Biodynamic farming - more than a load of cow manure?

Thursday, 12 April, 2012
Christian Eedes
Consider preparation 500 and it's easy to understand why so many people are sceptical about biodynamic farming. It involves cow manure packed into a cow horn, buried over winter to ferment before being dug up in spring and sprayed over the soil supposedly to aid root growth.
More generally, biodynamic farmers allow a lunar-astronomical calendar to inform their decisions when to plant, prune and harvest and use a wide array of special formulations in the vineyard such as the one outlined above.

Biodynamics was founded by Austrian philosopher-scientist Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s and is not so much an agricultural system but more an alternative worldview which attempts to bridge the gap between a strictly scientific approach to farming and a more spiritual one.

Cow horns, the moon, fruit, flower, leaf and fruit days affecting how the wine tastes. All sounds pretty kooky. Wine geeks might find the results interesting but what's the average punter supposed to think?

Reyneke Wines in Stellenbosch is South Africa's only official biodynamic producer, the farm certified as such by international body Demeter since 2007. Owner and viticulturist Johan Reyneke took over the property from his mother in 1998 and oversaw the gradual conversion from conventional farming to biodynamics. Despite his T-Shirt emblazoned with the legend "Vine Hugger", Reyneke is entirely level-headed and a great spokesman for the movement.

"Biodynamics is about seeing the individuality of a farm It's not about simply being sustainable but rather self-sufficient," he says. To illustrate the practical implications of this, he refers to how a farm as a production unit might dispose of its waste paper. On a conventional farm, this ends up in the bin; on an organic farm, it would be sent away for re-cycling; and on a biodynamic farm, it’s used to establish an earthworm colony which in turn produces composte.

There are 30ha under vineyard on Reyneke’s property and were these to be farmed conventionally, he might expect to get yields of some six to eight tons per hectare. However, because of opting for a biodynamic approach as well as the advanced age of some of the vines, yields are as low as four tons a hectare, total annual production in cases a relatively modest 12 500 six-bottle cases. How does Reyneke Wines survive as a business entity? For one thing, expenditure on pesticide, fungicide, herbicide and fertilisers is lower – turnover is smaller but so too are production costs.

Even so, lower costs are not sufficient on their own to ensure viability, and Reyneke is under no illusions that he must trade in the niche market of ultra-premium wine. "Getting biodynamic certification is different to actually doing the deed. Simply take away the chemicals and you’re heading back to wilderness. We have to produce a really high-end, top quality product if we’re going to succeed".

This leads Reyneke to define the selling proposition underlying biodynamics as "quality with integrity". In a world where very high levels of quality can almost automatically be expected beyond a certain price point, the consumer is looking for something extra, and in the case of biodynamics this is wine made with a deeper spiritual understanding of not just farming but society in general.

However, isn’t this precisely where biodynamics becomes at the very least a bit "warm and fuzzy"? Reyneke, who has a postgraduate degree in environmental ethics, gets a little impatient at this and says "We need to snap out of this mindset of mainstream versus fringe. How does the dominant paradigm protect itself from criticism? It pigeonholes and ridicules dissenting voices".

For Reyneke, biodynamics is ultimately just a "tool in the cupboard" and if it doesn't produce results can be jettisoned for something that does. He points out that he does not blindly adhere to some fixed creed but is constantly adjusting his approach as his vineyards are now much more in flux. "It's not unlike chaos theory. Changing one small variable can have huge knock-on effects".

So is biodynamics working for Reyneke? Winemaker Rudiger Gretschel, formerly of the acclaimed Boekenhoutskloof, says he’s picking up a vibrancy in the wines that he’s not seen before – ferments struggle less, acidities are more stable, pHs are lower.

And the critical acclaim is following: Reyneke Wines produced best white wine and best wine overall at the Nedbank Green Wine Awards in both 2010 and 2011 while the Reserve Red 2008 was rated 5 Stars in the 2011 edition of Platter's. "Initially we couldn't give the wines away but now we can't make enough," says Reyneke.
One of the cows on Reyneke Wines (photos by Carla van der Merwe)
One of the cows on Reyneke Wines (photos by Carla van der Merwe)

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