Preparations 503 and 506

At risk of offending the fine folks who invited me to their shit-shoveling festival a few weeks back in the Loire valley, as recounted a couple of posts ago, I want to revisit the subject of biodynamic farming, because I'm now feeling I let those promoting the agricultural theories of Rudolph Steiner off a little too easily. It's easy to do so, and I think I know why. Because the goals of biodynamic farmers are so closely aligned with the natural wine, organic, fresh and local, and slow food movements, the more kooky elements that go into biodynamics have never emerged as a favored target of secular humanists. With all the evil in the world, why bother going after the possibly self-deluding biodynamic farmer? Furthermore, there seems to me to be little doubt that Steiner was prescient in comprehending the ravages of what would become industrial agriculture, and biodynamics is broadly concerned with soil health and sustainability, more than sixty years before that term became the overused mantra of the green movement. Why risk the perception that you are opposed to a thriving ecosystem, healthy eating, and happy animals by attacking biodynamics?

I wrote in that previous post that biodynamics "typically goes well beyond the basic prescriptions for organic farming." This is essentially true, but only if we are talking about the kind of co-opted organic farming decried by Michael Pollan, in which giant, industrial farms produce "organic" products on vast monocrop farms in order to exploit the marketing value of the term. And that wasn't what I meant: "organic" used to mean, to me, small, thoughtful pesticide-free farming of diverse plantings in a varied and complete ecosystem. Compared with this sort of agriculture, the ways in which biodynamics "goes well beyond...organic" seem upon further reflection to be limited to the mystical and the magical, namely the bizarre Steinerian preparations 500 through 508. The question then becomes: are the results of the biodynamic method superior to the results from any other less dogmatic approach to artisanal, pesticide and chemical-fertilizer-free farming? Are biodynamic farms superior in any way to other farms farmed by farmers deeply invested in soil health, the environment, and tasty eating?

 Preparation 506, in which Dandelion flowers are blanched and then packed into the peritoneum of a cow. This tiny bundle is then buried over the winter before being used as a sort of homeopathic additive to compost.

There are plenty of believers eager to point out that scientific evidence exists for the superiority of biodynamics. Some basic googling will bring up a host of such claims, but nothing I waded through went one simple step further and told you what that evidence is, or, heaven forfend, actually linked to a study demonstrating the point. If you want to enter deeper in this debate, take a look at Biodynamics is a Hoax, in which Napa vintner Stuart Smith pulls absolutely no punches under the subheading "Someone has to speak up."

 Chamomile flowers awaiting deployment in Preparation 503.

The moistened flowers are pushed through a funnel, stuffing for a length of cow intestine. 

 The finished product, a chamomile sausage. It's very attractive, but the problem is that I can't find anyone who can explain why adding this to your spring compost will "reactivate" the soil...

There is, sadly, a more cynical perspective from which to consider the success of biodynamics, at least in the wine world. Thierry Puzelat, with whom I spent most of October learning how to make wine, is a very good example of the kind of conscientious farmer who cares deeply about his land and vines and produces excellent plonk without subscribing to the strange prescriptions of Mr. Steiner. He has no quarrel with biodynamic farming, and buys plenty of grapes from friends like Bruno Allion who follow the Steiner line, but his own attitude is "show me the evidence." He told me that it is remarkable how often groups come in to the Puzelat cellars for a tasting and ask him "are these grapes produced in biodynamie?" This before so much as taking a sniff of the first glass. In other words, biodynamics has become so trendy that for some the Demeter stamp of approval is more important to their drinking experience, or their self-perception of what sort of wine drinkers they are, than what the wine actually tastes like. While I have yet to meet a biodynamic farmer who I felt was insincere or concerned with anything more than creating the best possible farm environment, in the face of fetishizing like this I'd be very surprised if there aren't some vintners out there who are burying horns full of manure just because they think they will turn to gold.

After the preparation of the magical packets, we dug a hole in the ground and lined it with old slate roofing tiles, in order to avoid cutting open the parcels with a shovel in the spring dig. I have a similar attraction/skepticism for the rituals of Haitian vodoun, which also often involve the meticulous preparation and burial of small parcels, known as wanga

 The burial.

1 comment:

They say it's a cold world said...

David West wrote in from Paris on facebook to hip me to an article
(http://bit.ly/aaIPuJ) by Joe Eskenazi in the SF Weekly a couple of years ago. It makes for devastating and hilarious reading. Eskenazi did the heavy reading and the legwork necessary to dig up the more nutso prophesies of Mr. Steiner in his many varied spheres of thought. He also goes into the cynical marketing of the biodynamic concept (its trendiness, in short, which inspires bartenders and wine merchants to overlook the most bizarre aspects of the biodynamic worldview). In Eskenazi's telling, there isn't much to distinguish Rudolph Steiner from, say, L. Ron Hubbard. Well worth the read.