Looking Beyond Organic Agriculture: Part II, Biodynamic Agriculture

In my last post on organic agriculture, I discussed the importance of balance in the vineyard, especially in the soil where microbes play a critical role in creating a healthy environment for plant growth. This notion of ecological balance is central to a form of organic agriculture known as biodynamics. 

First proposed by German philosopher Rudolf Steiner during a series of five lectures in the 1920s, practitioners of biodynamic agriculture view the farm itself as a self-contained ecosystem that requires balance to function properly. In other words, in optimal circumstances, a farm can function successfully without external inputs. 

Biodynamic agriculture is practiced throughout the world in many agricultural systems, including vineyards, and it has long had a certifying organization (Demeter). Many of Burgundy’s most well-known wineries, such as Domaine Leflaive and Domaine Leroy, rely exclusively on these techniques in their vineyards. The practice is also common in Bordeaux (for example, Château Palmer), the Loire (Château de la Roche aux Moines), and Sonoma (Bonterra Organic Vineyards and Benziger Family Wines). 

Those who practice biodynamics believe that their fruit is healthier and ripens earlier, and that the resulting wines have more depth and balance than those grown using conventional or standard organic techniques. These winemakers also believe that biodynamic wines are more reflective of the terroir in which they are grown.

  Several biodynamic producers tie shoots together and form an arc, tucking the growing end back down into the trellis. Despite the lack of sunshine and absence of hedging or leafing, I didn’t see any mildew, and the wines made from these vines are clearly the product of fully ripe grapes. Something is clearly in balance.

Several biodynamic producers tie shoots together and form an arc, tucking the growing end back down into the trellis. Despite the lack of sunshine and absence of hedging or leafing, I didn’t see any mildew, and the wines made from these vines are clearly the product of fully ripe grapes. Something is clearly in balance.

There are many parallels between organic and biodynamic methods, including composting, cover cropping and companion planting, integration of livestock and crops, and avoidance of synthetic pesticides.  Indeed, organic certification is a requirement for Demeter’s biodynamic certification. What distinguishes biodynamic from organic agriculture is a set of practices that Steiner believed would harness non-physical “life-forces” that influence biology in desirable ways. 

These “dynamic” practices consist of planting, cultivating, and pruning according to phases of the moon, and use of nine “preparations” that include homeopathic doses of specific organic (cow manure seasoned in horns), herbal (for example, tea made from stinging nettles), and mineral (silica) substances that are applied as either soil amendments or foliar sprays.

I’ve been intrigued by biodynamics since we started the vineyard ten years ago. Ideas related to balance and healthy, living soils are consistent with our views at Dodon regarding the best ways to make wine and improve the environment. To explore biodynamic methods in more detail, Polly and I met last summer with biodynamic practitioners in both Burgundy and Bordeaux. 

We found that, while many vineyards actively promote the philosophy and tools of biodynamics to improve the quality of wine while reducing environmental impact, there is in practice a very broad range of interpretation and application of these precepts. Indeed, at the practitioner level, the definition of biodynamics is very hard to pin down.

Most of those with whom we spoke endorse applications of the preparations in the hopes of reducing use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. For the most part, however, these producers have not identified specific improvements in fruit or wine quality, nor have they noted reductions in their need for organic or synthetic pesticides since they started integrating biodynamic practices. In a difficult vintage, these producers are willing to use non-biodynamic tools as needed.

  Eric de Suremain of Château de Monthelie picking stinging nettle used to prepare biodynamic preparation 504. The nettles are buried in wooden boxes or clay pots encased in peat for 1 year and then added to compost. Stinging nettle is said to have a relationship with iron, helps stabilize nitrogen, and promotes formation of humus.

Eric de Suremain of Château de Monthelie picking stinging nettle used to prepare biodynamic preparation 504. The nettles are buried in wooden boxes or clay pots encased in peat for 1 year and then added to compost. Stinging nettle is said to have a relationship with iron, helps stabilize nitrogen, and promotes formation of humus.

For a small number of producers, however, such as Jean-Michel Comme, technical director at Château Pontet-Canet, and Eric de Suremain, fourth generation owner of Chȃteau de Monthelie and Domaine Eric de Suremain, biodynamics is a way of life. Jean-Michel and Eric have taken extraordinary risks to avoid use of non-organically certified material to maintain balance in their vineyards. Their stories are both interesting and informative. 

Jean-Michel and Eric view every aspect of life – the vineyard, the wines, the people, and the broader landscape – in terms of their relationship to nature and balance among the four essential elements of life – earth, air, water, and fire. Their biodynamic practices attempt to integrate these elements to regenerate the land. 

Weather, animals, vine varieties, invasive plants, insects and microbial pests, and human activity can all shift this elemental balance from health to disease. Rather than treating disease directly, however, the strategy is to return balance and harmony to the vineyard by feeding the soil. For example, Cabernet Sauvignon, a “fire” variety, usually does not do well in wet areas of a vineyard. In this case, fire and water are in conflict. Jean-Michel, however, has been able to balance these properties to produce stunning Cabernet from low lying areas of his vineyard where water often is in excess.  

  In the vineyard with Jean-Michel Comme at Château Pontet-Canet. The dip in the background is an area that I would have predicted would have too much water for good Cabernet Sauvignon, but through Jean-Michel’s careful management of weeds and preparations, the fruit is always very high quality.

In the vineyard with Jean-Michel Comme at Château Pontet-Canet. The dip in the background is an area that I would have predicted would have too much water for good Cabernet Sauvignon, but through Jean-Michel’s careful management of weeds and preparations, the fruit is always very high quality.

How does he do it? Jean-Michel scouts his vineyard daily for weeds that are associated with excess water. When found, he might use equisetum (a foliar spray) and silica (a soil amendment).  Both are elements with fire-like properties that make up two of the biodynamic preparations. Doing so results in more balanced growth, and the vines are much stronger and have a higher disease resistance. 

Jean-Michel also looks for the underlying causes of imbalance and lasting methods to restore it. When he identifies certain plants, bacteria, or animals in the vineyard, he doesn’t necessarily try to change them. Instead he views them as nature’s response to imbalance. In order to form an environment that is both complete and unique, he farms in a way that encourages synergy among the vines and their surroundings. In doing so, he creates a farm with individuality and distinction that ultimately translates into the special wines of Pontet-Canet. 

Despite the intuitive appeal of biodynamic agricultural methods, strict adherence comes with considerable risk. During the difficult 2016 vintage in Burgundy, Eric lost more than 90% of his crop, producing just 14 barrels from 40 acres, despite spraying for mildew 28 times, about twice his norm. This level of pesticide, even one that is organic, is likely to intensify imbalance, not reduce it. 

And then there is the fundamentally mystical interpretative framework of biodynamics. Despite their natural sources and homeopathic doses, the biodynamic preparations are still chemicals. While they could restore balance in some situations, they could also reduce it if misapplied. We also don’t know with any degree of certainty the benefits of carrying out vineyard tasks according to the phase of the moon, despite the obviously strong gravitational force that it exerts on the earth. 

What does all this mean for Dodon? The basic tenets of biodynamic agriculture are very similar to the agroecological methods that we’ve adopted. Both are focused on the relationship of the farm with nature, using biological principles to create balanced, diverse ecosystems characterized by healthy, microbially active soils, beneficial insect populations, and efficient long-term storage of carbon to create productive crop systems. For Dodon, the lessons of Jean-Michel and Eric are to listen carefully to what nature is telling us, and to think critically about our relationship with our surroundings. 

 A new plot of wildflowers, including astor, buckwheat, coreopsis, dill, and several clovers, in Dodon's experimental vineyard. While the diversity of insect activity was stunning, these crops    were too tall to plant under the vines, did not hold up to tractor use, and attracted deer that quickly turned their attention to eating the ripening fruit. 

A new plot of wildflowers, including astor, buckwheat, coreopsis, dill, and several clovers, in Dodon's experimental vineyard. While the diversity of insect activity was stunning, these crops  were too tall to plant under the vines, did not hold up to tractor use, and attracted deer that quickly turned their attention to eating the ripening fruit. 

The challenges to creating a balanced ecosystem at Dodon are extraordinary. The property was farmed for nearly a quarter millennium with tobacco, followed by a half century of conventional tillage, synthetic fertilizers and herbicides, and limited crop rotation. Much of the surrounding landscape, farmed in a similar manner, has now transitioned to suburban turf grasses that require synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. All of this most certainly destabilized any natural balance that might have existed prior to the original patent to Frances Stockett in 1658.

It will take time, patience, creativity, intellectual honesty, and perspiration to restore Dodon to a balanced ecosystem. In future posts, I’ll discuss some of the ways, starting with rebuilding the microbial life of the soil, that we are trying to integrate with the surrounding ecosystem and what we’re learning from these experiments