by Valerie Broussard • Photography by Pauline Stevens
One crisp morning in the region of Veneto, Italy, a group of students—including me—straddled the property line of two very different vineyards: one conventional, the other biodynamic. The farmer of the latter pointed out a tall fruit tree, its limbs towering over the vines, encouraging birds to feast on its sacrificial fruit rather than on the grapes. He crouched down and scooped up handfuls of his soil and asked the students to do the same—proudly inhaling the scent of the glorious living foundation teeming with microbes. Now, he prodded, compare it to the stale and compact soil of the neighboring plot.
Biodynamic agriculture, as practiced today, developed in 1924 out of eight lectures, entitled “Agriculture: Spiritual Foundations for the Renewal of Agriculture,” given by scientist and philosopher Rudolf Steiner to a group of farmers near what was then eastern Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland). In the lectures, Steiner pulled from farming techniques and methods used over centuries by civilizations throughout the world. He spoke of creating biodynamic “preparations” from certain plants and natural materials to be used to treat and amend soils, ward off disease and insects and nurture plants, and of the effects of the moon, gravity and heavenly bodies on our ecosystems. Inspired by Steiner’s vision, the farmers formed a cooperative and immediately began testing the so-named biodynamic methods. Then in 1928, two members of the co-op established the Demeter certification and brand (named in honor of the Greek goddess of fertility and grain), to clearly identify official biodynamic farms and foods grown and produced using these strict practices.
In biodynamic farming, plants are grouped into four categories: root (carrots, radishes, beets, etc.), leaf (cabbage, lettuce, chard, etc.), blossom (flowering bulbs and broccoli, etc.) and fruit (grains, tomatoes, corn, etc.). As particular days of the zodiac are assigned to each of these groups, one might sow, plant, hoe and cultivate parsnips, for example, on a “root day” to produce the best yield, uniformity, quality, taste, vigor, resistance to disease and nutritional value. The moon makes a 27-day journey around the Earth, and it passes through the constellations of the zodiac. Each plant group responds to three of the 12 zodiac regions. The late author Maria Thun, who published a biodynamic sowing and planting calendar for over 50 years, wrote that these forces “affect the four elements: earth, light (air), water and warmth (fire). They, in turn, affect the four parts of the plant: the roots, the flower, the leaves and the fruit or seeds. The health and growth of a plant can therefore be stimulated by sowing, cultivating and harvesting it in tune with the cycles of the moon.” Thun’s “Gardening for Life” includes photos from some of her experiments—including four sets of onions harvested on different days. Only the onions harvested on root days stayed firm for months, whereas the onions harvested on leaf, fruit or flower days showed rotting and sprouting.
Months after the introduction to this method of farming in Italy, my classmates and I had the privilege of meeting Nicolas Joly, a French biodynamic winemaker. He reiterated the importance of understanding life and matter, and how the forces of gravity, the planets, stars, moon and sun influence life. It’s unmistakable, for example, how influential the pull of the moon is on Earth’s water, and water, of course, is essential to plant life. According to Joly, “the vine will fully express itself if it has to struggle,” meaning, a grower will reap what they sow. He explained that herbicides and chemical fertilizers are not used in biodynamic farming because they disrupt the natural balance. After several years, weed killers can destroy 95 percent of the beneficial microorganisms in the soil, and chemical fertilizers force water into the grapes, often causing fungus—a sign of too much water. Biodynamic methods don’t fight disease, because it’s believed that the purpose of disease is to destroy what is not aligned with greater forces.
Currently, the majority of Demeter-certified farms in the U.S. are along the west coast and in the northeast; there are none in Texas or in our neighboring states. Yet, several area farms incorporate biodynamic practices. I first met Bill McCranie, a McDade, Texas, blueberry farmer and grassfed cattle rancher at a Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (TOFGA) conference, where he handed me a quartz crystal. McCranie is the vice president of the Josephine Porter Institute and he was there to promote biodynamic farming to his fellow farmers and gardeners. He explained some of the preparations used in this method. For example, crystal (aka silica), like the one I was holding, is ground into powder, stuffed into cow horns, buried in pits during certain times of the year and then unearthed several months later. Once the horns are retrieved, their contents are removed, mixed with pure, non-chlorinated water and sprayed on plants as a growth stimulant and fungicide. This is just one of many preparations used to nourish plants and replenish soils; others include a fertilizer spray made from fermented manure (produced in the same fashion as the silica) and compost enriched with yarrow, chamomile, stinging nettle, oak bark, dandelion and valerian.
The practice of planting by the moon and burying silica- or manure-filled cow horns may seem like black magic or Voodoo—and biodynamic theories have certainly garnered their fair share of scrutiny and derision over the years—but McCranie says the techniques are definitely paying off for him. A certified-organic grower, he purchased a refractometer years ago to measure the sugar content in his berries. His first reading was a 14 on the scale, which is considered very good for blueberries. But after incorporating biodynamic practices, the measurements are now as high as 19, which is nearly off the chart for blueberries.
Kris Olsen of Milagro Farm in Red Rock also incorporates biodynamic practices. Prior to farming in Texas, he was a certified-organic farmer in the mountains near San Diego, California. Although he farmed with intuition, he always kept journals—recording when and what he planted, and how much he harvested. His sister introduced him to biodynamic farming with the gift of a calendar that is used as a guide for planting and harvesting. He would later look back at his journals to discover that much of what he had been doing was in sync with the calendar.
Gena Nonini of Demeter-certified Marian Farms in Fresno, California, likens biodynamic farming to conducting an orchestra—the farmer acts as conductor to a diverse, self-sustaining organism with many moving parts that must be in harmony. She emphasizes embracing the spiritual side of biodynamics, and suggests keeping an open mind about matter and energy.
Farmers like McCranie, Olsen and Nonini have obvious passion for the health and wellness of their own farms, families and people who eat their food, but also for the environment as a whole. Biodynamic farming incorporates a range of practices to help promote this healthy environment and maintain a synergistic balance while also acknowledging the immensity and power of the universe and its influence on Earth…right down to the roots and microbes in the soil.