Ξ February 26th, 2008 | → 16 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Technology, Wineries |
On the occasion of Rudolf Steiner’s birthday, February 27.
Biodynamics (BD) apppears on course to become the next ‘big thing’ in viticulture and wine marketing. ‘Organic’ no longer seems quite enough. Witness on the web site Fork & Bottle (F&B) which maintains perhaps the only Master List of biodynamic wine producers. F&B’s list currently numbers 425. Actually, that’s not quite true. Despite the title the list also includes wineries “practicing very sustainable agriculture”, “practicing Organic with some BD practices”, making wines “from BD grown grapes”, “a mix of Organic and BD”, “converting to BD”. Which is to say the actual number of BD producers cannot, in fact, be learned from the list. Be that as it may, it is telling of Biodynamic’s popularity that F&B, as of this writing, offers has no comparable list of Organic producers. Has Organic become irrelevant or, at the very least, a mere servant to BD? And just what is “practicing very sustainable agriculture” besides a very general orientation? The list’s ambiguities are actually the consequence of Organic and BD certification requirements (including “converting to BD”) by the USDA and Demeter-International respectively. But the list also points to a wider debate between forms of certification and, too, the practice of “very sustainable agriculture” without benefit of a trademark.
One of the odd consequences of the Biodynamic movement as shaped by Demeter-International, its proprietary arbiter, has been the fixing of a date, 1924, for the birth of any and all sustainable agricultural practices. It was in that year Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) delivered his Agricultural Lectures, Demeter-International’s founding texts. A modern reader could be forgiven in thinking agriculture before Steiner was poorly practiced, misguided, devoid of ’spirituality’. But that is far from accurate. Virtually all of Steiner’s practical ‘innovations’, in fact, precede him. (With a notable ‘exception’ I’ll get to in a moment.) Take the multi-volume Encyclopedia of Practical Farming published in 1916 under the direction of Sears, for example. We read in the chapter “How Poor Soils May Be Improved” the following advice under the heading: How to Keep the Soil Fertile
- Raise Live Stock
- Rotate the Crops
- Grow Clover, Alfafa, and other Legumes
- Save Barnyard Manure
- Pasture Rolling Lands to Prevent Washing
- Add Humus-Don’t Burn the Stocks
- Supply Needed Elements
Or review the holdings of USDA’s National Agricultural Library under the title “Tracing the Evolution of Organic/Sustainable Agriculture”. There we find American texts from the 19th century forward dedicated to composting, growing cover crops for green manuring and nitrogen fixing, soil improvement through the incorporation of cow manure, Henry David Thoreau’s, ‘Walden’ (1854), among other volumes. Not included on the library’s page, but available for the dedicated researcher, are the thousands of agriculture-related essays, pamphlets, the serial run of the Farmer’s Almanac, and so much more, all printed on behalf of the US farmer.
And such historical farming bibliographies exist in the libraries of other nations, of course. The French periodical Annals comes to mind. And on the British list must be included the work of Sir Albert Howard (1873-1947). Howard was raised on a farm in England, was a mycologist, taught agricultural science before leaving for India where from 1905 to 1931 he conducted ag research. Though he is generally credited with founding organic farming, he did not coin the word. He called his approach Nature’s farming: “Mother earth never attempts to farm without livestock; she always raises mixed crops; great pains are taken to preserve the soil and prevent erosion; the mixed vegetable and animal wastes are converted into humus; there is no waste; the processes of growth and the processes of decay balance one another; ample provision is made to maintain large reserves of fertility; the greatest care is taken to store the rainfall; both plants and animals are left to protect themselves from disease.” From his An Agricultural Testament, 1940.
The term ‘organic’ was coined in 1940 by Walter Northbourne, and he meant it in its philosophical sense, “Having a complex but necessary interrelationship of parts, similar to that in living things”. Look to the Land, 1940. So, strictly speaking, we cannot really say the greater part of the history of agriculture before the modern era, before the environmental calamities of the Green Revolution or Intensive farming, was ‘organic’. (Or even ’sustainable’ for the word is ‘post-modern’, a shuffling of past and future without a decidable present.) Perhaps we can call it ‘custodial’ agriculture: the exercise of the principle ‘farm today so that you may farm tomorrow’. In any event, the most successful historical agricultural practices, from China and India, and from a host of researchers preceding Howard, all were gathered together, enriched by Howard’s own work, but only later placed by others under the concept ‘organic’, and with a small ‘o’. The point here is that Howard situated himself in an ongoing, informal world-wide research program. Any new development would be welcomed.
With Steiner, as read by Demeter, it is a bit different. Unlike Howard, Steiner himself knew little of farming. He admitted as much in the Discussions of June 11th in the essays. “I myself planted potatoes, and though I did not breed horses, at any rate I helped to breed pigs. And in the farmyard of our immediate neighbourhood I lent a hand with the cattle.” That’s about it. Yet, throughout his prolific body of writings he will often return again and again to the same few bucolic farming visions of his childhood. Of his younger brother, Gustav (1866-1941), born deaf, or his sister, Leopoldine (1864-1927), a seamstress, both with whom he gardened as a child, we read virtually nothing. Rarely has the potato been so fixed in a mind.
Of course it’s true, Steiner wrote and delivered his 1924 essays (at the insistence of others) as a response to the perceptible decline of soil and livestock vitality brought about by the increasing use of technology, of chemical fertilizers, and especially by what we might popularly call the ’scientific/materialist’ mindset. Still, his concerns, it is clear, were already shared by farmers, philosophers, and agricultural researchers decades earlier. Work on the subject was already well under way by the time he stepped into the matter.
So how, then, does Biodynamics differ from the centuries of farming that has gone before, whether custodial, sustainable, or organic? We shall never know from Demeter for they do research solely from 1924 forward. However rich and creative historical agricultural practices world-wide may have been, whatever instruction they might provide us, they are of limited interest to Demeter for a very simple reason: recognition of historical precedence would erode the centrality of Rudolf Steiner.
Demeter has its origins in the ‘Experimental Circle’, a group inspired by Steiner and ratified by his presentation of the Agricultural Lectures before them. They were largely gentlemen farmers of a decidedly aristocratic bent, hence, their ‘natural’ inclination was high-minded, exclusive. Of the peasantry they had little to say. Indeed, Steiner was aware, to his lasting credit, not only of the limits of his own farming background but, more importantly, of the danger the Experimental Circle posed to the preservation of what we might call ‘peasant memory’. Steiner, following the discussion of June 11th, 1924 (op.cit.) made very clear that he was of both the ‘high-minded’ and of the peasantry, however remote. He cautioned his host, Count Keyserlingk, that one must never forget what was called by the circle “peasant stupidity”. Steiner insisted we must draw from their agricultural efforts: “Then this stupidity will become — “wisdom before God.” Demeter and their trademarked Biodynamics, however, neglects this implied research program. Instead, after assuming organic agricultural principles, they take as their start and end point Steiner’s sole practical innovation: The Preparations.
The Preparations, numbered 500-507, are as follows: for spraying, 500-Horn manure, cow manure that has been fermented in the soil over winter inside a cow horn, and 501-Horn silica, finely ground quartz meal that spends the summer in the soil inside a cow horn. For the compost, preparations 502-507, yarrow, chamomile, stinging nettle, oak bark, dandelion and valerian. Specific formulations described in Steiner’s words may be found by clicking the Preparations link above. More modern expressions, with a few supplemental preps created since Steiner, may be found on the Josephine Porter Institute web site and that of The Biodynamic Agricultural Association, respectively Demeter’s US and UK distributors.
The Preparations are meant for any and all manner of agriculture. But of Viticulture, do they work? I mean, above and beyond organic methods? Here are three voices: The first from Red White and Green, an Australian web site dedicated to biodynamic viticulture. The second is a video testimonial from grower/producer Steve Beckmen out of Santa Barbara. And the third is of special interest. Jennifer Reeve is a scientist from Washington State University, yet also well-versed in Rudolf Steiner. She grew up on a biodynamic farm, attended a Waldorf school and worked at the above-referenced Josephine Porter Institute. She has perhaps done the most detailed research on the actual benefits BD might bring to the vineyard. Now, if you think you already know what she would write you would be wrong. Here is her report, first published in the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture, 2005. She later published an addendum of sorts wherein she writes, “I have to be blunt because it was a shock to me when I first started reading the small amount of scientific literature on biodynamics and conducting my own experiments: the dramatic results I had heard about simply were not there. Statistically significant effects in flavour [sic] of the preparations can be seen some of the time but not all of the time, and perhaps most telling is that the differences are very small.” Wisdom before God, perhaps.
[see comment #1 above for a correction. Admin]
Rudolf Steiner needs better readers. That is not to say I have done much here. The blog format has a significant weakness: brevity! The point is that Steiner wrote hundreds of books, thousands of essays, lectured daily for years, most have been recorded. He was afflicted with the dreadful German impulse to build a philosophical system to swallow the world. His work is as demanding as it is inconsistent and contradictory. But you’d never know from the texts of his acolytes and defenders. Similarly is his biography fraught with discontinuities and omissions. He forgets his siblings. Though married twice he had no children. Whenever ‘women’ were under discussion they quickly vanished, buried under a ton of ‘cosmic’ elocution. I read in vain the Ag Lectures for a single comparison of soil fertility to women, a pregnancy motif. Nope, not there. But it is to his childhood, even in the Agricultural Lectures, delivered a year before his death in 1925, that he returns to…potatoes.
Johann Steiner, Rudolf’s father, worked for the Southern Austrian Railway. He was the telegraph operator. Little Rudolf, maybe six, was in the train station with him one day. While his father sat in another room a few feet away, indifferent to the boy, silently transcribing electronic pulses into language, Rudolf had his first clairvoyant experience. Father and son, together they pluck messages out of thin air.
Happy Birthday, Mr.Steiner.
For further information, please also see Reflections on Biodynamics.