An Inconvenient Truth

Biodynamic cow horn manure preparation, picture courtesy of VinePair

Biodynamic cow horn manure preparation, picture courtesy of VinePair

Biodynamic wine. What is it and what is the inconvenience to which I refer?

“Founded by Rudolph Steiner in 1924, biodynamic farming is the oldest 'green' farming movement, and a forerunner of organics. All biodynamic farmers and growers practice organic methods of cultivation, are against genetic modification, and share its ideals, but there are important differences. Biodynamics has metaphysical and spiritual roots that organics does not. Biodynamics thus embraces the mystery of all life processes, including the subtle and energetic realities that are not necessarily easy to measure or justify using current scientific methods.“

— The Biodynamic Association

With the ever increasing interest in where our food comes from and how it is produced, this hyper-organic method of wine production employs ecological, medicinal supplements, takes into account astrological influences and lunar cycles, and treats the earth as "a living and receptive organism” (Nicolas Joly). The ecosystem functions as a whole, with each portion of the farm or vineyard contributing to the next. The idea is to create a self sustaining system. Natural materials, soils, and composts are used to sustain the vineyard. Chemical fertilisers and pesticides are forbidden for the sake of soil fertility. A range of animals live on the soil and fertilise it, creating a rich, fertile environment in which the vines can grow. Biodynamic farming also seeks sustainability, leaving the land in as good or better shape for future generations.

Following the biodynamic calendar is another integral part of the process. Farming practices, from pruning to harvesting, are controlled by the biodynamic calendar which breaks down all of the tasks associated with farming into four kinds of days: root days, flower days, fruit days and leaf days. Each of these days has certain tasks associated with it that reflect Earth’s four classical elements: fruit days are meant for harvesting, leaf days for watering and root days for pruning. On flower days the vineyard is left alone.

Dismissed as bunkum akin to homeopathy by some, yet regarded as gospel truth by some of the finest wine estates around the world, biodynamics is certainly a divisive topic. Many other people cherry pick the more rational, and less metaphysical, aspects of biodynamism; adopting the transformative, regenerative and harmonious elements whilst eschewing the intangible, mysterious and spiritual practices.

Biodynamics is fundamentally a response to industrialised farming and synthetic fertilisers as well as being a way to reconnect with the earth and with natural forces, cycles and processes. It would not be unreasonable to suppose that such a holistic, sustainable and spiritual approach would marry neatly with the swing towards veganism and plant based living. The Vegan Society defines veganism as follows:

“Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.”

However, the preparations sprayed onto the plants and soil use animal parts as “sheaths” to hold and to help to activate their ingredients. Two preparations, Cow Horn Manure (BD 500) and Horn Silica (BD 501) ready the vineyards while another six treat compost. Used to enhance soil biology, Horn Manure is made from the fresh manure of pasture fed cows. Collected in the autumn, it is placed in cows’ horns and buried for six months. When dug up again, the manure has transformed from smelly lumps to a peaty, brown-black crumble and it encourages healthy root growth, vitalises the soil and helps the plant to obtain what it needs from the soil. Horn Silica preparation is used for plant health. Made from finely ground quartz (a common stone or sand) and mixed to a paste, Horn Silica is buried in cows’ horns in spring and dug up in the autumn. Stored in a glass jar on a sunny window sill, it is diluted in miniscule quantities and sprayed as a fine mist onto growing plants in the morning, helping to stabilise plant metabolism and enhance the qualitative development of the crop.

Before being applied, very small amounts of these spray preparations are dissolved in water and stirred rigorously for one whole hour. This is done by stirring (preferably by hand) in one direction such that a deep crater is formed in the stirring vessel. Then the direction is changed, the water seethes and slowly a new vortex is formed. Each time a crater is formed the direction of stirring is changed until the full hour is completed. In this way the dynamic effects concentrated in the prepared manure and quartz meal are released into the rhythmically moved water and become effective for soil and plant. It is then sprayed immediately.

The compost preparations are made from six well known medicinal plants – yarrow, chamomile, stinging nettle, oak, dandelion and valerian. Their specific properties are enhanced and made effective for soil life during fermentation, often using sheaths made from animal organ materials which serve as catalysts for bringing about the required process. These are:

  • BD 502 Yarrow Preparation: Yarrow flowers are encased in a stag’s bladder, hung up in a tree over summer, then buried over winter. Yarrow is connected to the potassium and sulphur processes of the soil and helps to draw in substances finely distributed in the atmosphere, and beyond, to replenish soils grown tired through many years of cultivation.

  • BD 503 Chamomile Preparation: Chamomile flowers are encased in a cow’s intestine and buried over winter. Chamomile is connected to living calcium processes and helps to stabilise plant nutrients, dampen down excessive fermentation, and invigorate plant growth.

  • BD 504 Stinging Nettle Preparation: Stinging nettles are buried in wooden boxes or clay pots encased in peat for one year. Stinging nettles have a relationship to iron, develop sensitivity in the soil, help to stabilise nitrogen, and promote the formation of humus.

  • BD 505 Oak Bark Preparation: Oak bark is buried in a sheep’s skull in a damp place over winter. With its calcium rich nature, oak bark helps to increases resistance to plant diseases and fungal attacks.

  • BD 506 Dandelion Preparation: Dandelion flowers are buried over winter in a cow’s mesentery. Dandelion is connected with living silica processes, it activates light influences in the soil, and it enables the interrelationships of nature to become fully effective.

  • BD 507 Valerian Preparation: A solution of valerian flowers is sprayed over the whole compost heap. Valerian has a strong connection to the activity of phosphorous. It acts like a protective skin and provides a warmth blanket around and over the compost heap.

When ready, these substances are added to the composting material in minute amounts where they “sensitise” the compost and radiate their effects throughout the heap. These preparations help to guide and regulate the decomposition and humus forming processes in the soil, making plant nutrients (sulphur, potash, nitrogen, calcium, silica, phosphorous) bio-available i.e. available in the organic form needed for healthy plant growth. Their effects are primarily qualitative, energetic and subtle. These compost preparations have been shown to increase soil life and promote stronger, more robust, pest and disease resistant plants.

Why are animal organs used? Animal organs are chosen for the particular properties they possess as a result of their function within the animal. For example, chamomile flowers are used to treat disturbances of the digestive tract. When making compost preparation BD 503, a section of bovine intestine is used as a catalyst in the fermentation as there is an affinity between chamomile flowers and this organ.

The need for animal organs to make compost preparations or horn-based field sprays can be explained by considering that healthy, fertile soil is not made up simply of mineral substances. It is filled with animal life, with earthworms the best known of these organisms that call it home. They devour decayed vegetable matter and eroded mineral substances, excreting a stable combination of plant and mineral matter in their worm casts. Soil is created through an active interplay of mineral, plant and animal processes and therefore several of the preparations require something from the animal world to make them effective.

And here lies my conundrum. In spite of the shared non-exploitative intentions of both biodynamism and veganism, when the above animal derived preparations are sprayed onto soil and vines can the resulting wines truly be acceptable to vegans? Or am I being too literal in my reasoning? As with any system of belief, I suspect that everyone will have their own answer depending upon where they draw their line in the sand. Some will reject anything associated with animal products, whilst others will feel that the degree of separation between the vineyard and their glass of wine is more than enough to maintain its vegan integrity. Indeed, playing devil’s advocate for a moment, does it even matter if biodynamic wines are considered to be vegan or not? There are many unambiguously vegan wines, although I fully appreciate that a wider choice would be welcome, and if the net results of a wider uptake of biodynamic principles are less chemicals in the soil, healthier vineyards with more harmonious and diverse micro-organism ecosystems, and a greater willingness to work with nature rather than against it, then surely everyone wins.