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Moonbeams and Cow Horns: Does Biodynamic Farming Work?
Burying cow’s horns in the ground. Scattering the ashes of field mice across a field. Studying the phases of the moon and the planets.
While this may sound like a lesson plan from Harry Potter’s alchemy class at Hogwarts, it might surprise you to know that the glass of wine you drank last night at dinner could have been created with these methods, which are part of the rapidly growing biodynamic movement.
Biodynamic agriculture is a method of farming undertaken in response to the belief that chemical farming is reducing the vitality of land and the proliferation of seeds. Founded by Austrian Rudolf Steiner, biodynamics helped set the wheels in motion for the development of the organic movement. But biodynamics also incorporates the mystical belief of soil and a farm as a living system. (Rudolf even believed that eating plants that had become dependent on chemical fertilizers would cause people to "lose their will.")
Some of the methods Steiner prescribes in a series of speeches he made during in 1924, which were later published in a book, Spiritual Foundations for the Renewal of Agriculture, seem fairly outlandish to skeptics. One suggestion calls for enriching a farm’s soil by filling a cow’s horn with cow manure and burying it in the field over the winter, then mixing the content with water to spray in the fields. Similarly, he suggests stuffing the bladder of a red deer with yarrow blossoms and placing it in the sun in the summer, burying it in the winter, and retrieving it again in the spring. His methods for pest control involve burning the offending creature or weed, then scattering the ashes in the field, at a time when the positions of the moon or planets are in a certain arrangement.
Some of the more unusual methods of biodynamics are still used today. For instance, a cup of coffee from Café Altura uses beans fertilized with a silica spray that must be stirred for 24 hours in a very specific pattern, creating a vortex in the container. The farmers believe that this method helps with the mineralization of the soil.
Less mystically, much of the philosophy centers around the belief that a farm is a self-contained organism. According to the Demeter Association of America, the certifying agency for biodynamic farms in the United States, some of the standards that a biodynamic farm must adhere to include:
- Composting must happen on the farm
- Crops for human use cannot be grown under high voltage power lines
- Treated seeds are prohibited
- No plant hormones or other artificial means to enhance yield and size of plants can be used
- Only plant-derived and other non-lasting pest controls are permitted
Who wouldn’t want to eat produce grown with such natural methods?
The Demeter Association says that the number of farms applying for biodynamic certification is definitely on the rise. And much of the growth is due to the number of vineyards that have become interested in biodynamic practices.
Sounds great, right? But not so fast. Even a practice as seemingly spiritual and beneficial as biodynamics has its downside.
For starters, just like organic produce, biodynamically grown products often cost more than their conventionally grown (or even organically grown) counterparts. Biodynamic farming is more expensive due to time-consuming and labor intensive methods, expensive natural fertilizers and soil preparations, and bigger crop loss.
Then there’s that little issue of science. Biodynamic practices are often at odds with scientific thought because of their spiritual methodology, and beyond anecdotal findings, it’s been difficult to prove that biodynamics really works. Grant Cramer, a biochemistry professor at the University of Nevada, dismisses a main tenet of biodynamics, the idea that the soil is a living organism, saying that although the mineral particles that make up soil have living organisms within them, soil itself is not a living entity. And Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, a professor of soil microbiology at Washington State University in Pullman, WA, told the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin that she believes that any success that biodynamic farmers reap is due less to Steiner’s rituals, and more to inadvertently discovering how to manage the biochemical and microbiological factors in the soil. Horticulturist and Washington State University associate professor Linda Chalker-Scott, contends that while the organic practices that are part of biodynamic methodology can result in improved soil and plant health, there is no evidence that Steiner’s preparations (such as the soil spray made from humus aged in buried cow’s horns) improve soil or plant quality.
But the proof is often in the pudding—does biodynamic produce and wine actually taste better?
Jake Fetzer of the Fetzer Winery in Northern California, says that it’s not about a superior taste, but about better expressing the terroir, that coveted sense of place that winemakers strive for. "You’ll find that the wines are going to express the place where they’re grown a little more than a wine where you’re manipulating a soil type," he says.
Seattle Times wine writer Paul Gregutt wrote recently that the quality of biodynamically grown wines can be spotty, particularly since it can take nearly a decade for a vineyard with damaged soil to recover under biodynamic farming methods. His advice? "If you can taste a difference and are willing to pay the premium, then... their efforts are well worth your support."