More Biodynamic Fake News...

Harvest 2018 at Troon Vineyard in Oregon’s Applegate Valley.

Harvest 2018 at Troon Vineyard in Oregon’s Applegate Valley.

Tired old canards. When will the media get on board with modern biodynamics? While the article Weighing Up the Value of Biodynamic Wine by Vicki Denig addresses valid concerns, once again the sources for the article are either misinformed or have an ax to grind. Here is a link to the original article:

“Couple that with calendar-specific workdays and strict following of the lunar cycle, and even the smallest of vineyards would face significant time restraints and financial challenges. So when a sizeable estate decides to go biodynamic, is it actually achievable?”

“However, not all winemakers are convinced. In Crete, Giannis Stilianou, winemaker and owner of Stilianou Wines, explains that with larger properties, cultivating with biodynamic principles is nearly impossible, mainly because farmers are only permitted to execute vineyard work on a small amount of very specific days”

The Demeter standard for wines states, “Observation of the Biodynamic calendar is encouraged.” It does not demand only “calendar-specific work days or that “farmers are only permitted to execute vineyard work...on very specific days.” The statements above are false and following the biodynamic calendar is not required for Demeter Certification.

The work of all the biodynamic farmers I know is focused on regenerative agriculture. Their goal is to build the health of their soils and plants. In trying to follow the biodynamic calendar we are reaching for the very peak of quality. That extra edge that pushes our wines beyond just being delicious to becoming truly alive in the glass. If you can’t prune or pick on the ideal day due to weather and practical considerations you know that all of the other work you’ve done will still make exceptional wine. What we reach for by trying to do our work on certain days, by paying attention to the natural cycle of the Moon, is to go beyond simply delicious and make a wine that sings of the vineyard itself. A wine that is transparent and living.

“And for others, size isn't even the biggest issue. Stu Smith, partner and enologist at St. Helena-based Smith-Madrone Vineyards dug deep into the world of biodynamics – and still wasn't convinced. "I discovered that Rudolf Steiner had never been a farmer," he says, noting that Steiner went from student to agricultural theorist, without any experience in the field. Smith explains that when he'd challenge biodynamic farmers on their lack of trials and published results, their response was always that it's a belief system.”

Mr. Smith “discovered” that Rudolf Steiner had never been a farmer. Digging deep? An amazing discovery? I think not. Rudolf Steiner is famous for being a philosopher and founding the Waldorf schools, not for being a farmer, as a quick look at Wikipedia will show you. What we today call biodynamics was only outlined by Steiner in a series of lectures in 1924. He did not go from “student to agricultural theorist”, but gave the lectures at the end of his life at the request of a group of farmers. The modern practice of biodynamics has been built after his death on the experience and experiments of several generations of biodynamic farmers. None of the biodynamic wine growers I personally know consider biodynamic farming a “belief system”, but see it as a framework to build on with a goal of taking their farming to a new level. Contrary to what Mr. Smith may believe, Nicolas Joly is not your typical biodynamic winegrower.

“Smith also takes issue with what he deems to be close-mindedness amongst biodynamic farmers, from both large and small estates. "They are the only group out there that says 'our way is the only way, and everyone else is doing it wrong'. Organic and sustainable farmers don't do that, but biodynamic farmers do."

This, simply, is total bullshit.

“And when it comes down to it, Smith sees it all as a fast-track to making money. "There are so many wineries that need to find their place in the sun," he says, calling out the appeal of biodynamics to Millennial consumers. "In my opinion, it's a marketing ploy – do you see biodynamic carrots? Lettuce? Peaches? No. They're doing it in wine in America as a marketing concept so they sell their product easier and get a higher price for it."

Yes, Mr. Smith, you do see biodynamic carrots, lettuce, and peaches, just not enough of them. The reason you see few of these biodynamically certified fruits vegetables and wines is that practicing biodynamics is hard work and unlikely to reward with you with enough additional profit to justify the effort. You choose biodynamics because of a commitment to reach for something special. Demeter USA currently has certification protocols for Fruit and Vegetables; Nuts, Seeds and Kernels; Bread, Cakes and Pastries; Grain, Cereal, Tofu and Pasta; Herbs and Spices; Meat; Dairy; Oils and Fats; Sweetening Agents, Confectionary, Ice Cream, Chocolate; Cosmetics and Body Care; Textiles; Wine; Beer; Spirits; Cider and Fruit Wines; Infant Formula. It seems he is shopping in the wrong markets, perhaps he should give Google a try?

Then there is his “marketing ploy” statement, which any accountant for a biodynamic winery would get a big laugh over.

“Others think that many biodynamic practices are, frankly, bullshit.”

I'll tell you the real bullshit. It’s farming with chemicals that destroy the environment and cause cancer. It’s making boring industrial wine. If a little voodoo will save the planet, count me in. Voodoo is just what people call something they don’t understand.

Looking at Steiner in the Rearview Mirror

Rudolf Steiner gave his agricultural lectures, the beginning of biodynamics, in 1924. There were eight lectures over thirteen days given to a group of over one hundred farmers. He died in 1925. During the last of the agricultural lectures he said, “I am in entire agreement with the strict resolve which has been made by our farmer friends here present, namely, that what has been given here to all those partaking in the Course shall remain for the present within the farmers' circle. They will enhance it and develop it by actual experiments and tests. The farmers' society — the “Experimental Circle” that has been formed — will fix the point of time when in its judgment the tests and experiments are far enough advanced to allow these things to be published."

Here are some discoveries that happened from 1924, when Steiner gave the agricultural lectures and the five years after his death in 1925:

1924 – Wolfgang Pauli: quantum Pauli exclusion principle

1924 – Edwin Hubble: the discovery that the Milky Way is just one of many galaxies

1925 – Erwin Schrödinger: Schrödinger equation (Quantum mechanics)

1925 – Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin: Discovery of the composition of the Sun and that Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the Universe

1927 – Werner Heisenberg: Uncertainty principle (Quantum mechanics)

1927 – Georges Lemaître: Theory of the Big Bang

1928 – Paul Dirac: Dirac equation (Quantum mechanics)

1929 – Edwin Hubble: Hubble's law of the expanding universe

1929 – Alexander Fleming: Penicillin, the first beta-lactam antibiotic

1929 – Lars Onsager's reciprocal relations, a potential fourth law of thermodynamics

1930 – Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar discovers his eponymous limit of the maximum mass of a white dwarf star

There was a lot Steiner and his compatriots did not know in 1924. What they did know was that the new chemical farming strategies that were taking over the world were destroying the land and our food. They may not have known why, but they knew something was wrong. At least they had the courage to seek a solution.

To take a frightening hypothetical, suppose you were diagnosed with cancer tomorrow. Would you want to be treated by a doctor with the knowledge that existed in 1920 or one armed with all the knowledge acquired in the last one hundred years? I think farmers should make the same argument when it comes to Steiner and biodynamics . We need to build on the wisdom of the past and it is our job to push that knowledge forward. We need not be held back by their ignorance nor condemn them for it - they knew what they knew and no more, just like us. Future generations will find us as ignorant as we find those that came before us.

Steiner clearly identified the problem and outlined an answer, but he was locked in a world that was not only in chaos after World War I, but in an era where modern science and new knowledge was exploding. His answer was to reach back and there was true wisdom in that when it came to farming. However, we must take Steiner’s world into consideration when evaluating his solutions. It is always wise to question the wisdom of your gurus. Much of what we call biodynamics today has little to do with Steiner. Names like Maria Thun, Herbert Koepf, Ehrenfried Pfeiffer and Manfred Klett established the liturgy of biodynamics. They took Steiner’s outline, then left it behind. We should do the same to them.

Steiner may not have known there were other galaxies or that the universe was expanding, but he did understand there were problems down on the farm. His ideas created a framework to build upon. He expected us to build on it, not leave his lectures frozen in time. Our job as biodynamic farmers is to continue the experiments as he requested until we find why biodynamics works, which it does. The problem right now is that we do not know the parts of biodynamics that work and those that don’t. Does every preparation work as he described? Of course not. Yet, there is something clearly working here and in the face of climate change we better figure out what works. There are no gnomes out there in the vineyard, but there are fungi and bacteria and in them we will find the real magic that makes biodynamics work. Are there Elemental Beings? Of course there are, they are just microscopic. 

The ultimate expression of biodynamics is when you go beyond it and craft the right solutions for your farm. Striving for Demeter certification is like a jazz musician practicing scales over and over again. It is only after they master their instrument that they can improvise and truly create something new. 

The next iteration of biodynamics is already in motion. People like Kevin Chambers at Koosah Farm and Ted Lemon at Littorai Wines are already moving beyond biodynamics to find new expressions of the preparations born of their direct experience on their farms. Practical biodynamics is being being taught to farmers (like us at Troon) by consultant Andrew Beedy, who was mentored by the famed Alan York. The practice of biodynamics has been and always will be evolving. 

What Steiner said in the agricultural lectures was meaningful, insightful and important in the maelstrom that was Europe in 1924. In the almost one hundred years since the lectures, we have learned a lot. It is our role as farmers to meld the insights of the past with the knowledge of today and to build a foundation for the future. That is the essence of biodynamics. Seeking truth and building a relationship with our planet and our place in the Universe is both a spiritual quest and a commercial one. Steiner is of the past, but biodynamics is of the future. What biodynamics will become is yet to be discovered. 

Steiner would have loved quantum physics. The uncertainty principle Is very biodynamic.