If you trek out between the vine rows in any vineyard that practices biodynamics you will soon notice how your feet are welcomed into the soil underfoot with each progressive step. Your shoes sink ever so slightly, ever so softly into the moist brown dirt, and once you’ve reached the end of one vine row you will find your shoes have now been adorned with a thick cake of clumpy, sticky, humus like mud.
One of the underlying outcomes of biodynamic farming is the development of this sticky humus like mud. Made from dead organic material, this life giving humus is the foundation and basis for all living soil.
In his book, ‘Grasp The Nettle’ author Peter Proctor says ‘biodynamic agriculture is a method of farming that aims to treat the farm as a living system which interacts with the environment, to build healthy, living soil, and to produce food that nourishes and vitalises… mankind’. It is a system of agriculture that was derived from the teachings of Austrian philosopher, Rudolf Steiner.
Steiner gave a series of lectures in 1924 to a group of fraught farmers who noticed degraded soil conditions and a deterioration in the health and quality of crops and livestock resulting from the use of chemical fertilisers. He proposed the idea of a more holistic approach to farming by recognising that plants not only grow through the fertility of the soil, but also with support from the cosmos – the rhythms of the sun, moon, and planets, including the wider constellations of the zodiac.
According to Steiner, as the earth becomes older the soil naturally becomes weaker and is less able to receive these cosmic rhythms than in earlier times. By employing techniques which emphasise the renewal of these depleted soil conditions, Steiner believed that you could re-enliven these cosmic rhythms so that they could once again connect and flow strongly with the earth’s soil. Once this connection has been re-established, and strengthened, the soil takes on a living quality.
The living soil in a biodynamic vineyard (and other areas of farming) will appear crumbly and slippery when rubbed between your finger and thumb, and this slipperiness will continue to lower and deeper depths, down to where the subsoil and topsoil meet. It’s down here that you will see a strong presence and existence of active microbiological life, the essence of fertile soil structure.
Within this fertile soil exist Mycorrhizal fungi – fungi that forms a symbiotic relationship with nearly all plants. These silk thin hyphae stretch out across great distances to seek out nutrients and moisture which are conducted back to the host plant and exchanged for carbohydrates.
When you walk on good, fertile soil you feel the softness beneath your feet. If you were to take a shovel, or spade or even a stick and try to penetrate the ground, you would feel the ease with which the stick goes in. Biodynamic soils, according to Proctor based on research by Massey University in New Zealand, are generally ‘significantly superior to conventionally managed soils in regard to soil structure, friability, aeration, and drainage, with lower bulk density, higher organic matter content, soil respiration, more earthworms and a deeper topsoil layer’.
– – – –
To achieve this soft, crumbly, slipperiness, various preparations, as prescribed by Rudolf Stiener, are created and applied to the vineyard to encourage this vitality and quality of soil. This includes the application of Preparation 500 – cow manure which has been stuffed into cowhorns where it is buried and left to ferment for up to six months during autumn and winter.
Cow dung has the incredible ability to attract life to it, such as earthworms. Because of the cow’s thorough four-part digestive processes, some of the energy generated during digestion remains in the cow dung long after it has been passed. This ‘essential cowness’, is what Steiner calls ‘astrality’ – the eternal spirit/energy within all living creatures – and it is this cow’s astrality that is captured in the cow dung and allowed to distill over the period of time that the dung is buried in the ground, inside the cowhorns.
After the horns have been buried for the recommended six months, the manure that is left inside should be slightly loose, easy to knock out, and may have taken on some of the attributes of the soil it was buried in. It will have a characteristic sweet smell, which according to Proctor, ‘smells the same all over the world’.
Once the Preaparation 500 has been made it can either be stored – either in glazed pots, such as terracotta, glass or enamel boxes, in a cool place, such as a cellar or well shaded shed (well stored 500 can be kept for up to three years, but it is important to constantly check on its current state) – or sprayed immediately onto the vineyard (or farmland) after it has been readied for application.
To make up the Preparation 500 to a solution which can be applied to the vineyard it needs to be stirred using water, preferably without contaminants such as chlorine or fluoride – rain water is ideal. To do this you need to stir the 500 until a vortex appears within the tub or barrel you are stirring in. This vortex allows for increased oxygenation of the water used, along with the 500, and, supposedly, ‘introduces the cosmic forces that enable the water to become a dynamic carrier of the life energy as it is spread over the land’.
Steiner’s idea of the vortex being created during the stirring process is connected to the naturally occurring spiral shape, and its expression within nature. Proctor says, ‘the form of the vortex is manifested in many different ways in nature. Galaxies, for instance, move around in great spirals, and spiral movements are the basis of cyclones… in weather systems’. Steiner draws a comparison to the spiral shapes of the universe to the manifestation of the spiral shapes here on Earth, not only in certain weather systems, but also in bodies of water, such as a running stream, with all of its little swirls and vortices appearing as the water flows in many different directions at once.
When it comes to apply the Preparation 500 to the vineyard, this should be done at least twice a year. The best application times are in the autumn – March/April, and once again in early spring – September/October. The afternoon and evening is considered to be the most beneficial time to apply 500. Application times of 500 with respect to the lunar calendar can enhance its effect on the plants, especially ‘during the fourteen days of the descent of the moon during it’s path across the ecliptic line’.
You can use anything from a brush to flick the 500 over the vines, or a spray rig, attached either to your back, a truck or ute; first applying to the circumference of the vineyard site, then in a zig zag fashion across the middle.
– – – –
Over the coming months, I will endeavor to explain the basic’s of biodynamic agriculture, with the use of Peter Proctor’s ‘Grasp the Nettle’, as well as first hand accounts based on my own experience and conversations with the winegrowers actively employing these techniques.
I will do my very best not to be exhaustive, and only to show the basic principals and ideas of biodynamic farming, with respect to viticulture and winegrowing
If you are interested in biodynamics further, please see the links below. You can also read past articles that I’ve written to do with winegrowers and biodynamics in Australia and New Zealand.
D// – The Wine Idealist.
Demeter – Biodynamic certifier