Do the preparations added when farming biodynamically really make a difference? A Washington State University study comparing biodynamic and organic viticulture found no significant differences in soil quality or vine nutrition, although differences were found in pruning weights and berry composition.
Dr. John Reganold, Washington State University soil scientist, has spent the last 15 years studying biodynamic farming, a way of farming developed by Austrian scientist Rudolph Steiner in the 1920s. Coined from the Greek words “bios” meaning life and “dynamic” meaning energy, biodynamic agriculture is based on Steiner’s belief of anthrosophy, the study of man and his spiritual relationship with the universe.
Biodynamic agriculture is similar to organic farming, Reganold said during an educational meeting sponsored by Vinea: the Winegrowers’ Sustainable Trust of Walla Walla Valley. Vinea is a voluntary group of wine grape growers working to establish sustainable viticultural practices and develop a certification program.
“Biodynamics actually preceded organic farming,” he said. Like organic farming, biodynamics focuses on building the soil and enhancing biodiversity. And like organic farming, it relies heavily on compost and other organic amendments to improve soil health. But biodynamics goes one step further by encouraging the incorporation of animals on the farm, such as chickens, sheep, or cattle, to consume weeds and insects, provide manure, and naturally work the ground.
The certification component of biodynamic farming is done by the Demeter Association, named after the Greek goddess of agriculture. The Demeter logo is used to represent biodynamic farmers’ products in the marketplace and was established in 1927.
But Reganold said that it’s the “voodoo doodoo” part of biodynamics—adding eight preparations to the soil, burying a cow’s horn filled with manure, and the directive to plant according to the moon and planets and work with nature’s rhythms—that gets the most attention.
“The easiest part about biodynamics is the preparations,” he said. “You just have to add them to your compost or mix with water and sprinkle on the ground or plant, depending on the preparation.”
The preparations, made from materials like horn manure, quartz, and silica, and herbs like yarrow, chamomile, stinging nettle, and oak bark, come in small plastic bags for growers to mix with their own compost or bury for several months in a cow’s horn before mixing with water to make a compost tea. The eight preparations are designed to help revitalize the soil microbes.
“The preparations are the part that get all the attention, because they’re strange,” Reganold said. “So much emphasis is placed on the preparations, and that may be worthwhile. But, we forget about all the other things involved with farming and viticulture that growers have to do to get it right.”
To get it right, biodynamic growers must properly plan and manage the vineyard and use management tools like biological pest controls, cover crops, and green manures, and integrate cultivation and other tools to control weeds without chemical sprays. They must also create mosaics or patchworks of crops, natural vegetation, and corridors around the vineyard.
It really all boils down to the soil, he explained. “Growers become closer to the farm because they have to add preparations.”
He noted that he has never been shown the soil when visiting a conventional farmer. “But I’ve never not been shown the soil on an organic or biodynamic farm. I’m a soil scientist, so it hurts my feelings when growers don’t talk about their soil.”
Reganold spent a year in New Zealand in the early 1990s, studying the effects of biodynamic and conventional farms on soil quality and financial performance. The research studied 16 farm enterprises, seven biodynamic and 9 conventional located next to each other, growing vegetables, apples, pears, citrus, grains, and livestock.
Generally, the project found that biological and physical properties of the soil in the biodynamic farms had improved compared to the conventional farms, though the results of soil chemical analyses were often variable.
“The biodynamic farms were often as financially viable on a per-hectare basis as their adjacent conventional neighbors and representative conventional farms,” he stated.
When biodynamic farming is compared to conventional farming, Reganold said the biodynamic farms generally have better soil quality, lower crop yields (which are desirable in wine grapes), and equal or higher net returns per acre. Biodynamic soils usually have higher organic matter, microbial biomass, and earthworm activity than their conventional counterparts.