Biodynamic farming principles are nothing new. So why, almost 100 years after first being suggested are they beginning to gain traction? Tom Smart takes a look at the semi-holistic practices in greater detail, pondering whether they might be of benefit to the wider community and not just the vineyards who are championing them.
‘I like to think of it as Organic Plus’, comments James Reina of North South Wines, a specialist company in this field. ‘In the right climate it is workable. Take the Mclaren Vale in Australia as a prime example. They have high temperatures and cool breezes which mean the principles can be applied more readily.’
Those aforementioned principles first set out by Rudolf Steiner in 1924 outline a number of esoteric, labour-intensive and homeopathic practices that seem at odds with modern industrial methods. So why are a growing number of vineyards all over the world beginning to convert?
‘It is about the health of the farms’, continues James, ‘An increase in biodynamic farming is unavoidable. Vintners are not just doing it for a label’.
Biodynamic methodology certainly has a growing number of supporters willing to vouch for its positive effects, particularly in the wine industry. James can reel off a host of wine-makers who wax lyrical about the results of conversion.
But while the finer details of the practice have evolved since the 1920s, biodynamic methodology still contains a considerable number of un-testable preparations that mean it is viewed with considerable scepticism in certain scientific and horticultural circles.
Dig a little deeper however and there are some underlying beliefs that are becoming increasingly relevant in a modern world where modern agricultural methods are heavily under the spotlight for their detrimental environmental effects.
‘Take France as an example. They have a huge number of valuable vineyards that are struggling to sustain a high-quality output using modern industrial techniques. They have a lot to lose. Adoption of biodynamic practices is allowing many vineyards to produce brilliant products long term.’
It seems little wonder then that the number of biodynamic-certified vineyards is increasing, as is the number following the principles. But what exactly are they doing differently? And could your vineyard become part-time biodynamic by adopting a handful of the most applicable components? We profiled our top 5 biodynamic principles that give insight into the mindset behind it:
5. Plant when the time is right.
This isn’t just a conversation about lunar calendars and moon cycles, it covers lots of ground regarding the importance of seasonality and listening to the environment. Planting crops at the right time of the year ensures they have the natural conditions to thrive, and that these do not need to be forced. For a system that focuses on output this might be difficult in the short-term, but it will likely bear positive long-term effects through diversification.
4. Keep intervention to a minimum, instead focussing on preparation.
While organic farming allows for use of naturally-occurring treatments such as copper sulfate, biodynamic methods do not, instead focussing on a range of natural preparations and remedies that nurture soil health. This should allow your crops grow as nature intended.
3. Animals are part of the system.
Biodynamic principles dictate that plants and animals coexist in harmony. A farmer must therefore consider the number of animals kept on a farm and whether they benefit the overall ecosystem. Biodynamic farms do not concentrate on one product, instead focussing on the importance of biodiversity in bringing about a thriving ecosystem.
2. The system should be a closed loop.
Essentially the farm should look after itself and additives should be kept to a minimum. Permitted additives include necessary items such as seeds, which must then come from another biodynamic source. Males can be brought in for breeding of livestock, but studies have shown that keeping a system closed can sustain long-term health.
1. A farm must be viewed as a self-sustaining organism, not a production facility.
Underpinning all biodynamic methods is the belief that all elements of a farm are alive and must be looked after, from field to forest and beyond. While modern methods concentrate on outcomes, yields and processes, a biodynamic farmer listens to the land, managing all independent elements to support the health of the whole. It requires a complete change in mindset that doesn’t entertain profit, which could come as a tough sell.
So could more farms be convinced to drop the chemicals and follow a planting calendar? Not just yet.
‘It is incredibly labour intensive and therefore not so cost-efficient’, laments James. ‘You can’t just drive your tractor through the fields to maintain your crops, and any intervention must be done manually’.
It may be a little while yet then until biodynamic principles become widely accepted and embedded in everyday practice. Maybe they never will. But in the meantime, perhaps the increased awareness will provide farmers with genuine alternatives or potential alterations to modern methods that prioritise short-term output over long-term quality. Otherwise it may become a case of necessity rather than choice.
Further information sources on biodynamic principles and practices:
UK Biodynamic Association: https://www.biodynamic.org.uk
Demeter Certification USA: https://www.demeter-usa.org