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Striving to bring cosmic harmony to the vineyard

Biodynamic farmers may be following instinct rather than data

December 11, 2012

“Weirdoes” is the phrase Barbara Shinn uses to describe how other Long Island farmers think of her and her husband, David Page. And the vineyard the couple owns at the tip of Long Island certainly isn’t conventional; at the Shinn Estate, biodynamics rules.

To practice biodynamics, Shinn explains, is to treat a farm as an ecosystem. Like organic farming, biodynamics shuns chemical applications and pesticides in favor of natural alternatives. Shinn fertilizes her grapes with liquefied fish guts and whey protein. She cuts weeds no more than four times a year, allowing dandelions and clover to flourish at the base of her vines.

“It looks more like a jungle than a vineyard,” said Mark Norell, the head curator at the American Museum of Natural History. Norell recently invited Shinn to give a lecture at the museum as part of a series on “Adventures in the Global Kitchen.” In her talk, Shinn described how as soon as she stopped mowing, beneficial bugs like the pest-eating mite showed up. (Although these carnivorous arachnids won’t lay eggs in the grape plants, after hatching among the weeds they’ll climb up the vines and take up residence, feeding on pests.)

Both organic and biodynamic farming can use bugs to control pests. But biodynamics goes beyond organic methods in two ways: it follows a cosmic calendar for planting and picking crops, and its adherents apply fertilizer aids called “preparations,” such as deer bladders stuffed with flower blossoms, meant to enhance the mineral content of compost piles.  And it’s because of these differences that some plant scientists, including professor of horticulture Linda Chalker-Scott  at Washington State University, take issue with biodynamics.

“Biodynamics led to today’s organic practices,” said Chalker-Scott. “I wish biodynamics would focus on that rather than the mystical stuff. But it’s got this ‘woo-woo’ area that doesn’t lend itself well to scientific inquiry.”

In the 1920s, Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner gave a series of lectures that would form the basis of the biodynamics movement. He included instructions on how to create Preparation 500, a cow horn filled with fermented manure that is buried in the soil to stimulate microbial activity. Shinn includes chamomile, tree bark and powdered quartz in some of her preparations. “[Biodynamics] tunes into parts of the cosmos that bring energy into compost,” she claimed.

In her lecture, Shinn stated that biodynamically-farmed soil had more nutrients than organic soil, but peer-reviewed studies generally haven’t supported that. “Proponents will talk about studies and anecdotal evidence,” said Chalker-Scott, but “they haven’t gone through peer review … it’s marketed as scientific. And that’s deceiving customers. ”

Yet Shinn believes in the validity of biodynamic methods. Her farm operates on a lunar calendar, and she feeds vines and harvests fruit based on the moon’s relation to the constellations. With a descending moon, said Shinn, the earth is more receptive to nutrients. But the lunar position does not influence vegetation in this way, according to Chalker-Scott. Instead, the phases of the moon have an indirect effect – when the moon is bright, for example, nocturnal insects may fly further and pollinate more plants.

Cosmically influenced or not, I know one thing for certain: Shinn’s wines were delicious.

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About the Author

Benjamin Guarino holds a B.S. in bioengineering from the University of Pennsylvania. After graduation he joined Penn’s Spine Pain Research Lab, where he studied the motion of artificial intervertebral discs and the painful effects of whole-body vibration. Upon discovering that engineering journals discourage metaphor, Ben decided to shuck his lab coat and don a press badge at SHERP. He’s fond of long runs and bad science fiction, and his Erdos–Bacon number is seven.

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