It’s just after dawn, and we’re spreading fresh cow manure with pitchforks. Our biodynamic consultant, Andrew Beedy, looks at me and jokes, “see why people use chemical fertilizers?”
Andrew is, of course, correct. It would be so much easier to buy drums of fertilizers and spray away. However, as I stand on this pile of cow dung, I am firmly convinced we’ll get the last laugh.
At Troon Vineyard when we talk about compost, we’re not talking about a few buckets of manure to fill some cow horns to make BP 500. When it comes to composting, we’re talking some serious shit as we need to generate over 200 tons of finished biodynamic compost every year.
The raw materials are simple: fresh organic cow manure, organic hay and the organic/biodynamic pomace from our own fruit. Combine these basic ingredients and let nature take its course and you end up with a magical substance. Not that there’s any magic involved as bacteria do the lions share of the work. At a biodynamic winery, you are surrounded by ferments. Right now we are fermenting wine, compost and some buried cow horns to produce BP 500. Some of the smallest things in nature are doing all the heavy lifting at Troon Vineyard.
The transformation is quite amazing. First, the manure arrives from the organic dairy next store. Dump truck after dump truck arrives along with the flies that crave their cargo. Then our crew goes to work. Starting with a layer of hay, followed by a layer of manure, followed by another layer of hay and so on. Most of the work is by hand as when the front loader dumps a bucket of manure you spread it out with shovels and pitchforks. The bales of hay are broken up and spread by hand. During the harvest season, layers of pomace are alternated with the hay and manure. We build the piles into windrows about 130 feet long and five feet high. Then come the biodynamic preparations 502 yarrow, 503 chamomile, 504 stinging nettle, 505 oak bark, 506 dandelion, and 507 valerian. The first five are applied to specific parts of the pile while the 507 is sprayed onto the entire pile. Over the next six months, the pile will be turned several times, which means all the preparations are well mixed into the pile by the time composting is finished. Just a few weeks after the manure is delivered the flies that come with it disappear as the pile quickly transforms from something that draws flies into something that attracts earthworms. Now we’re talking.
While much is made of the very photogenic burying of the cow horns to make BD 500, and 500 is indeed essential and a foundation of biodynamics, you can’t avoid the fact that out of nine biodynamic preparations six are added to the compost pile. People may debate biodynamics, but no one who knows anything about agriculture questions the value of compost. However, biodynamic compost takes things to the next level. Study after study confirms that biodynamically treated compost is higher in every key nutritional value than standard compost. Every year we will be producing enough of this elixir to apply several tons per acre. Combined with our applications of BD 500 we expect to find dramatic improvements to the microbiome of our vineyard, which will lead directly to improvements in our wines. There is nothing you can do to your vineyard that is more important than this type of composting.
After six months, the raw manure, hay, and pomace transform. What started as smelly fly food becomes rich, dark humus. The smell and flies slowly disappear and in the end you end up with something that looks and smells more-or-less like high-end, organic potting soil - two hundred tons of potting soil.
Composting is such a great experience as you can readily see the results of your efforts. What goes in is very different from what comes out. There is a real sense of accomplishment, and investment in the future of your soils, vines, and wines.
Next spring we’ll be applying BD 500 and compost - both created on our farm. While we have farmed 100% biodynamically this year, we had to purchase the BD preparations and organic compost while we went through the long process of making our own. As excited as we were in our practice of biodynamics this year, applying our own preparations and compost will be a real milestone.
There’s life everywhere. In the compost, in the BD 500, in the vines, in the wines and in us. Life feels good.