Roger Voss is at it again...
Roger Voss who recently penned the all so important article about labeling wine ingredients (Wine Labels: Decorative, Not Informative, Wine Enthusiast Dec ’04) which I was happy to deconstruct, has now turned his talents to the topic of Biodynamic viticulture & wine (Wine Enthusiast Apr ’05 – no online link available at this time).
So who could blame me? I couldn't resist the temptation to look for flaws…especially considering the subject!
Discussing the history of biodynamics (aka BioD), he points out that it has had its share of naysayers (should I raise my hand here?). Unfortunately, he characterizes it somewhat dismissively by implying that those objectors do so solely in regard to the fact that it follows lunar and astrological calendars.
He never acknowledges the objections regarding the suggested preparations – which cannot be described as being based on anything more than superstition (see my previous posts Santeria, BioD email, Jphelps: BioD-like , & Perspective). I mean compost teas being sprayed onto your vineyards have been proven beneficial, but would it make any difference if the compost for those teas were composted in the skull of a cow/horse/goat as opposed to having been placed in a shallow mound or stack? That’s pretty doubtful…and does nothing but raise questions.
(Prime examples: “Would it be ok to use the skull of a dog? But if I hadn’t liked the dog would it still be effective – or would the negative karma sour the compost?”; “If I only had a cat, do I have to kill it so I can use it's skull? And how would I ever be able to make enough compost for my 50 acre vineyard?”; etc).
Unfortunately for BioD believers, we see mounting evidence that many of their practices are not only arcane and tedious, but needless as well.
If you have access to the article, pay particular attention to the box titled “What is biodynamics, and how does it differ from organic farming?” It’s interesting from several different angles – that it says biodynamics prohibits the use of genetically engineered organisms (a constraint added later as they weren't even invented when Steiner gave his lectures founding biodynamicsin 1924). It also conveniently doesn't mention the needed Stag's bladders, cow mesentary, or animal skulls that the farmer has to utilize for soil preparations to get & maintain his BioD certification.
And of note is the mention of a May 2002 Swiss study by Paul Mäder which concluded that land farmed using biodynamic techniques, was overall healthier than either organic, or conventional farming methods. What’s not stated is if he used a control group which didn’t use the phases of the moon (or animal skulls) while not using any conventional fertilizers.
*** Now let's head back...
In many of the articles I’ve seen, viticulturists interviewed state that they don’t follow the tenets of biodynamics fully – and that holds true in this article (like Otto Rettenmaier of Chateau la Tour Figeac, or Joseph Phelps Vineyards). Some don’t use lunar or astrological calendars, others don’t bother with the “fermentation” (composting) of plant matter in horns or skulls. Indeed, these free thinkers are tailoring this type of agriculture to their own needs & beliefs.
And all the while they experiment & still report success, they disprove some strongly held tennets of BioD theory...
The interesting conclusion one draws from the improved results is that those practices which they decided not to adhere to (cow horns, burying quartz, using a lunar calendar, etc) weren't affecting the outcome anyway, otherwise they wouldn't be seeing these same benefits while they're being omitted!
Similarly, we can also look to their remaining practices to see what they all have in common: they eschew pesticides, inorganic fertilizers; they compost organic matter from the farm, and use compost teas on their crops; they try to enhance and encourage beneficial and predatory insects; cover crops are used; the entire farm is viewed as a single unit (of interdependent) cycles.
Soon perhaps it will have morphed into some form which denies the use of skulls & “magical” celestial cycles, and ends up looking more like (improved) conventional organic farming. As long as we are realistic about what totally chemical free agriculture can accomplish...there are still scenarios where some pesticide use may be warranted:
Kendra Baumgartner, a researcher in plant pathology for the USDA Agriculture Research Service in Davis, said, "Many of the practices used by biodynamic growers are the same as practices used by all growers, conventional, organic and biodynamic. These include irrigation practices, cover-crop management practices, nonchemical weed control practices and sulfur use for powdery mildew control. Therefore, if a conventional grower wants to be semi-biodynamic and decided that using mechanical cultivation for weed control was the way to achieve this, the grower would kind of be missing the point. The preparations and when they are applied, in relation to the lunar cycle (I think), is the key to being biodynamic."
On the use of compost, which adds organic matter to the soil, Baumgartner said via e-mail: "Soil organic matter is an important measure of soil health and some practices are better than others at increasing it."
Of the special biodynamic preparations used in composting, Baumgartner, who is involved in research on sustainable agriculture, said, "I think that organic matter is organic matter; whether you use stinging nettle or not, it's all good. The moon signs stuff is a bit odd, but if it gets growers out in their vineyards, they may notice a problem that they normally wouldn't see from inside the pick-up truck. For example, maybe if a grower is out stuffing a cow horn with "stuff" on the night of a full moon, the grower may notice that an irrigation line is busted and several rows of vines are getting all the water for the whole vineyard."
She did sound a note of caution:
"I hate to sound like a nozzle-head, but I am a plant pathologist by training. Some disease and pest problems cannot be helped by nonchemical methods (while still keeping grapevines around). Sometimes nuking an infested vineyard is the best way to prevent additional infestations for introduced pests like the glassy-winged sharpshooter (GWSS). Biodynamic and organic growers are limited in this respect."