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WHAT IS BIODYNAMICS?
“To our modern way of thinking, this all sounds quite insane” - Rudolf Steiner, Agriculture, 1924

In 1924 the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner gave a series of lectures outlining a new approach to agriculture to a group of farmers concerned about the dwindling fertility of their crops and declining health of their livestock.

The directions Steiner gave in these lectures became the foundations of what we know today as the biodynamic system of organic farming. In some ways, he was ahead of his time: not only can Steiner’s lectures be seen as possibly the world’s first systematic attempt to develop an organic farming system in response to the encroaching power of the industrial agricultural movement, but his repeated observations throughout the lectures that ‘everything in nature is interdependent’ also predates James Lovelock’s Gaia theory by half a century.

A number of people - including Maria Thun in Germany, Alex Podolinsky in Australia and Peter Proctor in New Zealand - took Steiner’s initial ideas and developed them over the ensuing decades. Today, biodynamics is a complex toolkit of philosophies and techniques available to anybody interested in farming - or growing grapes and making wine - sustainably.

Steiner was the founder and figurehead of the Anthroposophical Society, a movement dedicated to bridging the gap between the physical and spiritual worlds. He called his 1924 lectures ‘Spiritual Foundations for the Renewal of Agriculture’ (usually known simply as ‘Agriculture’) which is important to note, because the methods Steiner proposed were practical, energetic and spiritual. Practical in that they were intended to increase microbial life, structure and nutrient availability in the soil; energetic in that they were intended to synchronise the earth with the influences of the moon and planets; and spiritual in that an anthroposophical approach to agriculture would, he hoped, encourage humans to connect to the spirit world.

 
   
 

I find it helpful to look at biodynamics on these three levels - although all three are, of course, inextricably linked.

The first, physical level is very practical. A lot of BD techniques such as composting and building up soil and vine health are easy to understand, implement and observe. Growing grapes this way - sustainably, using renewable resources, building up organic matter and carbon in the soil - is something that an increasing number of people are willing to not only accept, but also support. Even if the techniques themselves sometimes defy logic or scientific scrutiny.

The second level of biodynamics is the cosmic one: the idea that everything is interconnected, and that the rhythm of the moon and the planets have an effect on life on Earth. This is harder for grape growers and winemakers (and wine drinkers) with a strong scientific background to accept, but it’s the level at which most biodynamic wine producers I’ve spoken to operate on. It’s the part of biodynamics that people with generations of farming or grape-growing behind them - generations of observing the natural world - find easier to adopt.

The third level of biodynamics is the spiritual level: Steiner wasn’t using anthroposophical theory to help people farm organically; he saw the adoption of his organic farming techniques as a way of bringing anthroposphy to the world. This is the most difficult bit for many to accept, and only a handful of growers and winemakers I’ve visited acknowledge that they adopt biodynamics to this extent.

Steiner believed that his agricultural method would help to heal the Earth. You can choose to take that belief, and all of the following information on any or all or none of the levels I’ve outlined above.

THE BIODYNAMIC PREPARATIONS

These preparations were all described by Steiner in his Agriculture lectures.

Preparation 500
The cornerstone of biodynamics is preparation 500. This is made by stuffing cow manure into cow horns, burying those horns over winter, then stirring a small amount of the fermented manure in rain water (Proctor recommends 25 grams of 500 in 13 litres of water for a one acre block) for an hour and spraying the resulting liquid in droplets on your vineyard soil. The details of the stirring are important: it has to be for an hour, using the reverse vortex method, where the water is stirred in one direction until a vortex forms in the bucket - and then, when the vortex reaches the bottom, the stirring direction is reversed, creating chaos in the liquid. Again, this works on many levels, depending on who you talk to: this is either a way of attracting cosmic influences into the liquid - or just a bloody good way of mixing stuff up.

 

500 is used to improve soil structure and microbiological activity. Sue Carpenter of Lark Hill vineyard in the Canberra District reckons that spraying the horn manure stimulates soil bacteria, which promotes soil fungi, which in turn enable nutrient exchange between the vine roots and the soil.

Lethbridge Wines’ Maree Collis - who has a PhD in organic chemistry - also sees 500 as a microbiological inoculation, which explains why the best time to spray it is said to be in the afternoon, when the soil is warmer, and it has more of an impact. Toby Bekkers of Paxton vineyard in McLaren Vale sees spraying 500 as ‘seeding the soil’ with life, like adding yeast to a tank of grape juice.

Preparation 501
This is made by stuffing finely-ground quartz (silica) into cow horns, burying those horns over summer, then stirring a very small amount (just a couple of grams) of the powder in rain water for an hour and spraying the resulting liquid in a fine mist over your vines. The purpose of 501 is to complement the earthy forces of the 500 and attract light forces to the plant.

 
The use of 501 is controversial in Australia, with some BD experts and many grape-growers choosing not to use it, arguing that the last thing we need here is more sunlight on our vines. Others growers insist that 501 is necessary to balance the 500.  

 

Kate Kirkhope of Kiltynane Estate in the Yarra Valley describes 501 as ‘an atmospheric umbrella’. Everyone agrees, though, that it is a very powerful prep - even though it is applied in such remarkably low doses.

Sam Statham of Rosnay vineyard in Canowindra, for example, applied some 501 towards the end of the ripening season in 2004 because his merlot was ripening too slowly - and sugar levels shot up way too far. ‘It’s something you definitely need to use with caution,’ Statham says.

Preparations 502-507
Tiny amounts - teaspoonfuls - of these preps are added to the compost to bring various benefits to the resulting humus when added to the soil. They can also be added to compost tea.

502 - Yarrow flowers matured in a stag’s bladder, hung up in a tree over summer; said to attract light forces and connect the soil to cosmic influences.
503 - Chamomile flowers stuffed into cow’s intestines and buried over winter; said to help the breakdown of the compost.
504 - Stinging nettle buried for a year; said to bring intelligence to the soil.
505 - Oak bark buried in a sheep skull in a damp place over winter; helps attract earth forces to the soil.
506 - Dandelion flowers buried over winter in a cow’s mesentery; said to bring life forces to the soil and the plants which grow in it.
507 - A solution of valerian flowers, sprayed over the compost heap; said to bring warmth to the compost.

Preparation 508
This is a solution of equisetum - horsetail - heavily diluted and sprayed on vines to bring a drying effect. Useful in a damp season, helpful in countering mould.

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OTHER BIODYNAMIC PRACTICES

 

Composting
Composting’s my passion’ says Barry Morey of Sorrenberg vineyard in Beechworth, as he digs into a beautiful pile of sweet black goodness. He’s not alone: good compost - with preps 500-507 added - spread under the vines and between the rows is a crucial part of building structure and microbial activity in biodynamic soil. Many BD growers also make cow pat pit, or CPP - otherwise known as barrel compost or manure concentrate. This is a barrow-load of cow manure, mixed with crushed egg shells, basalt dust and the compost preps, then matured for six weeks, either in a shallow pit or in a half-buried barrel (hence the name). This is then stirred in with the 500 and sprayed onto the soil.

Following the phases of the moon and positions of the planets
Steiner wasn’t the first person to encourage awareness of the position of the moon and stars when farming. Indeed, he described such awareness as ‘peasant wisdom’ - something which had been lost in his/our materialistic age, and which his ‘new’ farming methods aimed to recapture. After the biodynamic workshop I co-hosted in the Barossa in July 2006, local winemaker Geoff Schrapel, whose family settled in the area from Silesia in the 1840s, came up to me and said: ‘You know, we’ve always followed the moon when we’re planning any work in the vineyard.’

 

The effect of the moon is easy to understand. As Jane Sandilands of Haywards of Locksley vineyard in the Strathbogie Ranges puts it: ‘If you can grasp the concept of the moon affecting the tides, you should be able to extend that to vines. You can see it for yourself at pruning times: you can see the differences in the sap flow depending on the phases of the moon.’

 

 

It kind of makes sense, then, that 500, for example - with all its supposed earthy influences - should be sprayed in the afternoon under a descending, waning moon.

It’s perhaps harder to grasp, though, that the moon’s relative position to distant constellations or planets might also have an affect on what happens on earth. But many biodynamic winegrowers soon do grasp this concept, and follow their Astro Calendar as closely as they can, timing their activities according to whether it’s a fruit day (moon in a fire sign such as Leo - good for picking grapes), root day (moon in an earth sign such as Taurus - good for making compost, sparying 500), leaf day (water sign, Scorpio) or flower day (air, Aquarius). Most also avoid agricultural activity (or activity of any kind) during disruptive ‘node’ times, when the moon’s path crosses the path of the sun.

Some people also extend this idea to tasting wine, believing that fruit days will best display the wine’s varietal character and quality - and that root days are to be avoided, because the wines will be least expressive. And as for tasting on a node day - well, just forget about it.

 

In 2007, Carlei Wines picked a vineyard in Heathcote in two passes and made two separate shirazes: half the grapes were picked on a ‘fruit’ day, half on a ‘root’ day. The differences between the two wines are remarkable: the ‘fruit’ day wine has more vibrant flavour and presence, the ‘root’ day wine is firmer, more tannic.

   
 
Compost teas and other concoctions
Many biodynamic grape growers and winemakers make ‘teas’ using fish, compost, nettles and other goodies to spray on their vineyards. Barry Morey of Sorrenberg and Ray Nadeson of Lethbridge, for example, both use the diluted juice of worm castings as a foliar spray when applying the preparation 501.

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BIODYNAMIC THINKING

“Biodynamics is a mindset, not a religion or a recipe” - Monty Waldin, Biodynamic Wines, 2004

This is, for me, one of the most important parts of biodynamics. I have found that almost every Australian winemaker who has adopted BD as a method of growing grapes has found their whole approach to life has changed.

‘I like the holistic approach of BD,’ says Vanya Cullen. ‘It goes right through to all aspects of what we're doing, and fits in with the philosophy of quality and integrity established by my parents. We’re all working towards a common goal now. The ego disappears.’

 

Other winegrowers emphasise how BD makes you pay more attention to the details. ‘It gives you a mindset that helps you treat your vineyard as you would your first-born child,’ says Rod Windrim of Krinklewood in the Hunter Valley. ‘You try to take away the potential for disease to happen - if you know you haven’t got the option to drop back on nasty chemicals it keeps you on your game.’

As Ron Laughton of Jasper Hill observes: ‘You don't need an aspirin to cure a headache; you need to get rid of the stress that caused the headache in the first place. The concept of looking after your soil isn't biodynamic, it's just good farming.’

‘You know what I like best about biodynamics?’ asks Adam Marks of Bress vineyard. ‘It encourages you to find your own way. To find out for yourself how best to care for your land.’

 
Some biodynamic growers agree with Steiner that the attitude and feelings of the person working the land, making the compost or applying the preps are transmitted to the activity and the energy of the earth. As New Zealand winemaker James Millton says: ‘enthusiasm is the best fertiliser.’  
 

 

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BIODYNAMICS ADAPTED FOR AUSTRALIAN CONDITIONS

Although he was very clear about how and why to make and apply the biodynamic preps, Steiner also says many times throughout his Agriculture lectures that his ideas were indications, that more work needed to be done, and people should not be afraid to try variations out for themselves. He even responded to a question about whether stag bladders could be substituted for something else in the yarrow preparation by saying ‘It is entirely possible that somewhere there is another suitable kind of animal - perhaps indigenous to some corner of Australia.’

This again for me is a very exciting part of biodynamics - how the ideas and methods developed in cool, wet middle Europe can be adapted to a hotter, drier Australia. And how ancient Australian knowledge of the stars and the thoroughly un-European seasons could perhaps augment biodynamic practice.

‘We want to do it in an Australian way,’ says winemaker Stephen Henschke. ‘We use casuarina (She-oak) here for one of the compost teas, for example, rather than the horsetail (equisetum) used in Europe. And I’ve heard of some people using burying manure in emu eggs instead of cow horns to make the 500.’

Other winemakers are - perhaps more radically - applying the 500 to their vineyards through the irrigation drippers, rather than by spraying it, a development that will no doubt horrify the purists.

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