By Philippe Pessereau, Director of Vineyard Operations & Dr. Andrew Lorand, Biodynamic Consultant
Introduction and Overview
At Joseph Phelps Vineyards, our philosophy is to maintain, preserve and (where possible and appropriate) ecologically enhance the natural vineyard environment.
While this goal is essential for present vineyard practices, it will have an even more profound effect on the development of maturing vineyards in the future. In order to achieve the greatest possible ecological health in and around our vineyards, we continue to build upon the sustainable vineyard practices we have been using since the early 1980s, and gradually but steadily we are embracing a style of farming known as “biodynamic agriculture” or simply, “biodynamics.”
What is Biodynamic Agriculture?
Dr. Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian scientist, educator and philosopher developed the basic ideas behind biodynamics in the 1920s. His goal was to help farmers restore the natural health and regenerative capacity of soils, plants and animals – and to help produce healthier, spirited foods for humanity. His methods, while seemingly unorthodox, immediately showed promise and many farmers all over the world adopted this new paradigm. Over time, biodynamics became one of the most important grandparents to the modern organic agriculture movement as Steiner’s philosophy was clearly ahead of his time in terms of ecological ethics and social responsibility, not to mention simply being effective.
Most radically, Steiner suggested designing agriculture and farm management so that each farm becomes increasingly self-contained and self-supporting in every way possible. Combining natural farming practices (such as composting, recycling of nutrients, careful water management, cover crops and so on) with natural “remedies” for deficiencies and seasonal changes (such as simple, non-toxic biological field and foliar sprays) biodynamics offers an ecologically advanced system that is readily tailored to the specific, local conditions of every farm, vineyard, orchard and/or garden towards self-sustainability. What Steiner was suggesting is a comprehensive approach to supporting and bringing out the best in the soils (terroir), native vegetation and surrounding environment, while increasing the farm’s ability to do this without importing enormous amounts of off-farm inputs.
If done well, this approach becomes the basis of sustainability in agriculture. There is more, though, in that Steiner came to this from a moral-ethical perspective, not just from a scientific-ecological one and had what we can call a spiritual approach to our responsibility for the land and its creatures: increased reverence for life, enhanced sensitivity to our environment, a lasting commitment to quality and to the subtleties of life. Success, to Steiner, lay in managing the details and in our on-going ethical, harmonious relationship with the soil, the vegetation, the animal world and each other. Seen this way, biodynamics inspires us to more than just better farming, but also to a better culture of the land.
Seven Key Ecological Elements
The Biodynamic agriculture we practice at Phelps rests upon an ecological foundation of seven key elements:
- Appropriate Production is the very basic building block of all good farming. It involves a very careful selection of what to grow and where.
- Biodiversity is nature’s fundamental premise. It aims at helping as many plant and critter species as possible grow, coexist, and mutually support each other.
- Soil Fertility includes a focus on proper levels of organic matter, good humus content and healthy microbial activity in the soil (bacteria, fungi, yeasts, protozoa, etc.). At JPV, we have produced our own biodynamic compost since 1999 to foster our soil humus.
- Natural Crop Nutrition. This means that we are increasingly feeding compost to our vines and cover crops, herbs, flowers and orchards. Done correctly, compost produces nutrient-rich, microbial-rich, moist, spongy, sweet-smelling and long-lasting humus.
- Whole Farm Self-Sustainability. Creating heal thy soils and producing a bio-diverse set of crops is the ideal of any self-sustaining farm.
- Integration of Domestic Animals. Currently, we do not have any large domestic animals but we are contemplating having some in the future. We bring manure from a local dairy farm to make our compost and use as much of our own plant rests as possible, such as pomace from our winery.
- Biologically Integrated Pest, Disease and Weed Prevention and Management. Healthy plants grown on healthy soil are better fit to naturally resist pest and disease attacks. Thus, this system produces the optimal foundation for pest and disease prevention.
Biodynamic Preparations, Field and Foliar Sprays
What makes biodynamics different is not only its emphasis on self-sustainability and an ethical relationship with the land, but also its focus on gentle (but highly effective) homeopathic and natural fertilizers, nutrient sprays and pesticides. Biodynamics is a holistic system which enables us to work, think and feel about agriculture in new ways. It encourages us to have a spiritual-ethical relationship with all of nature, to feel a deep and abiding sense of responsibility for all of our activities. And integrated into this philosophy is also the imperative to use as much all-natural and gently acting products as possible. The biodynamic preparations, field and foliar sprays described below are just such all-natural, gently acting products.
The biodynamic compost preparations are all made from healthy plant materials, such as chamomile flowers or nettle leaves. After being prepared in various ways, they are used to stimulate the healthy composting of organic matter and manures. Biodynamic composts made with these preparations have been shown to mature better, more evenly and offer better humus development than without.
The Field Sprays
The biodynamic field sprays, often referred to as 500 and 501, are made from concentrated manure and concentrated quartz, respectively. They are designed to stimulate healthy germination, growth and reproductive capacity on the one hand and healthy maturation (blossom, fruit and seed development) while increasing the actual nutritive qualities on the other. They are sprayed in very light, homeopathic dosages 3-5 times a season and have been shown to make a huge difference in supporting natural health and productivity.
The Foliar Sprays
The biodynamic foliar sprays we use are primarily of single plant extraction (nettles, chamomile, horsetail, etc.) made into teas (gentle warming process) and sprayed at relatively small dosages on the leaves of our crops as a nutritional boost. For example, nettles are high in iron and nitrogen. These foliar sprays complement our efforts to provide our crops with appropriate amounts of compost and soil care to enable most of the plant nutrition to come from the soil.
Another important topic in biodynamics is the effort to use so-called ‘planting calendars.’ There are several different calendars available that suggest various times and dates to best plant, weed, spray, transplant, and harvest. Although these attempts to work with the rhythms of time in our vineyards are interesting, many of these calendars have overly complex, impractical suggestions. For now, we are simply observing the various larger cycles (such as the sun’s rhythms that cause the change in seasons and the moon’s rhythms that also effect plant growth), to see if we can discern firsthand the effects in our vineyards. We are trying to implement age-old, simple suggestions (also recommended by Rudolf Steiner) as follows:
a. Before the full moon, utilize farming practices that have to do with reproduction and growth (planting, grafting, transplanting, fertilizing).
b. Before the new moon, follow protocols that relate to maturation and nutritive quality (pruning, weeding, harvesting).
What will the results be of all this research and labor? Well, we are actually working with the rhythms of the universe and learning what’s behind these interesting ideas!
At the very least, biodynamic farming is a good way to organize our work and better understand the relationship between grape growing and the natural world. There also seems little doubt that with the cultivation and preservation of soil health, everything else will follow: superior grapevines, healthier fruit and higher quality wines -- all while respecting the environment.