Guest article by Ken Roseboro
It’s hard to imagine a more idyllic farm than that of Frey Vineyards. The third-generation organic vineyard and farm is nestled on the slopes of the Redwood Valley in northern California amidst mountains, lush forests, and meadows, near the headwaters of the Russian River. Here the Frey family has produced organic wines since 1980.
But nearly 20 years ago, owners Katrina and Jonathan decided to take their organic farm a step further and became biodynamic certified.
“My husband and family, who were growing up on a beautiful piece of wild land, were looking for the agriculture system that would most honor the biodiversity of the land and would be the most productive,” says Katrina.
That system was biodynamic, a form of organic agriculture, but whose philosophy and principles encompass much more than organic practices.
“In biodynamic agriculture, the farm is seen as an organism,” says Appachanda Thimmaiah, Ph.D., associate professor of Department of Sustainable Living at Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, and a director of Demeter USA, which supports the growth of biodynamic agriculture. “You cannot dissect the farm into bits and pieces. It has to be seen from a holistic perspective. There is a connectivity and coherence to all aspects of the farm.”
Biodynamic’s holistic perspective encompasses the farm, soil, crops, animals, humans, and biodiversity and extends to natural cycles such as phases of the moon.
This view of the farm as an organism was first presented by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner in a series of lectures in 1924. German farmers had requested Steiner’s help after they became concerned about the increasing use of agricultural chemicals. Steiner responded by calling for a spiritual renewal of agriculture. His lectures formed the basis of biodynamic agriculture even though he never used the term.
“It was the first form of agriculture to oppose the use of chemicals,” Dr. Thimmaiah says.
Biodynamic predates organic agriculture. In fact, the term “organic” originated from Steiner’s view of the farm as an organism. J.I. Rodale, American pioneer of sustainable agriculture and founder of Rodale, Inc., made the term “organic” popular in his publications in the 1950s.
The concept of a certification for farms also originated with the pioneers of biodynamic agriculture who established the Demeter Association in 1928 to oversee such a program. The association was named after the Greek goddess of agriculture.
“Biodynamic is the oldest ecological certification in the world,” says Elizabeth Candelario, co-director of Demeter USA.
Today, there are 5000 biodynamic certified farms worldwide comprising more than 370,000 acres. Products produced from those farms include wines such as Frey’s, fruit preserves, juices, pasta, rice, teas, and frozen foods, to name a few.
Beyond organic but grounded in it
According to Candelario, organic agriculture developed with an emphasis on the parts—building soil fertility, no chemicals, etc.—while losing the “organism” perspective.
“The wholeness of the farm was lost, and the practices were emphasized,” she says.
Dr. Thimmaiah adds: “Organic is just devoid of agrochemicals. Biodynamic goes beyond that.”
While going beyond organic in its practices, biodynamic agriculture is still grounded in the organic rules. In order for a farm to be Demeter certified, all organic certification guidelines must be met.
“The National Organic Program is the base to the Demeter standard,” says Jim Fullmer, Demeter USA co-director and biodynamic farmer for 25 years.
As Candelario says, “Biodynamic is a form of organic farming, the most comprehensive form of organic.”
Biodynamic is more “farm-centric” according to Fullmer. “The Demeter standard is more agronomic than the NOP,” he says.
For example, biodynamic emphasizes integrating livestock into the farming system.
The Freys keeps cows, goats, and sheep that graze between vineyard rows, eating biodynamic cover crops such as wheat, barley, rye, and oats. Cows add nitrogen-rich manure to enhance soil fertility. Cows and goats also provide fresh milk, cheeses, and yogurt to Frey family members.
Dr. Thimmaiah says cows are very important in biodynamic agriculture. Their manures and horns are often used in biodynamic preparations.
Encouraging biodiversity, farm is self-sustaining unit
Encouraging biodiversity—of soil microbial life, crops, and wildlife—is also a key principle. Biodynamic standards require that 10 percent of a farmer’s land be set aside for native biodiversity. At Frey Vineyards, that figure is 70 percent, with 700 of their 1000 acres set aside for biodiversity.
“We aim to preserve and protect a watershed and forests that have a wide diversity of animals,” says Katrina Frey.
In addition to their grapes, the Freys grow a rich diversity of organic crops, including blueberries, strawberries, apples, peaches, olives, melons, squash, corn, tomatoes, celery, asparagus, culinary herbs, and more. The Freys also keep bees.
Another key principle of biodynamic agriculture is using only inputs that come from the farm, not from outside sources. The farm is viewed as a self-sustaining unit.
“We try to look at the farm as a closed system and use resources from the farm and create fertility cycles particularly through composting,” says Katrina.
Biodynamic preparations are derived from farm by-products, minerals, and herbs.
For example, preparation #501 is made from ground silica. It is added to water and small amounts are sprayed on plants when they bear fruit. This aids in the uptake of minerals, helps develop resistance to insects and disease, and increases the sugar content of plant sap to enhance flavor. Preparation #501 is made from cow manure to enhance soil fertility.
Only small amounts of the preparations are needed.
“Just a drop (of #500) is enough to awaken the sleeping microorganisms in the soil,” Dr. Thimmaiah says. “The soil becomes very soft, and fertility is improved.”
Inputs are also kept to a minimum. For example, winemakers, even organic ones, will add a yeast culture to ferment the grapes. The Freys don’t add yeast and instead allow the native yeast in the grapes to cause fermentation.
“There is minimal manipulation to preserve the nutrients and flavors,” Katrina says.
Biodynamic also considers natural cycles such as the phases of the moon.
“Farmers for centuries have observed the phases of the moon,” Katrina says.
Biodynamic calendars show the most advantageous days for planting crops, pruning, cultivating, harvesting and spraying preparations.
“We pay attention to the biodynamic calendar for applying preparations such as #501 ground silica for ripening and #500, which has to do with fertility,” Katrina says.
By integrating these natural cycles and rhythms, farmers can more fully understand nature and work with it to enhance all aspects of their farming system.
As Fred Kirschenmann, who owns the longest operating biodynamic farm in the US, says: “You have to understand the inner workings of nature to operate a successful organic, biodynamic farm.”
Zero tolerance for GMOs
As in organic agriculture, genetically modified organisms have no place in biodynamic. But while organic certification allows “adventitious GMO presence” in crops, there is zero tolerance for GMOs in biodynamic.
“If a crop tests positive for GMOs, it can’t be certified,” Fullmer says.
The Frey family has been a leader in fighting GMO-based agriculture. In 2004, they spearheaded an initiative to make their home county, Mendocino, the first US county to ban production of GM crops. All their wines are also Non-GMO Project verified.
Frey is one of more than 80 wineries that are either biodynamic certified or in transition to certification. Most of those wineries are in California, Oregon, and Washington State.
“There has been tremendous growth in biodynamic certification among wineries,” Candelario says.
Frey Vineyards is the oldest biodynamic certified winery in the US, having been certified in 1996.
The mission of Demeter USA is to heal the earth through agriculture. Frey Vineyards is doing that on their beautiful farm.
“I truly try to be grateful for every day that I live here,” Katrina says.