By Hugh Lovel
Viticulture and dairy are two of the best areas of agriculture for revealing the virtues of biodynamic growing — viticulture because quality is what wine excellence is all about and dairy because every tank of milk is tested for quality. Biodynamics is about quality and self-sufficiency. Both depend on life force to attract nitrogen from the atmosphere rather than using nitrogen fertilizers.
Chemical agriculture is largely a 20th century phenomenon based on the great 19th century chemist, Justus von Liebig’s premise that plants only take up nutrition as soluble salts — an assumption he repudiated toward the end of his life. However, by then the fertilizer industry was making great strides by capitalizing on his error.
The shortcomings of ‘chemical’ agriculture became the starting point for biodynamic agriculture and was why Rudolf Steiner introduced his Agriculture Course in 1924. But, by then the chemical approach had become dominant with the discovery in 1909 of the Haber Process, which produced ammonia from natural gas and air. Meanwhile, biodynamic agriculture became pigeonholed and marginalized as a cult of true believers rather than a truly scientific method born ahead of its time.
Chemical agriculture approaches things with massive doses of soluble salts, while ignoring biology and being completely unaware of life forces. On the other hand, the biodynamic approach is described by its name. Bio means life, and dynamics means processes or forces. With biodynamics the first priority is imparting life processes to the farm (or garden) as though it is a living, organized being. Supporting biological life with mineral inputs follows from there.
Biodynamics differs from other methods in that it uses the so-called biodynamic preparations to impart life process patterns to the environment as a way to achieve a self-sufficient farm organism. Though it requires a big shift in thinking, this low-cost approach guarantees growers’ pockets a bit of profit rather than going bankrupt supporting monolithic industries. Nowadays, in any given region of the world, there generally are farmers practicing biodynamics successfully. There is no better or more efficient way of producing quality wine, milk or any other sort of farm produce. If one masters the biodynamic method, all the products will be of the highest quality.
Each soil and location is unique, and some might think the steep, rocky, shales of Germany’s Moselle Valley vineyards, or thin, almost inaccessible Swiss Alpine pastures were not suitable for agriculture, but both are renowned for quality production. The challenge with biodynamics is to bring out the unique terroir of a vineyard or the cohesive organization of a fine dairy rather than to aim for a cookbook recipe of something that might be ideal.
In terms of inputs, missing or deficient elements must be considered, especially in the early stages. There is a science and numbers to this. Just keep in mind the fertilizer rule of thumb is if a little is good a little less more often is better. After all, one must be careful about adding salt or spice to the soup — with chemical agriculture adding too much is common.
Biodynamics works with the organizational patterns of activity that give rise to the farm organism’s growth into order and complexity out of the chaos of the surrounding universe. By using Biodynamic Preparations, biodynamic growers plant the seeds for order to arise, and the more these preparations are used in balanced and effective ways, the more rapidly and successfully the vineyard or dairy develops — attracting whatever it needs, whether that is sunshine, wind, rain, or carbon and essential nutrients.
There are many ways of applying biodynamic preparations. Identifying which preparations are best to apply at what times and in what ways is the art of successful biodynamic agriculture. This is a meditative process, and to build life into a vineyard or dairy or any other sort of operation one must listen to what nature tells us with deficiencies, pests, weeds and diseases. Using poisons and other kill tactics to get rid of something that wasn’t understood in the first place ignores the message and shoots the messenger.
Yes, mineral inputs can be important, although establishing and using herbs such as stinging nettles, yarrow, dandelions, horsetails, etc. is of equal importance. Biodynamics takes the place of the NPK mentality because of the dynamics involved in engaging what is already there by managing farm animals and digesting/recycling their wastes (composting). Understanding life processes, such as the Biochemical Sequence, is key to establishing balanced plant, animal and microbial populations and nurturing them with whatever biodynamic preparations are needed at any given time and place.
Biodynamic Tree Paste: A Legacy of Peter Escher
In the United States back in the 1950s and ’60s most highways were two-lane rural affairs, and on our family’s summer vacations it was common to see orchards where one or another sort of lime wash was painted on the tree trunks up at least to the first limbs. I asked mom and dad about it, and they said it was to thicken the bark and keep the trees healthy.
When I started farming one of the first problems I became aware of were beetle larvae boring beneath the bark at the base of my young apple trees. This came to light when I met Peter Escher, who became my farming mentor. My first question was what was killing my young apple trees? Escher, Ehrenfried Pfeiffer’s partner in setting up Threefold Farm and the Pfeiffer Laboratories, was the perfect person to ask, as he was the biodynamic apple guru who introduced biodynamic tree paste.
We were at my neighbor, Shabari’s house, and Escher said he didn’t know — that we should go see the trees. Right away he discovered the beetles, but the beetle larvae were not the cause, he said. The cause was too much raw manure, which weakened the trees and set up unhealthy conditions. Then he pointed out signs of fire blight, an apple disease that plugs up the tree’s circulatory system and kills branches, limbs and sometimes whole trees. Though the apple industry generally doesn’t recognize nitrate as the cause of fire blight, Escher was firm in this opinion. Sadly, he reckoned if a tree had trouble early on it was best to start over with a new tree, and I needed to get the soil right before planting new trees. At the time he didn’t even mention tree paste. I wasn’t ready. That came later.
Getting the soil right wasn’t something that happened overnight. It required a change in mindset. Escher sent me a pamphlet by H. H. Koepf entitled “Nitrate: An Ailing Organism Calls For Healing.” He also referred me to Rudolf Steiner’s Agriculture Course. In Steiner’s view we should consider the trunk of the tree as though it was ‘mounded up soil,’ though soil ‘in a more living condition than the soil in which our herbaceous plants and grains are growing’. The [tree] plants are ‘rooted in the twigs and branches of the tree just as other plants are rooted in the earth’. (Agriculture, R. Steiner, Creeger/Gardner translation.)
After Escher’s death in 1984, Harvey Lisle took his place in mentoring me, and it was with Lisle in his apple orchard in Norwalk, Ohio that I had my first encounter with biodynamic tree paste. Though nearly 80 at the time, Lisle was always learning, experimenting and thinking outside the ordinary boundaries. Thankfully my previous background had prepared me for understanding Lisle’s approach to tree paste, which was at all times fresh and creative.
We took some of Lisle’s soil, a clay-rich mud, and stirred it vigorously, first in one direction and then in the reverse direction, alternating back and forth for 15 minutes in a bucket with a couple gallons of horsetail extract that we made from boiling a double handful of dried meadow horsetail herb. Then we poured it through a sieve and after that through a fine filter. This was our base, to which we added some horn manure, some barrel compost and some horn silica. From Lisle’s viewpoint we needed to impart all of the forces of the biodynamic preparations to the tree. We also added a small quantity of fresh cow manure and equal amounts of builder’s lime (aka slaked lime or quicklime) for calcium and, finally, basalt powder for silica. This was because Lisle reasoned we wanted to bolster the bark of his particular trees in these materials and bark is surprisingly high in silica.
Lisle was deeply into dowsing as a means of accessing our intuition, so we dowsed for the quantities of each of the materials we added. Perhaps in different circumstances the mix would be somewhat different, and we didn’t write down the exact formula. Lastly we added a small quantity of raw linseed oil as a binder to help the soupy mixture stick to the tree bark. Then we ‘potentized’ the entire lot for 15 minutes in the typical biodynamic fashion of creating a vortex in one direction and then reversing it, creating a counter vortex, and alternating back and forth to get a thorough penetration of the forces into the water. We applied the finished mixture using a wallpaper brush, slathering this ‘tree paste’ on his tree trunks.
BD Tree Spray
Perhaps calling it ‘tree paste’ was a bit misleading because the word ‘paste’ tends to imply a stiff mixture, and in terms of practical application Escher’s tree paste was more easily applied like latex paint. The idea is one of building, strengthening and enriching the bark and trunk of the tree, which can be thought of as the ‘soil’ out of which the tree’s vegetative growth springs. Biodynamic tree paste or spray is a logical improvement on the lime wash old-time fruit growers might have used.
In applying it Lisle and I used thick brushes to soak it into all the cracks and crevasses of the bark on up into the lower limbs. As we did this we cleaned away all vegetation around the base and removed any lichens we found growing on the bark, leaving the tree with what amounted to a fresh coat of soil — energetic, organic and mineral — on all its lower portions.
Although Lisle only had a small orchard, with large-scale modern operations the tree paste could be screened through a paint filter and sprayed on with a paint gun as part of annual pruning. These days I would be inclined to use one part in a thousand of fulvic acid and a similar amount of concentrated sea minerals— the pot liquor left over after evaporation of seawater and removal of sodium chloride for table salt. If I had any homeopathic preparations made from ashing pest specimens — perhaps the troublesome boring beetles — I would also add these.
The recipe may vary a bit from place to place with the needs of the soil, landscape and circumstances as well as the type of orchard or vineyard being treated. If I knew I had a specific mineral deficiency, such as manganese or molybdenum, I might add a highly dilute dose (a few parts per million) of these as well. If I had access to a superior clay, such as Azomite, micro-min or zeolite, I would probably use that, mixed with my local clay as well; and I’d check my reasoning regarding amounts against my intuition by dowsing. Though the mix should vary to suit the circumstance, a basic recipe might go like this:
First obtain a quantity of fine clay extracted from healthy, clean-smelling soil. This can be produced by dissolving, stirring and filtering soil (in the vortex fashion described above), letting the filtered clay settle out over a couple weeks’ time and pouring the water off as if refining potter’s clay. Add 10 percent Azomite, zeolite or other specialized clay if available.
To 3.5 gallons of horsetail decoction — a lightly simmered extract sometimes referred to as BD 508 — in a five-gallon bucket, add enough of the above to arrive at the consistency of paint. For calculating amounts for coverage of orchards, mix up this size batch, see how far it goes and multiply the recipe accordingly. Much may depend on the method of application, how big the trees are and how thoroughly the trees or vines are covered. Let experience be your guide.
To the above add half an acre’s unit of horn manure, horn silica and barrel compound (available from the Josephine Porter Institute in Woolwine, Virginia). Esophageal clay, if available, should also be included as a preparation, and any insect or pest peppers may also be added at rates appropriate for the acreage.
Add 5 ounces liquid fulvic concentrate and the same amount of liquid sea minerals. Earthworm leachate may be substituted. Add a pinch or two of trace minerals (i.e copper, zinc, manganese, etc.) as indicated by soil testing.
Add a pound or so each of quicklime, siliceous rock powder and fresh (soupy) cow manure. Also add a quarter to half a pound of gypsum or rock phosphate if sulfur or phosphate are deficient in the soil test.
A pint or so of raw linseed oil or other similar oil can be added so the coating sticks to the bark and doesn’t wash off with heavy rains.
Thoroughly mix or potentize by the vortex/reverse vortex method before application. After cleaning around the tree’s base and removing any lichens, the tree paste [tree paint] can be applied with a large paintbrush. Screen through a paint filter if applying with a spray gun.
Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the February 2013 issue of Acres U.S.A.
Hugh Lovel and his wife, Shabari, teach agricultural courses in both Australia and the United States.
Biodynamic preparations can be obtained from the Josephine Porter Institute for Applied Biodynamics, Inc.