The magic of biodynamics
Spraying manure when the moon is opposite Saturn or burying cow horns on winter solstice may sound to many like the workings of witchcraft or some kind of cult. However, it’s far from either of these and, believe it or not, has been growing in popularity, especially here on the Fleurieu. So, what exactly is ‘moon juice’ spray, as some call it? Why are farmers adopting these practices and how does it differ from organic farming?
As a biodynamic grape grower, I often get asked many questions like these, about a practice which has been in existence since the 1920s. Biodynamic farming began from a series of eight agricultural lectures given by philosopher Rudolf Steiner in 1942 at the estate of Count and Countess Keyserlingk in Koberwitz, Germany. The lectures were held in response to farmers’ concerns about the dramatic depletion of soil, despite the recently developed NPK (Nitrogen-Phosphorus- Potassium) fertilisers which became more broadly available at that time. Steiner pointed out the importance of increasing the health of microorganisms and therefore creating a balance in the soil, rather than only feeding the plants with artificial nutrients.
Steiner also developed anthroposophical medicine. It’s widely practised in Europe, where there are several hospitals entirely under anthroposophical management, as well as a highly accredited medical university integrated at the Herdecke Hospital. He was founder of the Waldorf Educational Movement, which has become one of the most popular global education systems (also known as the ‘Steiner school system’, which is growing in popularity in South Australia) and he practised a specific architectural system on which many famous buildings are based. The Goetheanum in Dornach, Switzerland, his first and most impressive of the buildings, today hosts many international congresses.
So, what exactly is biodynamic farming and is it really such a good model for sustainability? Personally, I made the switch to biodynamics because of its focus on soil improvement – it makes sense to me and I also think it’s better for the vineyard in the long term. It came from a desire to minimise the toxic load on the environment around me, on the people working in our vineyards and the people consuming our wines.
Ulli and Helmut Spranz founded B.-d Farm Paris Creek 30 years ago, the biodynamic-organic dairy manufacturer between Meadows and Strathalbyn. Ulli tells me there are no nasty chemicals used in biodynamic practices. The spray is produced by burying manurefilled cow horns on the summer solstice ever year and digging them up on the winter solstice. ‘We make so-called preparations, they are prepared in some cases over one year,’ Ulli says. ‘The preparations are made from herbs and minerals and they benefit soil and plants. They are sprayed out on a regular basis.’
The spray doesn’t only enhance a balance in the soil, it also regulates minerals by releasing trace elements in the soil, and increases the strength of plant growth and plant health. ‘This way, we don’t destroy what we don’t want, but we strengthen what we do want,’ Ulli explains. ‘All creatures, bacteria, fungi as well as plants including so called weeds, and everything part of nature, has its place, it just depends on a healthy balance. Biodynamics is a win-win for everyone. Soil, plants, animals, farmers, consumers, flora and fauna and providing the best for the environment.’
Ok. So, that sounds like a good philosophy, but what has the moon got to do with it? Madeleine and Liam Burns have been practising biodynamics on their beef cattle property in Finniss since 2004. Their business is called Triple B, Burns Biodynamic Beef – they make fortnightly deliveries of biodynamic beef to customers all over Adelaide. When it comes to the moon’s influence, Madeleine explains that most people understand that it affects gravity and tides around the world. Well, it also affects the rise and fall of moisture in the soil. ‘Biodynamics also takes into consideration the movement and position of planets which, when in line, increases the gravity pull on earth and moisture,’ Madeleine says. ‘This is evident during a full moon when there is high water potential, which is why rainfall often occurs around a full moon.’
Ben Paxton from Paxton Wines helped me further understand how the moon helps the growth of plants. ‘As the moon draws away from the earth (ascending) there is more activity above the ground,’ he says. ‘This is when we will concentrate on the foliage and fruiting areas of the vines. The best times to harvest fruit are during an ascending moon. When the moon is pushing closer (descending) to the earth the subsurface is most active and this when the roots will be most responsive.’
Converting a farm to the biodynamic regime requires a high level of commitment. Moving away from using herbicides and fungicides is a big leap of faith for a conventional farmer – there is also a certain level of risk involved in the conversion process when you are still learning the ropes. I can speak from my own personal experience in that I had to convince everybody involved in the vineyard – from my father, the property owner, our vineyard manager and workers that herbicides were no longer an option to control weeds, and we had to find another way. Convincing people to view weeds as part of the farm’s ecosystem, rather than an enemy that had to be obliterated, required determination and a strong commitment to find alternative methods to work with them. Madeleine Burns agrees, telling me that a ‘high level of commitment and vigilance is required to maintain the overall health of the soil, farm and animals’.
What about the cost of running a biodynamic farm? Is it expensive? Ben Paxton says while they have saved on some costs, more hours in the vineyard are needed. ‘It does cost more and we continue to adjust our systems and methods,’ he says. ‘To be certified as biodynamic requires a high level of commitment and takes a lot of time and effort.’ At Gemtree Wines, we rely heavily on sheep for weed control post-harvest. It’s the same over winter, as it’s a low-cost method in which we also reap the benefits of their manure. During the growing season, however, we use a combination of mechanical methods which are slow and require a number of passes, so what we save on the one hand, we lose on the other.
Supporters of the biodynamic philosophy believe there are benefits to both the earth and consumers. ‘We have many loyal consumers with multiple health issues in their families, from a variety of syndromes such as food allergies; auto-immune deficiencies and they are adamant that the benefits they get from our biodynamic beef are real and noticeable’ Madeleine Burns says.
Many believe that biodynamics has a beneficial effect on the quality of the final product as well. Ben Paxton tells me that his vines are more disease resistant as well as drought tolerant. ‘In the winery we have high success with wild (natural) ferments due to the fact we do not wipe out all of the natural yeasts in the vineyard with high rates of fungicides,’ he says. At Gemtree, we have less pest and disease problems now than when we were running the vineyard conventionally, and the quality of our grapes and wine continue to improve year-on-year.
The number of businesses which are biodynamic on the Fleurieu are continuing to grow, including Hedonist Wines, Yangarra Winery and more recently, d’Arenberg Wines. From wine and beef to dairy products, it is a growing movement. Ulli and Helmut Spranz have been influential from the early days, offering regular workshops, co-ordinating monthly meetings and, in general, gathering momentum for the movement. Ben Paxton really sums why it’s so prominent here: ‘Who wouldn’t want to produce the highest quality offering, utilising proven sustainable methods in one of the most beautiful regions around the world?’ My thoughts exactly.