Shoppers at farmers markets (and drinkers of wine) may notice the label "biodynamic" at some stands (and on some bottles). It sounds good. It sounds organic-like. But what is it, exactly?
Biodynamic farming is a set of practices and beliefs followed in countries around the world, across many types of agriculture. It's particularly popular in Germany and in viniculture. The original principles were developed by Rudolph Steiner in the 1920s.
If his name sounds familiar, it may be because he is also the founder of the Waldorf School, which grew into an international network. It was the first agricultural movement intent on improving soil quality, and many consider it the father (or grandfather) of modern organic farming.
Basic Biodynamic Principles
Biodynamic practices grow out of looking at the entire farm as a holistic entity intimately intertwined with its ecosystem as a whole. That means seeing the farm in the context of a larger system, not just including surrounding farms, but its larger watershed or foodshed region as well, while also advocating that the farm, within that context, operate in a self-sufficient manner. Its main points include:
- Crop diversification and on-farm biodiversity
- Avoidance of off-farm inputs, particularly of any chemicals
- Using natural fertilizers and treatments, ideally that are made on-site
- Decentralized production and distribution
- Setting aside a minimum of 10% of the farm's land as a nature reserve to promote biodiversity
A truly biodynamic farm would ideally care for both crops and animals, since crops need fertilizer from the animals, and animals need crops for feed, so both would b required to avoid "off-farm inputs."
Composting and other natural soil treatments are an important aspect of biodynamic farming, as are cover crops and working to improve, not just maintain, soil health.
All of which are why the practice has been notably embraced by both those who think organic standards don't go far enough and by the wine grape-growing industry, which faces challenges specific to growing a crop on the same set of vines on the same patch of land for years at a stretch.
A Lunar and Astrological Calendar
Along with practices that seem in direct alignment with organics and the local food movement, like those above, biodynamic farming also follows practices that address spiritual and celestial influences, which were of great interest to Steiner. For example, planting and harvesting schedules are developed by considering lunar and zodiac movements.
At its most basic, that biodynamic farming sees that as the moon influences the tides of the ocean, is also influences the growth of plants. So the schedule dictates that sowing seeds or planting seedlings happens while the moon is waxing (moving from a new moon and a full moon), and harvesting happens while the moon is waning (moving from a full moon to a new moon). Other farming activities connected to growth (such as grafting) also happen during a waxing moon, while things that bring an end to growth (such as weeding) happen during a waning moon.
Into the Mystic
Beyond the lunar schedule, things can get even more esoteric. A common example is the belief that burying a cow's horn full of ground quartz will help harness the cosmic forces in the soil (the horn is later dug up and some of the quartz is added to a barrel of water, combined by by stirring in a specific pattern, before being sprayed on plants), or the requirement that a farmer hang a stag's bladder stuffed with yarrow flowers in the barn for a few months before burying it, digging it back up, and adding it to the farm's compost.
Beyond the Mystic
However much people believe or buy into some of the... odder aspects of biodynamic farming, overall its appeal for both farmers and consumers tends to be twofold: its focus on improving soil health and the fact that its practices require more hands-on attention to the land.
One, of course, begetting the other.
Much like with organic farming, farmers can use biodynamic practices as much or as little as they like. To be certified biodynamic, however, they much meet a series of qualifications that include being certified organic (no synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, no GMOs, followed organic standards are at least three years) and following biodynamic practices (as outlined above). Certification, done through the Demeter Association, is renewed annually.
Are you a farmer interested in using biodynamic practices? Check out How to Use Biodynamic Agriculture on Your Farm by our Small Farms Expert. Interested in biodynamic wines? See this article, complete with biodynamic wines to try, from our Wine Expert.