Biodynamics, is it the Rolls Royce of organic farming or a load of cow manure?
What is Biodynamics?
According to the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association, Biodynamics is a spiritual, holistic, ecological, and ethical approach to farming, gardening, food and nutrition. It outlines an alternative form of agriculture, similar to (but not the same as) organic farming.
Often, the words ‘organic’ and ‘biodynamic’ are used interchangeably and although there are many similarities between the two, biodynamics has a slightly different and peculiar approach to farming.
While both methods aim to reduce and eliminate the use of chemical pesticides and herbicides and emphasises the use of compost and manure instead, biodynamic agriculture incorporates an astrological and cosmical approach through following and working with the lunar calendar.
Biodynamic farmers strive to create a diversified, balanced farm ecosystem that generates health and fertility as much as possible from within the farm itself. Biodynamics is not only for enhancing the nutrition, quality and flavour of the produce but also for sustaining the ecology and environment through preserving and choosing best agricultural practice.
So where did Biodynamics originate?
In the early 1920s, a group of practicing farmers from six countries, primarily Germany and Poland, concerned with the deterioration of soil, plant and animal health as a result of the use of chemical fertilizers, sought the advice of Dr Rudolf Steiner, the founder of anthroposophy (also the founder of the alternative education empire of Steiner Schools).
Dr Steiner was renowned for and had spent all his life researching and investigating the subtle forces within nature. Instead of using purely scientific, nutrient-based approach, Steiner preached the gospel of living and farming with the earth and its movements.
From a series of lectures and conversations held at Koberwitz, Germany (now in Poland) in June 1924, there emerged the fundamental principles of biodynamic farming and gardening, a unified approach to agriculture that relates the ecology of the farm-organism to that of the entire cosmos. This approach has been under development in many parts of the world ever since.
Dr Ehrenfried Pfeiffer, who worked with Dr Steiner during the formative period, brought biodynamic concepts to the United States in the 1930s. It was during this period that the Biodynamic Association was founded in 1938.
Today biodynamics is practised in more than 50 countries worldwide and in a variety of circumstances, ranging from temperate arable farming, viticulture in France, cotton production in Egypt, to silkworm breeding in China. Germany accounts for nearly half of the world's biodynamic agriculture. Demeter International is the primary certification agency for farms and gardens using the methods. Demeter Biodynamic Certification is used in over 50 countries to verify that biodynamic products meet international standards in production and processing.
The Lunar Cycle and the Tasting Calendar
Biodynamic farmers go beyond organics and strive to have crops growing in tune with the cosmos, by coordinating their soil treatments with the lunar movements.
The lunar calendar is commonly used for gardening and harvesting practices. In fact, the Old Farmer’s Almanac uses the very same lunar calendar to recommend planting schedules. The lunar calendar categorises days into four groups–flower, fruit, leaf, and root–based on where the moon is in accordance with various constellations. For example, fruit days occur when the moon is in any of the fire signs, like Sagittarius, Leo or Aries. Each day is optimal for various plants or procedures; for example, it’s best to harvest carrots on a root day since carrots are a root.
Another example is the theory suggested by Maria Thun and her son Matthias, the developers of the lunar tasting calendar, that wine tastes best during fruit days since wines are made from grapes and grapes are fruits and that it will taste bitter on root days when the moon is in the earth signs of Virgo, Capricorn or Taurus. This report was published in 2010 titled “When Wine Tastes Best: A Biodynamic Calendar For Wine Drinkers”.
Why is this so? The theory is that the cosmic energy or gravitational pull from the moon, which controls the ebb and flow of the tides on the planet, affects the four elements (air, wind, water and fire) and in turn possibly affects a plant’s four main parts: the root, the flower, the leaf and the fruit. Some winemakers and viticulturists believed that aligning planting, harvesting, and tasting with lunar movements allows them to naturally harness the environmental energy of the moon in the vineyard.
This tasting calendar, known as the ‘biodynamic sowing and planting calendar’ is now used as an annual guide for biodynamic farmers.
Controversially, or be it, rationalistically, a recent experiment out of New Zealand saw a team of scientist put this lunar tasting phenomenon to the test, and they claim its a load of cow manure. In a paper titled, ‘Expectation or sensorial reality? An Empirical Investigation of the Biodynamic Calendar for Wine Drinkers’, scientists (Wendy Parr, Dominique Valentin, Phil Reedman, Claire Grose and James Green) asked 19 wine professionals and sommeliers – some of whom were oenologists that work in the organic and biodynamic industry – to try 12 unique Pinot Noirs from various regions on both ‘fruit’ and ‘root’ days according to the biodynamic calendar. The participants were unaware of the variables or the purpose of the tasting, and none of them could tell, or observed, any difference in the wines between ‘root’ and ‘fruit’ days throughout the study.
Biodynamics & Brewing
While biodynamics is most popular among winemakers and viticulturist, it has also been used by some brewers. An example of a beer produced through biodynamics is Vollmond, an artisanal beer, made by the Locher family brewery in Appenzell, Switzerland. Vollmond is made from 100% organic hops, barley and yeast, along with pure spring water from a local natural mountain spring. It is only brewed during a full moon (Vollmond being German for full moon), therefore is biodynamically produced.
Why only during a full moon? For the owner and president of the Locher brewery, Karl Locher, the moon marks the perfect time for brewing. He says in one of his interviews, “the moon is like a watch. It doesn't make time, it marks time, telling us when to do something, such as eat or sleep. It governs the tides and the way things grow. I cut my hair, for example, on a waxing full moon. There's simply a right time to do everything."
A hoax or not?
Like any other agricultural innovation, there are also many sceptics on biodynamic farming. These sceptics consider biodynamics a pseudoscience due to certain treatments and practises that strike many as more pagan rituals than agricultural science. One example is the practise of burying a cow horn filled with manure in the vineyard and involves special stirring instructions for the resulting organic tea to harness cosmic energy before it is sprayed on plants. There is also no scientific method involved when the technique was developed, although manure is known as an excellent fertiliser.
Some would say, and fair enough, that biodynamics is a pseudoscience - the whole burying cow horns full of cow manure in the ground for six months and then using the fermented manure to fertilise the topsoil, all while following the lunar cycles and root, flower and fruit days; putting faith in unknown cosmic forces, paeanistic rituals, and the whole overall spiritual approach - although it seems to yield quality results. And really, how could being self sufficient, chemical, herbicide and pesticide free, and respectful and mindful of the land be a bad thing. The produce, wine, and beers biodynamics yield is arguably some of the highest quality, safest, environmentally friendly, and lovingly reared product on the market.