COMMENTARY

Biodynamic Benefits

By Kevin Chambers

Evan Bellingar’s August guest column startled me. I can comprehend my esteemed colleague’s opinion that Biodynamic farming practices are the equivalent of witchcraft, and that organic and Biodynamic farming are “marketing gimmicks, at best, and harmful to the environment, at worst.” But I cannot sit back and let his claims go unchallenged.

Evan Bellingar’s August guest column startled me. I can comprehend my esteemed colleague’s opinion that Biodynamic farming practices are the equivalent of witchcraft, and that organic and Biodynamic farming are “marketing gimmicks, at best, and harmful to the environment, at worst.” But I can not sit back and let his claims go unchallenged.

Green farming is a hot topic, as are all things ‘sustainable.’ I will agree with Mr. Bellingar’s assertion that much what’s claimed as ‘green’ is indeed marketing hyperbole. Such is the curse of what becomes popular. Everyone wants to sell to the consumer hot button. But to claim that organic and Biodynamic practices are only marketing driven is biased and unfair.

I come from multi-generational Oregon farming families. I’ve grown grapes in Oregon for 30 years. For the past 20 years, I’ve farmed Resonance Vineyard in a ‘green’ manner. For the past 6 years’ our site has been Demeter-certified Biodynamic. I’m the CEO of Results Partners, and we currently farm nearly 900 acres of winegrapes in the north Willamette Valley. I’m also the CEO of OVS, and we’ve led the way in providing advice, materials and equipment to those who want to farm sustainably or conventionally.  I feel reasonably qualified to discuss this issue.

What’s more, I’m a strong believer in scientific method and virtually everything in my belief system must have some scientific support for me to buy into it. Mr. Bellingar feels that LIVE (Oregon’s sustainable viticulture and enology program) is the only science-based, ‘green’ farming system. While I support LIVE and was personally involved in the genesis of the program, I must contend that it is not the only science-based, sustainable discipline.

There are many published scientific studies supporting organic and Biodynamic practices. (I capitalize Biodynamic because in this text I’m referring to Biodynamic practices as they are delineated by Demeter USA, and they have a trademark on the word Biodynamic. There are many (unofficial) biodynamic-like practices, but for the sake of clarity, I want to only refer to those practices delineated and certified by Demeter. For organic, I refer to those practices allowed by the NOP, National Organic Program, which is legally part of the USDA.)

In the interest of brevity, I will not cite numerous scientific references here, but there are 118 published research papers on Biodynamic preparations and Biodynamic compost listed at the following website http://www.biodynamic-research.net/ras/s/ltteng/lvda1eng/list-of-publications?set_language=en. Among the most compelling research papers that I’ve read on the scientifically measured benefits of organic and Biodynamic practices were done by Dr. John P. Reganold at Washington State University. I’ve heard Dr. Reganold speak and he makes a rather strong case for the beneficial impacts of these and other ‘sustainable’ agricultural systems. Ironically, he began his research into Biodynamic preparations and composting to disprove it once and for all. In the process, he became a believer. I invite you to do a web search on Dr. Reganold and his research.

I declare that organic and Biodynamic practices are not witchcraft, should not be labeled as only marketing hyperbole, and do not damage the environment. I understand that many people are challenged by the notion of making compost by placing manures, botanicals and rock dusts into animal sheaths (like cow horns, stag bladders, mesentery and intestines) and burying them in the ground. Such practices may seem absurd, insane and, in some instances, disgusting. However, anyone who has engaged such work has observed wonderful transformations in this digestive process. And Reganold’s research demonstrates the superiority of composts made in such a manner. There is a greater diversity and population of microbes in the Biodynamically-made composts. Like it or not, those are the facts.

For those that snicker at the idea of using an astronomical calendar to time agricultural activities, I ask that you look no farther than the ocean. The tides are largely the result of lunar gravitation. Substitute “gravity” for “cosmic forces” and the whole picture seems more reasonable. Is it so far-fetched an idea that gravitational forces (however distant and minute) might have an influence on the growth and behavior of plants and animals that are made up of approximately 80% water?

In quantum physics, the unbelievable concepts of Biodynamics and the related field of homeopathy are manifest. In the smallest particle realm, we’ve discovered that much of what we hold to be true in the macro-world is turned upside down. Newtonian physics does not explain the quanta world. In fact, there are theorems in quantum physics that parallel the notions of Biodynamics. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle demonstrates that the experimenter’s intentions (more specifically, measurements) affect the outcome of the experiment. Biodynamic teachings contend that the intentions of the farmer affect the outcomes of the farmer’s work. I believe this to be true.

One of my favorite quotes (which I attribute—perhaps inaccurately--to Niels Bohr, a quantum physicist and associate of Einstein) opens my mind to entertain ideas that may seem ridiculous or absurd. “The truth isn’t just stranger than we think; it’s stranger than we can think.” This is how I approach Biodynamic farming. The more I learn, the more I respect that I really know very little. I try crazy things and measure the results. Some things get me good results, and other things get retaliations from my plants, or worse, from my wife.

Peter Rosback, owner of Sineann Winery and the longest-term buyer of Resonance fruit, made the most lucid observation about my viticultural practices. He said, “Kevin, your fruit was the best I got before you went to Biodynamics, and it’s still the best fruit I get. So, at least, you haven’t screwed anything up.”

Today, Resonance Vineyard practices Biodynamics at a higher, more consistent level than ever before, but we’re no longer Demeter-certified and could not be. We make virtually all the Biodynamic preparations on-site and we diligently use the preparations, composts and teas. Despite this, some would label us ‘green’ heretics, because we now use products that are not NOP or Demeter-certifiable. I’ve always struggled through the certification process because I detest being boxed in. Before Biodynamics, I called what I did ‘eclectic farming;’ taking the best of various disciplines and melding them into a comprehensive practice. It would be fair to say that’s where I’ve returned.

The main reason I gravitated toward Biodynamic certification, rather than organic certification, is that Biodynamics offered a whole new tool kit to use in the Biodynamic preparations and botanical teas. Organics was simply a list of “thou shalt nots,” without any new tools to try.

There’s little difference in how the various disciplines (be they certified or not) deal with vine canopy management. Oregon growers and researchers have made measurable progress in improving how we manage grape vine canopies to maximize fruit quality. In fact, Oregon growers have helped change canopy management practices worldwide. The Scott-Henry trellis and all its various permutations, along with substantial improvements in the VSP (Vertical Shoot Position) system, have markedly improved grape quality.

The real differences in conventional, LIVE/sustainable, organic and Biodynamic viticultural practices become evident with in-row, weed management and disease control. The largest challenge to any non-conventional grower is in-row weed management. I believe I’ve tried everything known, including doing nothing, which is not an option in our environment. I’ve tried green mulching (mowing and blowing the biomass between the rows into the plant row) and couldn’t get enough mulch to suppress the weeds. I tried in-row mowing, but it left too much competition for the vines. We employed straw mulch, which worked very well. But it’s not economically sustainable, and causes immense strain on your work force. Not to mention, straw mulch harbors vertebrate pests that we’ve learned can sometimes cause unintended fatal (to your vines) consequences. An expensive irony of straw mulch is that as your soil gets healthier (more biological activity and moisture) the straw decomposes more rapidly; forcing even more economic strain.

At one point, I thought used burlap coffee bags were the perfect mulch answer. Inexpensive, easy to handle, easy to transport, removes garbage from the waste stream and effectively suppress weeds. But they get sucked into mowers and the weeds eventually grow through them. On a small scale, this technique works well. But on a large, commercial scale it’s not viable. Plastic mulch and landscape cloth are expensive and the plastic breaks down into billions of bits of ugly waste. Not to mention the plastic mulch doesn’t allow the soil to effectively ‘breathe’ leading to undesirable, anaerobic organisms dominating the soil. There may be a perfect mulching option yet to be discovered; I’m awaiting such.

I’ve tried every organic herbicide, and none of them work well enough for commercial applications, plus they’re very expensive. I know some ‘organic’ growers who swear by high concentrations of vinegar and/or citric acid. But the concentrations used are changing the soil pH, killing soil organisms and are dangerous to handle. That option just doesn’t seem ‘green.’

Most sustainable growers use mechanical, in-row cultivation. I’ve not had success with this method, but I respect that many growers are very happy with the results. However, I struggle with the belief that such practices are ‘green.’ Is it really sustainable to use a heavy, diesel-consuming (yes, I know about biodiesel) tractor running up and down the rows frequently during the growing season and cultivating the soil in-row? Not only does this lead to soil compaction, repeated cultivation exhausts soil humus and breaks down soil structure. The process of cultivation disturbs soil microbes, causing an explosion of bacteria and cutting the fungal hyphae (strands). The fungal hyphae are critical to the health of the vines; they are fungally-dependant plants. They depend on mychorrizal fungi to solubilize (in cooperation with beneficial bacteria) essential plant nutrients, as well as bring water to the roots. Thus, again I ask, is this really a ‘green’ practice?

The final in-row weed management option that works well, but costs a small fortune and is very hard on workers, is hoeing. We’ve all hoed weeds from time to time, but paying for hoeing in a commercial vineyard simply isn’t sustainable. And from a worker’s perspective, I suggest you try hoeing for 8 hours a day.

So here’s where my heresy begins, I’ve returned to using 1-2% solutions of glyphosate (the active ingredient in RoundUp). We spray this once or, at most, twice per season and achieve excellent results. I’ve heard all sorts of evils attributed to glyphosate, but I haven’t seen a single evil confirmed by scientific study. The most damaging claim I’ve heard is that glyphosate kills or inhibits mychorrizal fungi; again, I’ve seen no proven evidence of this. Glyphosate is equated with rat poison or nerve gas by many in the ‘green’ movement, but I don’t buy it. However, I do not support the use of pre-emergent herbicides (those that prevent seed germination or weed growth) simply because they have long residual periods in the soil.

Another tenant of the organic and Biodynamic certifiers is that any “man-made” (sometimes called ‘synthetic’) product is evil and can not be used. Again, I don’t buy it. There are many conventional fungicides and fertilizers that make sense when considered in the context of healthy agriculture. Most organic grape growers rely heavily on sulfur, and to a lesser extent copper. These “natural” substances are toxic and dangerous. The over-use of either results in a poisoned, unhealthy environment; not to mention the health risk to workers spraying these products. Over-reliance on sulfur destroys beneficial insects, thereby leading to problematic imbalances in insect populations that can do damage to vines.

Another common fungicidal tool of the organic grower is potassium bicarbonate (Kaligreen or Milstop are the most common brand names). This material is basically benign, but when over-used it dissolves the cuticular (waxy) layer on plant tissues that protects them from insects, radiation and disease. Again, is this a ‘green’ solution?

Soft, conventional fungicides, and there are many to choose from these days, do an excellent job of controlling fungal pathogens and they allow fewer sprays over the course of a growing season. Many of these conventional fungicides are less toxic than sulfur.

I’ve also chosen to use some “conventional,” yet highly efficient and effective fertilizers that don’t fit organic or Biodynamic certification. However, the vines seem to produce superior fruit (as measured by soluble solids and amino acid content) when fertilized in this manner.

The fundamental problem with all the certification programs is they all focus on the process; not the results. As I’ve previously publicly stated, I could bottle horse piss and so long as I follow the correct process, I could be certified. Growers choose to certify, regardless of which route chosen, so consumers will believe their claims. But our current certification processes guarantee nothing about the quality of the produce. There’s been research published recently stating that organic products were no more nutritious than conventionally-farmed products.

I’m not the least bit surprised.

We must move to results-based certification. Tests need to be developed to objectively (or subjectively via trained tasting panels) evaluate growers’ produce. This is ultimately the best way to increase the quality of our foodstuffs. The US and British governments have documented the nutritional quality of produce for over 60 years. These documents are available, and they demonstrate steady, sustained declines in nutritional quality.

The average carrot in the supermarket today has less than half the nutritional value it had 60 years ago. Why? Because we’ve continuously depleted the mineral and biological content of our soils. But there’s hope that this can be reversed.

We, as concerned consumers, must demand that the quality of our food improve. The best way to do that is to have certification agencies that evaluate the quality of produce; not the process that produced it. I believe we could make huge strides in reducing obesity and systemic diseases (like cancer) if our food quality improved. The group Beyond Organix is making efforts to move us in that direction. Be informed. Look to results; not process.

Kevin Chambers is the owner of Resonance Vineyard, located in the Yamhill-Carlton District. He is also the CEO of both Results Partners and Oregon Vineyard Supply, based in McMinnville.

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