”

This puts the Koberwitz agricultural course in proper perspective as an introduction to understanding spiritual, cosmic forces and making them effective again in the plant world.

Appreciate that, and you understand biodynamics.

Manure in Biodynamic Viticulture.


Word Cloud of Rudolf Steiner’s Lecture No. 2 – Koberwitz, 10th June, 1924

We’ve already described a few key points in Rudolf Steiner’s Lecture No. 1 as it relates to Biodynamic viticulture; here we examine Lecture No. 2.

Writers describing the Biodynamic farm return time and again to the expressed ideal: that a Biodynamic farm is self-sufficient organism, enlivened by the practitioner through the use of specially-prepared compost and spray preparations, in cooperation with natural rhythms.  But what does that really mean?

If a farm is truly a healthy “organism”, it will have a diverse ecosystem.  It will be completely self-sufficient and produce everything it needs.  This would mean growing the food to feed the farmer, and all the food to feed the animals.  Consider this a moment: is this ideal truly possible?  It would require a lot of work.  If one were to truly live according to this philosophy, it would mean not only growing all of one’s own food and animal feed, but growing all the constituent parts: grow the wheat for your bread, mill it, and make the bread yourself; all fruits, vegetables and meat would be products of the farm, and stored for use during the fall and winter.  You would slaughter your own chickens, pigs and cattle.  The animal’s manure would be composted and fertilize the fields.  I doubt that many Biodynamic practitioners are able to go to such lengths, and must rely on off-farm inputs in order to live.

Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925)

Even Rudolf Steiner recognized the difficulty.  In the second if his famous lectures at Koberwitz, Germany (now part of Poland) he stated:

A farm is true to its essential nature, in the best sense of the word, if it is conceived as a kind of individual entity in itself — a self-contained individuality. Every farm should approximate to this condition. This ideal cannot be absolutely attained, but it should be observed as far as possible. Whatever you need for agricultural production, you should try to posses it within the farm itself (including in the “farm,” needless to say, the due amount of cattle). Properly speaking, any manures or the like which you bring into the farm from outside should be regarded rather as a remedy for a sick farm. That is the ideal. A thoroughly healthy farm should be able to produce within itself all that it needs.

A great author on the subject of sulf-sufficiency was John Seymour (1914-2004), who wrote about it (and lived it) for some 40 years.  His book The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It (London: Dorling Kindersley, 2003) is a bible of sorts to the self-sufficiency movement.  This book teaches all the skills needed to live independently in harmony with the land harnessing natural forms of energy, raising crops and keeping livestock, preserving foodstuffs, making beer and wine, basketry, carpentry, weaving, and much more. It goes so far as to advise how much land you need to set aside for your animals, for your kitchen garden, which crops to raise and how many animals you need, based on the size of your family.  It’s a practical guide and we refer to it often.

Biodynamics is more than a philosophy — being a committed Biodynamic practitioner is a lifestyle, not a label.  As the Master observed:

Nay more, if you have the right number of cows, horses, pigs, etc., severally, the proportion of admixture in the manure will also be correct. This is due to the fact that the animals will eat the right measure of what is provided for them by the growth of plants. They eat the right quantity of what the Earth is able to provide. Hence in the course of their organic processes they bring forth just the amount of manure which needs to be given back again to the Earth.

This therefore is the case. We cannot carry it out absolutely, but in the ideal sense it is correct. If we are obliged to import any manure from outside the farm, properly speaking we should only use it as a remedy — as a medicament for a farm that has already grown ill. The farm is only healthy inasmuch as it provides its own manure from its own stock. Naturally, this will necessitate our developing a proper science of the number of animals of a given sort which we need for a given kind of farm. This need not cause any alarm. Such a science will arise in good time, as soon as we begin to have any knowledge again of the inner forces concerned….

He then turns to the influence of the cosmos and its relationship to the plants and animals drawing sustenance from the Earth:

This, therefore, is the ABC for our judgment of plant-growth. We must always be able to say, what in the plant is cosmic, and what is terrestrial or earthly. How can we adapt the soil of the earth, by its special consistency, as it were to densify the cosmic and thereby hold it back more in the root and leaf? Or again, how can we thin it out so that it is drawn upward in a dilute condition, right up into the flowers, giving them colour — or into the fruit-forming process, permeating the fruit with a fine and delicate taste? For if you have apricots or plums with a fine taste — this taste, just like the colour of the flowers, is the cosmic quality which has been carried upward, right into the fruit. In the apple you are eating Jupiter, in the plum you are actually eating Saturn.

Now the plant-growth of the Earth is not all. To any given district of the Earth a specific animal life also belongs. For reasons which will presently be evident, we may for the moment leave man out, but we cannot neglect animal life. For this is the peculiar fact; the best — if I may call it so — cosmic qualitative analysis takes place of its own accord, in the life of a certain district of the Earth, overgrown as it is with plants, along with the animals in the same region. This is the peculiar fact — and I should be glad if my statements were tested, for if you subsequently test them you will certainly find them confirmed. This is the peculiar relation. If in any farm you have the right amount of horses, cows and other animals, these animals taken together will give just the amount of manure which you need for the farm itself, in order, as I said, to add something more to what has already turned into chaos.

Could it be that manure brings order out of chaos?  That’s an interesting thought.  Francois Bouchet in L’Agriculture Bio’Dynamique: Comment l’appliquer dans la vigne (Paris: Deux versants éditeur, 2003) had an interesting observation about the use of fertilizer:  “We pretend to fertilize the land by using fertilizer. But do we realize that we’re merely fertilizing the water, thereby risking polluting the groundwater? Bio-dynamie focuses on fertilizing the land, and the land alone.”

Holsteins on the move, as seen from the terrace.

We now have a herd of Holstein cattle at Annefield, living in the pasture just north of the house.  They’re a comforting sight as they languidly graze and amble about.  With the Holsteins on the farm, we can now plan on creating our own biodynamic compost and horn manure, thereby taking another small step toward self-sufficiency.

There is much more to manure, its preparation and its use which we will explore later, particularly the almost magical Horn Manure, BD-500.  We rely on the Josephine Porter Institute for Applied Bio-Dynamics for our Biodynamic preparations.  We just received a shipment of the preparations we need for this year’s growing season and for our vineyard expansion this spring.  This year we are planting three new varieties: Pinot Gris, Vidal Blanc and Vermentio.  Ours will be the only Vermentino vineyard in Virginia.


Biodynamic Wine in Southern Virginia?

Word Cloud of Rudolf Steiner's Lecture No. 1 - 7th June, 1924.

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.”

Biodynamic Viticulture

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.