There Is More Than One Way to Grow a Tomato -- Biodynamic Farming Is Probably the Weirdest
Biodynamic farming is organic farming with a twist.
That twist entails clairvoyance, archangels, astral bodies and Waldorf schools. It also entails feces, flowers and quartz crystals fermented inside skulls, horns and intestinal tissue, buried and unearthed and then returned to the soil.
Like most organic farming, it produces wholesome, pesticide-free food and drinks. At a roundtable discussion in Berkeley last week, biodynamic wines and brandy were paired with courses prepared by Cordon Bleu grad and Esquire magazine Chef of the Year Sean Baker from Michelin-tipped Gather Restaurant. The point was that biodynamically derived products should rank alongside cutting-edge haute cuisine. The panelists felt that it was essential to make this point, because biodynamic farmers see themselves as agricultural underdogs: dismissed and even mocked by not merely the mindless mainstream but even their fellow organic farmers.
In other words, by everyone who doesn't get the horn-and-gut stuff.
"This isn't some pie-in-the-sky thing where you have to kill chickens for ritual sacrifice or smear blood all over yourself," said moderator Joseph Mora, publisher of the biodynamic journal Dionysian Writes.
Biodynamic farming is based on the ideas of Austrian esotericist and self-declared clairvoyant Rudolf Steiner, who before his death in 1925 wrote and lectured widely on dozens of topics including angels, Isis, Jesus, dragons, reincarnation, Lucifer, Lemuria, Atlantis, astrology, education (Waldorf schools are based on his teachings) and the Apocalypse of Saint John. Steiner also lectured about plants, animals and nutrition.
"When a man eats fat, he resultingly is spared the task of producing fat himself," Steiner declared in a 1909 lecture. "Yet, if he takes the opportunity to unfold his own inner activity through producing his own fat, he is made free and thus becomes lord over his body. ... The astral body's inner flexibility comes up against an internal obstacle if it is denied the opportunity to produce its own fat. ... Even if one is not clairvoyant but judges these matters only with common sense, he can tell from the look in a person's eyes whether or not he produces his own fat."
Which bring us to farms. Steiner saw this planet -- and its farms -- as human-like organisms, "sleeping" and "holding their breath" every winter, then "waking" and "inhaling" every spring. (You might consider this a precursor to the Gaia Theory, in which the globe is a living system.) Debuting in 1924 as a protest against commercial farming and now hailed by many as the birth of the modern organics movement, Steiner's Agriculture Course outlined nine "preparations" -- numbered 500 through 508 -- whose arcane recipes were meant, in Steiner's words, to "heal the earth."
Preparation 505 comprises oak bark fermented inside the skull of a domestic animal. Preparation 506 comprises dandelion flowers fermented inside the intestinal membrane of a cow. Preparation 502 comprises yarrow flowers fermented in a stag's bladder. Preparations 500 and 501 comprise cow dung, ground quartz and rainwater packed into cow horns. Others involve stinging-nettle tea, horsetail tea and valerian-flower juice. These "preps" -- as insiders say -- are buried on an astrological timetable.
"During the cooler months life breathes into the soil and the soil has the tendency to be full of growth energies, which energies are absorbed into the dung through the receptive nature of the horn," reads a typical Preparation 500 instruction at the Bio-Dynamic Association of India's Web site.
Once fermented, preps are added in homeopathic (that is, minuscule) quantities to compost, or sprayed onto soil and plants. Advocates claim that preps improve root growth, soil bacteria, photosynthesis, worm activity, humus development, and access to trace elements, among other benefits.
"Farming is by definition exploitation, so after a hundred years of taking away from the soil, we're finally giving back," Mora said.
Critics call it pseudo-science. Cornell University horticulture professor Marvin Pritts warns that any studies appearing to validate biodynamics are based on "bad science." Washington State University horticulture professor Linda Chalker-Scott argues that any alleged biodynamic benefits come from basic organic standbys such as composting rather than the horn-and-gut stuff. She calls the very word "biodynamic" a "myth":
"For me and many other agricultural scientists, usage of the term is a red flag that automatically questions the validity of whatever else is being discussed."
But biodynamic products are gaining traction among ecologically conscious retailers and consumers. It's a great buzzword, at the very least. Bio! Dynamic!
Ivo Jeramaz, vice president of vineyards and production at Grgich Hills Estate, farms the winery's 366 Napa Valley acres biodynamically. Scientifically trained, he initially took up winemaking with an engineer's mind.
"But something was missing," Jeramaz said. "Then I discovered biodynamics. I don't reject science, of course. And yes, biodynamic preparations are controversial. I think of these preparations as enzymes and catalysts that will ultimately create healthy soil and healthy plants."
His fragrant, fruity 2008 Grgich Hills Cabernet was paired with Chef Baker's pasta-like strips of miso-cured tofu skin in a lentil-seaweed vinaigrette.
"Biodynamics teaches us that anything you do anywhere is connected to everything you do everywhere," said fellow panelist and biodynamic winemaker Kevin Morrisey, who works at Ehlers Estate Organic Vineyard, also in the Napa Valley.
"You must direct every molecule of yourself into the energy of whatever you do on your farm," Morrisey said. "I do approach this as a spiritual act. Steiner was very Christian" -- thus at odds with many in the organic/vegan/ vegetarian/sustainable/foodie movement.
Morrisey sees his work as a kind of mission.
"If you've enriched that food with all that beautiful energy, I would say that it will affect the very morality of the people who eat it when they put that food into their bodies."
"Working with the cosmos, we live with a rhythm," said Gena Nonini, steward of Marian Farms in Fresno, CA, whose distillery produces biodynamic brandy. "The universe writes the music and it's up to me to let the symphony shine.
"We're working with subtle cosmic energy. These preparations are buried in the earth as all these planets are doing their gyrations and their dances. ... It's about the soul, about the development of the individual soul, because at the end of the day, your soul is what you take with you.
"Unfortunately, an instrument has not yet been developed to measure vitality," Nonini said. "So when it comes to the ways in which food is grown, the dynamic becomes experiential. You have to experience it" to tell the difference.
All three wineries represented at the roundtable are certified by Demeter International, the nonprofit that deems certain farms worthy of labeling their products "Biodynamic®."
Colum Riley founded Malibu Compost in order to sell Demeter-certified biodynamic compost "made from an untapped source of power and majesty that transcends the rest, with the best recipe known to man to restore your soul's vitality," according to a message printed on the company's bags. This compost has been treated with preps, to which Riley attributes astounding properties.
After the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, "the radiation cloud blew westward across the Earth," Riley said. "Satellite photos showed all these little blank spots in the radiation cloud."
Those spots corresponded, he said, with biodynamic farms whose soil was seizing radiation from the air -- "literally pulling it in and trying to turn it around," performing a wondrous "bio-remediation to literally transform the soil."
"There are things about science that are just now starting to show why biodynamic methods are superior" to conventional methods, Riley said as mellow 2009 Ehlers Estate Merlot was served with bacon-smoked vegetables, lamb neck, mole sauce and crÃ¨me fraÃ®che.
Even critics would have to say that at worst, biodynamic practices have no effect whatsoever and at least inspire farmers to treat their crops with extra loving care. The beverages that night in Berkeley were undeniably divine. Who can argue with results?
Steiner spoke of communes, karma and "our Atlantean forefathers."
"We need to be reintroduced to that world of imagination," Mora said. "We are on the rise. We can change the world one preparation at a time."