By Talia Tinari
The salesman poured a taste of wine into the glass. I swirled, smelled, tasted, spit. “All BI-O-dy-NAMIC!” he said. I nodded my head, not really sure what he meant. And then he poured another selection. The wine was beautiful, red fruits, and violets, perfect balance of acidity and tannins. I was thinking about the flavor profile when he said, “I was even at the vineyard for one of the cow horn burying ceremonies!”
I had been a Master Gardener and sommelier for several years, but had never heard of biodynamics. This was outside the scope of UC Davis’ excellent Master Gardener Program. Master Gardeners are taught organic gardening, integrated pest management and companion planting, but, as I came to realize, biodynamics was beyond typical university research-based agricultural practices. It was esoteric, almost folkloric.
A method to the madness
Dr. Rudolf Steiner, the father of biodynamics, was born in Austria in 1861. Clairvoyant as a child, he became a spiritualist and developed the spiritual discipline anthroposophy, defined by the Anthroposophy Society as “a discipline of research as well as a path of knowledge, service, personal growth and social engagement … it is concerned with all aspects of human life, spirit and humanity’s future evolution and well-being.” Waldorf schools are based on Steiner’s research and teachings.
His philosophy on agriculture was one of healing the earth and the soil, rather than stripping away its life giving properties. For him, this was science combined with the inexplicable, intangible life forces.
The cow horns the wine salesman was referring to is a practice based on one of the cornerstones of biodynamics. Biodynamics takes the principles of organic farming and builds on them with compost enhancing treatments and preparations as well as planting on a lunar calendar.
I later learned that the cow horns are taken from beef cattle. They are then filled with manure from lactating female cows, buried in the ground in the fall and removed in the spring. The manure removed from the horns is mixed with water, creating a tea mixture, which is sprayed in the vineyard as an alternative to pesticides. This is called Preparation 500. This may all seem like voodoo, but the purpose of fermenting manure inside the cow horns is to extract silica from the horns. Studies have shown that silica strengthens plant cell walls, protecting the plant against pests and diseases, supporting stems in dry conditions, and aiding in photosynthesis.
There are several other preparations numbered from 501 to 508 that are added to or sprayed onto the compost. For example, 503 (chamomile) helps the uptake of calcium and potassium into the plant. The preparations are wrapped in animal organs and buried in the ground. When they are dug up, they are inserted directly into the compost or a tea is made and sprayed onto the compost.
Biodynamic planting calendar
A biodynamic planting calendar uses the zodiac to determine best times to plant seeds. All constellations are connected to the elements water, warmth, earth and light and in turn, those elements of the constellations influence which type of plant should be planted while the moon is in that particular constellation. For example, Pisces (fish), a water element, brings damp weather and influences leaf plants (spinach). Aries (the ram), a warm element, brings warm/hot weather and influences fruiting plants (strawberries). Taurus (the bull), an earth element, brings cool/cold weather and benefits root vegetables (carrots). Gemini, (the twins), a light element, brings wind and light and benefits flowering plants. Each of the 12 constellations guides the optimum time for planting. The planting calendar also suggests the best times to transplant.
Steiner developed this philosophy on agriculture in the 1920s, much in response to the advent of chemical fertilization. Modern agriculture dictates intensive tillage, monoculture, synthetic fertilizers, irrigation, chemical pest and weed control and the use of genetically modified seeds. While modern agriculture may appear revolutionary, easy, efficient and the quickest way to feed many, it leaves the earth barren of essential nutrients and microorganisms.
Many wineries are using biodynamic methods because it’s been discovered that the fruit on the vine and wine have marked neurotoxicity levels from conventional chemical fertilizers and pesticides even after the “waiting period” post-spraying. Many of the neurotoxins can affect vertebrates as well as invertebrates.
In my plot in the Santa Monica Community Gardens I plant from organic seed on the biodynamic planting calendar, and I have enjoyed an excellent germination rate: almost always 100 percent.
If you have a garden, many of these preparations can be purchased from biodynamic farms. You don’t have to hunt down a beef cow and lactating milk cow to make Preparation 500. For more information on biodynamics, visit the Biodynamic Association at www.biodynamics.com.