Organic, Biodynamic, Bureaucratic?

IN

Nigel Greening, of Felton Road Winery, Central Otago, NZ, shares some thoughts about the business of certification, Steiner’s original teachings, and how he has seen them in action. 

NG: Organics can feel negative. They’re essentially lists of what you’re not allowed to do, which isn’t that inspiring. Biodynamics is taking a path towards building a whole balanced and effective ecosystem, which is so interesting. We use wild yeasts at Felton Road; every year they replicate enough to ferment 150,000 bottles of wine in two weeks. It shows you, as my friend James Millton says: “You might think you’re walking around on the ground but you’re walking on the ceiling of another kingdom”.

Certification is prescriptive, it has to apply to everybody, regardless of their area or scale of agriculture, and is a bare minimum of what should be done. Most (but not all) people who farm organically or biodynamically extend their activity and practice well beyond the certification minimums. 

This separation is particularly important in Biodynamics. The underlying idea of the Steiner lectures was the need to see a farm as a single interconnected organism. He believed (contentiously, these days) that there was a greater, outside “energy” driving that interconnected organism. 

Today, the idea of any piece of land as a single ecosystem is the same idea. Many do not see the driving force of that ecosystem as some mystic, cosmic, external source, (though, clearly, the sun is the celestial outside energy that drives every terrestrial ecosystem). Instead, we’d regard the energy of the ecosystem to be entirely the natural product of the organisms in the system and the way that they relate to each other and to the physical world around us. 

So modern biodynamics doesn’t shift in its purpose, which is to maximise the effectiveness of the ecosystem, but looks more to biology, physics and chemistry for insight, than turning to mysticism. But it shares some important values with Steiner’s thinking.

Disease is an excellent example. Disease is not viewed as an evil to be eradicated. Disease is simply a lack of balance in the system. The organisms that are the vectors for the disease are allowed to increase to unhealthy numbers because there is a vacuum in the system that gives them space. Rather than just aiming to fight the vector, discovering how the ecosystem can squeeze that vector out is a far better solution. 

There are a substantial number of biodynamic farmers who ignore this approach and think that by following the rules (farm organically, then buy some preps in a sachet, follow an astrological calendar and apply said preps when told to) they are completing their task. Indeed for a winemaker, when your entire estate is simply close planted vines in ploughed soil, without even a single bush to enliven the environment, there isn’t a great deal more that can be done. 

This is not how I understand biodynamics. It requires the creation of a fully integrated ecosystem with a wide range of plants, insects, microbes and animals all contributing to the complexity of the site. This is not practical to try to make a subject of certification: you can’t build rules when every site is a different system with different needs. Do we certify? Yes, because otherwise how does anybody know we’re not just making it up! And anyway, it’s illegal in the EU to even use the words organic or biodynamic in marketing if you aren’t certified.

But most of the requirements for making such systems work are not certifiable. For example: I think the most important factor in creating a healthy ecosystem is curiosity and a good ability to observe. For me, it is a personal commitment to being a good farmer. We learn about our land by opening it up to possibilities then observing and learning what happens. This guides us forwards, always seeking to add complexity and diversity to the ecosystem. 


Read more about biodynamics at Felton Road here >

More about our adventures with farming methods for malting barley here >

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