“When people decide they want to convert their farm or vineyard over to organics, or biodynamics, they usually go in head first and make a lot of noise about it,” says viticulturist Toby Bekkers. Toby was GM of Paxton Vineyards, and was responsible for converting their 170 acre property in the McLaren Vale over to a certified biodynamic regime.
As organics and biodynamics continues to become ever popular as a viable alternative farming system – especially with regards to wine – more and more winegrowers are turning to viticultural consultants like Toby Beakers in Australia, and Jared Connolly in New Zealand, to help them convert their vineyards over, from a ‘conventional’/chemically dependent system, to a more natural, organic and/or biodynamic, farming system.
“To be a good farmer, attention to detail is key.”
“Most of the people I connect with, through my business, are interested in improving the quality of their viticulture, which hopefully leads them to being able to make better wine,” says Jared.
Both Toby and Jared agree that biodynamics is great for improving the quality of the raw material – i.e. the grapes – but, first and foremost, you need to be a good farmer.
“There’s always going to be good farmers and bad farmers,” says Toby, “and it doesn’t really matter what farming system you use… To be a good farmer, attention to detail is key.”
“Biodynamics just enhances everything” explains Jared, who was responsible for helping to establish the biodynamic regime at Burn Cottage. “If you’re a good farmer, and can get the basics right, then it simply gets applied over the top of an already solid farming foundation.”
Scientifically speaking, the benefits of biodynamics are not completely understood, in contrast to ‘conventional’/chemical ways of faming. Most of the evidence for its utility is still, largely, anecdotal, coming straight from the winegrowers mouth. However, it is consistent.
“You can see how dead the soil is whenever it’s sprayed with herbicides…”
“Biodynamic farmers are basically searching for another layer of quality,” says Toby. “When you take away the herbicides and other chemicals, and replace them with the preps and compost, there’s an observable change in the population of what’s growing in the mid rows and under the vines, and, to me, that’s a very strong signal that there’s good things happening in the vineyard.”
“You can see how dead the soil is whenever it’s sprayed with herbicides, like Round Up,” says Jared. “That’s where the harm is, because these poisons kill all the beneficial mico-flora that make the soil more fertile and productive, which is a really ineffective way of growing things.”
In the beginning, both Jared and Toby’s advice to new clients who are thinking about converting over to biodynamics, is to concentrate on the real features of the system, such as improved soil and vine health, instead of some of its more spiritual and mystical elements.
“I think you have to initially focus on the practical aspects of biodynamics in order to gain an appreciation for it,” says Jared, “before looking more closely at the spiritual side of it. It’s basically a smarter form of organic farming.”
“A lot of Steiner’s language about biodynamics needs to be brought back to 1920’s Austria, when he was trying to communicate to farmers how to restore and improve their soils,” explains Toby. “These people wouldn’t have known what terms like soil biology and micro flora means, so some of what he said might sound like witchcraft to us, but it would have made perfect sense to the farmers he was speaking to at the time. We’re just using a different language today.
“My approach has always been to be much more interested in the practical farming systems and approaches to viticulture that biodynamics offers, rather than the spiritual aspects,” says Toby.
Ultimately, when considering converting your property over to organics or biodynamics, the most important thing to do is take your time, learn what needs to be done, and acquire the requisite skills needed to effectively apply such a radically new regime onto your vineyard or farm.
“It’s much better to go slowly and get your head around it,” explains Toby. “You’re moving from a system that requires buying products to fix problems to a system that requires skills and know-how to fix problems, and you’ve got to earn those skills before you can effectively use them.”
Jared says that a good support network of other biodynamic farmers is really important too.
“Biodynamics is such a journey…”
“The biggest impact is when people want to make the change but that don’t have the support network around them to enable them to make it happen.”
It’s important to have an open mind too.
“Biodynamics is such a journey, says Jared, “it takes time to really be involved with it, but you’ve just got to keep going, have an open mind, ask questions, and get on with it, if you really want to do it right.”
D// – The Wine Idealist
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