Organic vs. Biodynamic Part 2, the soil

July 25, 2010

A very interesting aside in the 2005 ASEV paper “Soil and Winegrape Quality in Biodynamically and Organically Managed Vineyards” is that an annual ryegrass green manure crop was cultivated into the soil in 1996 and in 1997 the vineyard was composted:  “organic matter spiked in 1997 and then fell back to pre-compost levels by 2000.”  We don’t know how much or what the material was, but composting lasting only three years is consistent with my experience.   My reading of Biodynamic literature indicates great emphasis is placed on soil building, with composting and “preparations” as the main ingredients of that program.  Composting appears to be the main vehicle for adding Nitrogen to the soil for the growing of Biodynamic crops.  Certainly modest levels of composting will enhance the soil organic matter and in my experience the study’s results showing about a three year enhancement is about right for a single treatment.  But modest levels of manure compost may not provide sufficient Nitrogen for that farm.  IMO, Biodynamic principles are at risk here because the notion of a self-contained, composted farm is simply not practical without bringing in large amounts of compost and manure from other sources.  The Demeter Association allows up to 100 lbs of Nitrogen per acre under normal conditions and up to 150 lbs. of Nitrogen with “inherently nutrient-deficient (farms)…”  To add 100 pounds of Nitrogen with a 2% Nitrogen content requires 5,000 pounds of compost per acre per year.

 Here’s what I’m getting at: a vineyard produces shoots, leaves, stems and berries.  At Smith-Madrone the canes are chopped and returned to the soil, the leaves fly wherever the leaves want to fly, the stems are composted and represent about 5% of the total weight and the pomace is returned directly to the vineyard with only the grape juice being permanently removed.    However, the amount of pomace we generate and return to the vineyard is quite small when compared to the entire vineyard.  While it helps with sustainability, our pomace is not sufficient to build “healthier” soil.  One ton of grapes contains about 200 gallons of liquid (we get on average about 165 gallons out of the press with the rest going back to the vineyard with the pomace); this leaves an estimated 300 pounds of dry weight pomace and stems. That 300 pounds times our three tons to the acre results in a whopping 1/3 ounce of pomace and stems per square foot of vineyard.  Look at it another way; what is 900 pounds of pomace in the top six inches of soil when the average top six inches of soil weighs 2 million pounds per acre?  

 I suspect our cover crop produces more dry weight organic matter than the pomace and our prunings provide even more organic matter.  However, since we are a non-till vineyard all three sources of organic material must decompose slowly on the surface as opposed to being disked or plowed under the soil where the microorganisms have an easier way of getting to that organic material.

 Gardeners compost at rates that would be multiple times what our vineyard generates, maybe even hundreds of times greater. So you can see that while returning everything to the vineyard in a closed system may be sustainable, it means very little to building a healthier soil. That’s fine with me because I believe that soils are, by my definition, inherently healthy and need only an adjustment or so.

 But there is the problem of how to define a “healthy” soil?  Most farmers would agree that Class 1 Yolo Fine Sandy Loam may be some of the finest soil on earth.  But when we think of premium wine grapes those are not the soils of choice.  Gravel, rocks, bench, upland, mountain, mineral, low fertility and well drained are words that define great vineyard soils. One soil is superior for traditional crops and the other soils are superior for unique agriculture such as wine grapes.  Are the deep, rich and fertile soils healthy and the rocky, gravelly mountain soils un-healthy? 

 The paper also touches on the issues of soil fertility, soil depth and root penetration—three very important issues for vineyards.  Grapevines are deep rooted and in the sandy soils of the San Joaquin Valley grapevine roots have been found at the 100 foot depth by water drilling rigs.  There are almost no roots in the top 12 inches because of either cultivation turning over the soil to that depth, or with non-till the permanent cover crop roots tend to get that moisture first.  So the effective rooting zone for most of our vineyards is the one to five foot depth: this is where the real action is happening, this is where the vine gets its moisture and nutrition, not in the top inches of soil.  So earth worms munching through the soil, composting and green manure are great for the shallow rooted plants but they do little for the deep rooted vines and trees.   Remember that compost and green manure take time to break down into a form that the plants can use.  Unfortunately, the timing is off because the nitrogen becomes available only in late summer when we want the vines to stop their vegetative growth cycle and start the ripening cycle.  It takes the winter rains to drive those released nutrients down into the root zone. 

 Growers spend a great deal of brain power trying to figure out which rootstock will match best with both the soil and the intended grape varietal. Could Biodynamics’ emphasis on soil building and health actually be misplaced and counterproductive to wine quality?  I believe the answer is yes, but to be fair, that yes answer would apply to any grower who tries to change the soil characteristics by using too much compost and green manure.  Here’s what could happen with too much compost:

  • Organic content becomes too high – 1% up to 4%
  • Water holding capacity increases
  • Nitrogen content becomes too high
  • Potassium content becomes too high
  • Soil acidity becomes too low
  • Calcium and Magnesium become out-of-balance
  • Vine growth becomes too vigorous, especially in the short run
  • Vine growth becomes out-of-balanced
  • Natural soil system is disrupted
  • Rootstocks no longer match original soil conditions
  • Wine quality suffers
  • Grower now thinks soil is “healthy”
  • Grower is now polluting the environment

Soils have natural levels for nutrients, and if some of those nutrients like Nitrogen exceed the background levels then pollution begins.  Organic matter breaks down into the negatively charged nitrates which are easily leached from the soil and this is an especially harmful pollutant near water sources.  Phosphorus has similar issues.  Small amounts of manure compost to help with the soil organic matter may be helpful as one of many tools available to the farmer, but relying on the manure compost as the sole source of nutrition and Phosphorus can result in problems.  If I believe our vineyard or cover crop needs Nitrogen then I think it is more responsible to add just what is needed – it is the rifle vs. the shotgun approach.  And after all, the Nitrogen we use comes from the air, not from oil by products. 

 Why are we messing with Mother Nature anyway?  Why are we trying to make a sow’s ear into a silk purse, when the sow’s ear makes great wine and the silk purse doesn’t?  What happened to the idea that wine grapes should struggle in poor, rocky, well drained soils? Historically, it was the wine crafted from those difficult soils that gave us wines of distinction, character and uniqueness – what I call a sense of place and what others call terroir?

Stuart Smith

Organic vs. Biodynamic – Part 1

July 18, 2010

I promised to read and comment on a research paper that compared Organic farming and Biodynamic farming that several of you had mentioned.  The paper “Soil and Winegrape Quality in Biodynamically and Organically Managed Vineyards,” was published in The American Journal of Enology and Viticulture, 2005 56:4 pages 367-377.  The authors are Jennifer Reeve, L. Carpenter-Boggs, John Reganold, Alan York, Glenn McGourty and Leo McCloskey and for a price of $10 this paper can be downloaded off the internet.

 Overall, it appears the study was well intentioned and thorough in its approach, but it seems to me to have been too ambitious in its scope, too complicated.  This is clearly the type of study that should be encouraged and while the study falls somewhat short it was a good first effort that others can build on – and that has great value.

 Most of you don’t have the study so I’m not going to get too detailed because you can’t follow the data.  Here is a snapshot of the “Materials and Methods.”

 The test site was the McNab Ranch near Ukiah, CA.  420 acres were planted in 1994 and was certified organic 1994 to 1996 and then Biodynamically certified in 1997.  “No conventional treatment was tested included in the study for additional comparison as the experimental site was located on a certified biodynamic farm and the grower would have had to remove hundreds of healthy vines to buffer the biodynamic and organic plants and the rest of the farm from the conventional plots.”  Kinda makes me think that conventional ag and leprosy have a lot in common with these folks.   Four 1.5 acre replications and randomized test plots each of Biodynamic and organic were selected in 1996.  “The two treatments received identical soil and vine management practices throughout the experiment, except that the biodynamic preparations were only applied to the biodynamic plots… Each plot contained about 50 rows (on average 27 vines per row), with vines being trained (bilateral cordon) to a vertical shoot position.”  Planted on 5-C rootstock, the Merlot was on a 6’X8’ spacing. 

 It appears that data were collected in 1997, 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2003. Measurements of soil and leaf components were taken along with crop and pruning weights and grape chemistry.

 Here’s the bottom line from the “Results and Discussion” section: 

“No consistent significant differences were found between the  biodynamically treated and untreated plots for any of the physical, chemical, or biological parameters tested. … Our results are consistent with the literature in that responses to the use of the biodynamic preparations have been seen in some situations  but not others.”

 On the surface the report supports my contentions that Biodynamic farming has no efficacy and contradicts the claim that Biodynamics is the “Rolls Royce” of organic farming.  Maybe I should crow and claim victory – unfortunately, life isn’t that simple.  This is only one study, done in one location and with a relatively young vineyard that had previously been over-cropped at six tons to the acre.  The previous over-cropping should have worked in the Biodynamically farmed section’s favor – it didn’t.  It would be valuable if this study could be repeated in another location. 

 I hope that others may find a solution that allows sustainable, organic and Biodynamic farming methods to be tested in replicated test plots in the same vineyard.   

Part II next.                                                                                                                                                    Stuart Smith


July 9, 2010

 I’ve noticed that Steiner uses several very clever techniques, verbal sleight-of-hand tricks if you will, to convince his audience that his arguments are reasonable and valid.  One of those techniques is to elaborately embrace and acknowledge the common sense or practical view of an issue, convincing his audience that he too, is reasonable and uses common sense in delivering his lectures.  Steiner then uses an analogy to deflect attention from that common sense pretext and goes slowly in the exact opposite direction and delivers information which is unreasonable and defies common sense.  

 In the following rather long quote you will see Steiner bash modern agriculture and science, setting the stage for his new theories, and then give a seemingly reasonable discourse on who is entitled (or not) to give opinions on the subject of agriculture; “… the only ones entitled …. (are those whose) judgment derives directly from the field, the forest, and the stable” reinforcing the belief that Steiner is both qualified to speak on this subject and has the answers to their questions.  Then he begins his diversion from the logical path of qualifications and launches into a rather meaningless analogy about a compass and then slides into his ridiculous comments about agriculture and the cosmos. 

 On June 7, 1924 Steiner is giving his first lecture on agriculture and very early in the lecture is the following:

      “In order that we may speak in concrete terms and not in generalities, let me answer using agriculture as an example.  Nowadays there are all kinds of books and lecture courses available on economics, and they all include chapters on agronomy.  There are even whole books on how agriculture should be organized according to various socio-economic principles.  All of this, all of these books and lecture courses on economics, are nothing more than blatant nonsense.  But blatant nonsense is promulgated everywhere nowadays.  It ought to be clear to anyone that people have no right to talk about agriculture, including its social and organizational aspects, unless they have a sound basis in agriculture, and really know what it means to grow grain or potatoes or beets.  Without this, you cannot talk about economic principles involved.  These things have been derived from real life and not merely from theoretical considerations.  Of course, if you say this to people who have taken a few courses in agricultural economics at the university, they all think it is absurd, because to them everything seems so cut-and-dried.  But in actual fact, the only ones entitled to an opinion on agriculture are the people whose judgment derives directly from the field, the forest, and the stable.  All discussion of economics that is not derived from the things themselves should simply stop.  Until people realize that economic discussions that float above the things are mere talk, the outlook for agriculture or anything else will remain pretty dim.”

        “The reason that all kinds of people think they are entitled to talk about agriculture, even when they don’t know anything about it, is that they cannot get down to fundamentals even in their own fields of endeavor.  Of course, we can all describe a beet, and say whether it is hard or easy to slice, what color it is, or whether it has these or those constituents.  But with this we are still very far from any understanding of the beet, and even further from any understanding of how the beet interacts with the soil, and with the season when it is ready to harvest, and so on.  What we must come to understand, is the following.”

        “I have often used a comparison to make this point clear with regard to other areas of life.  If you look at the needle of a compass, you discover that one end always points more or less towards the north, while the other end points south.  If you want to explain this, you don’t look to the needle but rather to the whole Earth:  you hypothesize that there is a magnetic north pole at one end of the Earth and a magnetic south pole at the other.  It would be ridiculous to try to explain the behavior of the compass needle by looking for the cause in the needle itself.  The position of the needle cannot be understood unless you know the needle’s relationship to the whole Earth.”

        “To many people, however, what is nonsense with regard to a compass needle makes perfect sense in relation to other things.  For example, take a beet growing in the ground.  It makes no sense to restrict our attention to the narrow confines of the physical beet, if its growth actually depends on countless conditions present not only on the Earth but also in the cosmos….” (Underlining  and italicized added)

 Here is a clever and successful attempt to deflect the fact that he knows little about real agriculture, and creatively uses his imaginary tools of “intuition,” “perception” and “Spiritual Science” to formulate his theories of fantasy.  Steiner clearly acknowledges that he knows the qualifications that prohibits “people have no right to talk about agriculture” and “the only ones entitled”  to speak on the subject of agriculture.  But Steiner was not a farmer and had never been a farmer; he did not have those qualifications, yet undaunted, he plows forward with his theories by giving eight lectures and four discussions.  His theories on agriculture and the nine preparations are so outlandish that I suppose it is possible that he started to believe his own fantasies and sort of deluded himself with his own lies.   

 It’s important to remember that the contents of Steiner’s lectures were utterly unique: no one had ever heard of these theories before and no one had ever farmed using these theories.  I believe that Steiner was smart, clever and imaginative and created a ruse intended to deceive and was thus a fraud, but you can judge for yourself.  What are your thoughts?

Stuart Smith


July 6, 2010

 I’ve sent this letter to the California Department of Food and Agriculture requesting that they consider testing Biodynamic farming methods to combat the very destructive European Grapevine moth.

 July 5, 2010

Secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture
Mr. A. G. Kawamura
1220 N Street
Sacramento, California 95814
Dear Secretary Kawamura,

 First let me thank you for the tremendous effort you and your Department have performed for California farmers in general and specifically for your effort to control and eradicate the European Grapevine moth.

 It is to that end that I write you.  Biodynamic viticulture is a method—growing in popularity and controversy—used by many wineries here in California  such as Grgich Hills, Joseph Phelps, Quintessa, Araujo, Benziger, Quivira, as well as many European wineries such as Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, Domaine Leroy, Leflaive, Coulee de Serrant and Zind Humbrecht.    I’m writing to ask if your department would consider testing the Biodynamic protocol that was carefully described in Rudolf Steiner’s 1924 lectures upon which Biodynamics is based.   

 While I’m personally not a fan of Biodynamic farming, I have the utmost respect for the above wineries (and many others) who have wonderful international reputations.  While I’m aware that the following protocol will seem strange, all these wineries are run by professionals.   It’s in that vein that I urge your consideration in this matter.

 I quote from a small section of the Biodynamic protocol for dealing with insects, (he uses nematodes as the example, but the protocol applies to all insects) so that you might have a better understanding of what is expected from the Biodynamic community,  from Lecture six, pages 124-125 AGRICULTURE, by Rudolf Steiner:

        “With the insect you must not take just part of it, as with the mouse, but rather the whole insect… Here you need to burn the whole insect.  Burning it is the best and fastest way to go.   You could also let it decay, but it is difficult to collect the end products of decomposition, although in some ways they might be better.  In any event, you will certainly accomplish your objective by burning the whole insect.    You may need to dry and store the insects, however, since the burning must be done when the Sun is in the sign of the Bull, which is exactly opposite the position Venus must be in when you make the mouse-skin pepper.  The whole insect world is related to the forces that develop as the Sun moves through the Waterman, Fishes, Ram [Bull], Twines, and on into the Crab, although by the time its gets to the Crab, these forces are quite weak, as they also are when it is passing in front of the Waterman.  While the Sun is moving through this part of the heavens, it is radiating forces that have to do with the insect world….”

         “So if you go through with this and make this insect pepper, you can then scatter it over your fields of root crops and the nematodes will gradually become powerless.  After the fourth year you will certainly find that they have become quite powerless.    They cannot survive; they shy away from life if they have to live in soil that has been peppered in this fashion.”

While this protocol seems unorthodox, in 2008 it was reported that there are over 3,500 biodynamic producers in over 40 countries and I believe it would be interesting to a large segment of the farming community to ascertain its efficacy.

 Thank you for your consideration in this matter and I look forward to your response.

 Stuart Smith
Smith-Madrone Vineyards and Winery


July 3, 2010

If you will indulge me, I would like to wish a happy birthday to America.  It is a grand experiment that our politicians keep telling us is messy, and like  sausage it’s not something you’re supposed to see being made, and yet they tell us it’s better than whatever else is out there.  For once, I think they may be right.

Thank you to all of you who have served or are now serving our country.  It is only through your efforts and sacrifice that we have the luxury to freely speak our minds.

 After attending the Calistoga July 4th  parade I always try to find some time to read the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and for some strange reason that I don’t really understand, I love reading once again, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address .

 Thank you, and happy birthday America.

Stuart Smith