HONEY, I SHRUNK THE FARM ADVISOR!

December 3, 2010

I went and it was painful – both physically and mentally.  Eight hours on old fashioned metal folding chairs and then listening to a love fest for all things Biodynamic.  A very good lunch was catered by the Silverado Brewing Company, but they didn’t bring their beer — that I desperately needed.

 Overall impressions:

 Good for Demeter USA to have a sold out event with almost 200 folks in attendance and for snookering the University of California into violating their ethics pledge and sponsoring this event.  While I think Biodynamics is bogus, I have to tip my hat to Demeter for a well thought-out and well executed event.  There is absolutely no question, it was a sales and marketing event for Demeter USA to sell their product, Biodynamic farming.   There was no balance to the presentation; it was Biodynamics and nothing but Biodynamics.  The speakers did a fine job presenting why they were involved with Biodynamic farming and one of the speakers even said “I flew here from Oregon because I want other people to do Biodynamics.”  

 I can say without any reservation that Demeter USA should have been the sole sponsor.  UCCE clearly violated their own code of ethics by being a sponsor – shame on the University for their poor judgment.  Dr. Andy Waterhouse (Chair of the Dept. of V & E, UC Davis) was there and asked my friend if he was a Biodynamic supporter and mentioned the controversy.  My friend said that he was not, that he was there for a client and that it was wrong for the University to be sponsoring this event.  Dr. Waterhouse skulked away. 

Elizabeth Candelario, Marketing Director for Demeter, made it clear in her opening remarks that “Biodynamic farming is just sound farming” and while you shouldn’t embrace Biodynamic farming for the marketing, she pointed out that consumers, retailers and the media want more Biodynamic products.  She clearly knows how to bait a hook.  She also invited and I would assume comped Wilfred Wong, Cellarmaster of BevMo, and several sommeliers.  Again, a smart outreach to those who can help the pull-through of Biodynamic wines.   

Later in the morning Glenn McGourty, Farm Advisor for Mendocino and Lake Counties, gave a presentation that went way over the line and made me apoplectic.   Mr. McGourty didn’t just talk about Biodynamic farming in an impartial and detached way; he clearly believes in Biodynamic farming and promoted it as the superior farming paradigm. He talked about operating in the “post petroleum world” and how to comply with the Demeter USA Farm Standard – as though he were the expert on compliance standards.  Mr. McGourty was a co-author of a 2005 paper that found not difference between Organic farming and Biodynamic farming, but he never mentioned it.  When not on stage, he sat at the front table with Elizabeth Candelario (facing the stage).   I went to Berkeley during the 1960s and saw a lot of ugly things, but in its own way this was one of the ugliest things I have ever seen my University do – it was embarrassing and flat out wrong.  If I had the power, I would have fired Mr. McGourty on the spot!  And, I suspect that Demeter would hire him in a nano second as one of their compliance inspectors or for marketing.  

After Mr. McGourty was a panel discussion on pests and diseases for the Biodynamic farmer which included Dr. Monica Cooper.  Several of the panel spoke before Dr. Cooper and talked gibberish about pest control that I could see made Dr. Cooper uncomfortable and shrink into her chair.  When the moderator turned to Dr. Cooper he said to the audience “Dr. Cooper will now talk about pest management under the (Demeter) Farm Standard.”  Not so quick, Mr. Moderator.  Dr. Cooper went on to give a nice, pleasant little talk about the ecology of invertebrates and never, not even once, did she mention or utter the word “BIODYNAMICS” or it’s Farm Standard or give even the slightest hint that she had an opinion on Biodynamics – good or bad.  Well done!   You may have been snookered into sponsoring this event, but you stood your ground with an unbiased presentation.  But she looked a little lower in her chair. 

Next were a couple other panelists, including the Preparations expert who admitted that he was a sculptor and didn’t really know anything about farming but was doing research and testing on the Preparations.  One attendee asked if you could control mildew by using only the preparations.  There was unanimous agreement by the Biodynamic panelists that no, you had to use sulfur or other fungicides.  Another attendee asked the panel if “ashing” of pests worked?    The panel hemmed and hawed and then an attendee spoke up and said he’d had pretty good results ashing yellow jackets and some other insects, but that it didn’t seem to work on larger creatures.  Dr. Cooper is a scientist and this is an area of her expertise and when I looked back at Dr. Cooper she seemed even smaller in her chair and reminded me of that movie Honey, I Shrunk The Kids.  As far as I can tell, Dr. Cooper left the building immediately after that session.   

After lunch Ginny Lambrix, Winemaker for Truett-Hurst, gave a nice talk on Science and Biodynamics which probably was successful for those who don’t know much about science and Biodynamics.   However, she easily slipped from saying a particular study “suggested” a Biodynamic superiority to the “evidence” showed …  To her credit, she mentioned what she called the Achilles Heel of Biodynamics, which are exotic pests.  Since there has never been any connection with these exotics in the past, the natural defense mechanism cannot be expected to be able to mount an effective defense.  This is a new and a refreshingly honest admission. 

The only thing I found interesting in the afternoon session was that Demeter now certifies wineries.  I didn’t know this.  To be a Certified Demeter winery, you can use up to 100 PPM of Sulfur, you must use native yeast, you cannot add acid, sugar or enzymes, and Reverse Osmosis and the Spinning Cone are prohibited.  The only question I asked all day was, “is it OK to add water to the must?”  First the answer was no, but then the speaker said yes, it was OK to add water.  Can’t add acid, yet it’s OK to add water – seems strange to me.

 There was a wine tasting of various Biodynamic wines at the end, which were all nice, yet confirmed to me that acidulation should be allowed.

Stuart Smith


IGNORANCE IS BLISS

December 1, 2010

 Unlike Glenn McGourty who has been the Mendocino and Lake County Farm Advisor for many years, Dr. Monica Cooper is relatively new to Napa County and new to viticulture.  I seriously doubt that she knew much, if anything, about Biodynamic farming.  I don’t know what transpired in the back room when decisions were made, but I find it very interesting that the very well respected Sonoma County Cooperative Extension Farm Advisor, Rhonda Smith, isn’t participating and isn’t a sponsor. 

 As much as I’d like to give Dr. Cooper as much slack as I can, the fact of the matter is that she is both the Director and Farm Advisor for the Napa County Cooperative Extension and the buck stops with her.  IMHO, it is completely unacceptable for her to ignore my direct questions concerning the ethics of NCCE sponsoring this event.  

 Dr. Monica Cooper and I had several exchanges. I’m including only the last one dated Nov. 11:

 Stuart:

Again, I appreciate your concern. I have had limited access to email all week, as I was participating in the Technical Working Group meeting for the European Grapevine Moth. This meeting was critical to determine EGVM policy in the coming years. I was invited to share my research results and to help shape that policy, along with a group of local, national, and international scientists.

Glenn McGourty worked with Demeter to develop the day’s schedule and to suggest appropriate speakers. As I mentioned previously, I am an invited speaker at the event. I previously elucidated the reasons for that involvement.  As Advisors, we are frequently called upon to suggest speakers, develop appropriate topics, and often to organize schedules for events. For example, I just organized the seminars for the Napa Vit Fair, and am headed to a meeting this morning at the NCFB regarding the program for their Farm Safety day. Organizations that we work with may then recognize us in the program. Typically, the monetary sponsorship is provided by the organization (public or private), and the University contribution to sponsorship is to guarantee a technically sound program. This works nicely for us, because these collaborative relationships allow us to enhance the quality and quantity of our programs, especially in the current budget situation.  (Bolding and underling added)

The following are Glenn’s comments. I am also attaching an article from AJEV on which Glenn is an author. He will likely discuss this work at the conference.

 We work with a wide array of clientele in our counties (Lake,

Mendocino, and Napa) and among them are Biodynamic Winegrowers. In my 2 counties, we now have over 600 acres of Biodynamically certified vineyard acreage. The Demeter Association has over 70 wineries that are either certified or in transition, so there is tremendous interest in this alternative farming system. The Demeter Association is a nonprofit, and is not a business per se.

 The University of California has among its priorities the support of sustainable farming systems. This includes ways of farming that put emphasis on improving water, air and soil quality, reducing the use of pesticides, promoting biodiversity and conserving habitat, and farm worker safety among many other issues. These are similar goals of Biodynamic Farming. The practices that are required for Demeter Certification are published in the Demeter Farm Standard which you may find on their web site. I don’t believe that there is any mention of paganism or religion in the Demeter Farm Standard, unless I missed it.

 I have worked with other land grant scientists and we have published an article about our observations over time of BD winegrowing compared to organic farming, which I have attached as PDF document for you to read.

 The mystical aspects of biodynamic farming (ie, the preparations) remain beyond explanation of reductionist science and we are wise to remain skeptical of their supposed effects until we have more information. But the organization of their farming systems and the practices that they use are well documented to improve soil quality, grow productive crops, reduce the need for petrochemical inputs, recycle farm byproducts in a safe and effective way, and provide a gentler footprint on nature compared to some practices used by conventional growers. 

I don’t expect everyone to become biodynamic farmers who attend this seminar, but I am hoping that they may be inspired to investigate some of the practices that are useful in producing high quality fruit and wine that are also environmentally friendly.

 Finally, we work with a wide array of cooperators and allied industries that not everyone approves of.  I have been taken to task at public meetings because some of my colleagues test chemical pesticides for efficacy. (I have also done such experiments in the past, and would do them again if there was a specific need in my region). There obviously is a wide range of personal values that the people of California have. I still believe that it is important for us to work with as broad a potential clientele group as possible, and shine the light of science on techniques that we can show to be helpful in the production of food and fiber that have a minimal impact on our public trust resources.

Dr. Monica L. Cooper

 I responded the same day, Nov. 11:

 Monica,

Thank you for your efforts in controlling EGM.  I know the fight is not over, but all of you involved in this effort have done a magnificent job – well done!   .

The fact that you believe you are just an invited guest, and not a sponsor, is at the very core of this issue.  Napa County UCCE is the official sponsor of this event and you are the person that represents Napa County UCCE.    Please look at your own web-site. 

I humbly suggest that you start viewing this event with the eyes of the sponsor that you are.

 Thank you for forwarding Glenn’s comments.   Like many supporters of Biodynamics, Glenn slides over the preparations with a dismissive hand that they “remain beyond explanation.”     Preparation 500 is the burying of cow horns, probably the most visible and controversial of the nine preparations.  To be a Biodynamic farmer you must be certified by Demeter USA, and Demeter USA is an absolute follower of Rudolf Steiner.  Demeter USA requires the use of preparations 500 and 501 at least annually.  There is no such thing as being “Biodynamic lite.”

 Unfortunately, you, Glenn or Dr. Waterhouse have not offered any cogent arguments that changed my opinion that UCCE is violating its ethical mandate by sponsoring this event.  While it pains me to do so, I once again, ask the Napa UCCE withdraw sponsorship of this event. 

Stuart Smith

Dr. Cooper never responded.