Biodynamic Agriculture: How Farms Qualify for CertificationSeptember 19th, 2018
If you wait long enough, trends always seem to come back around. Take biodynamic farming—it used to be all the rage until industrialization took hold after World War II, and while this method never completely disappeared, it’s been enjoying a resurgence in recent years as consumers become more interested in learning how their food is being produced. Let’s take a deeper look at what it really means to farm like it’s 1924, and what farmers are doing to uphold the highest standards of sustainability and land and animal welfare.
What Is Biodynamic Farming?
Biodynamic farming was developed by scientist and philosopher Dr. Rudolf Steiner in 1924. “The father of biodynamics,” Steiner believed that harmonizing all aspects of the farm—from the sun to the soil—would support animals and plants in their most natural state, and produce nutrient-dense food in the process.
Biodynamic philosophies took hold in Europe after a group of farmers approached Steiner with a problem: rapid declines in crop vitality, animal health, and seed fertility. Steiner’s response was a series of lectures called the “Agricultural Course,” that set a foundation for what we know as biodynamic farming. His core tenet is that the farm is a living organism, with the ability to be self-contained, self-sustaining, and responsible for maintaining its own health and vitality.
How a Biodynamic Farm Works
“The single greatest lesson the garden teaches is that our relationship to the planet need not be zero-sum, and that as long as the sun still shines and people still can plan and plant, think and do, we can, if we bother to try, find ways to provide for ourselves without diminishing the world. ”
―Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
A biodynamic farm isn’t big on interference—either chemically or materially. To help support itself from the ground up, the biodiversity of the farm is organized in a very specific way. For example, waste from one part of the farm can be turned into energy for another. Animals are well cared for, too, roaming freely around the farm and supported to embrace their natural instincts, like foraging in the wild.
What Is Biodynamic Certification?
“Wines and foodstuffs that carry the Demeter logo are Biodynamic, which means their growers use methods such as crop rotation, composting, and homeopathic sprays to cultivate the long-term health of the soil.”
—Real Simple Magazine
Becoming biodynamic certified is not for the faint of heart! Farms looking to hold the designation must go through Demeter USA, a non-profit started in 1985 with the mission to enable people to run successful biodynamic farms, and help heal the planet in the process. Demeter USA is one arm of Demeter International, an organization that dates back to 1928 and is named for the Greek goddess of agriculture. Active in 50 countries worldwide, Demeter is the oldest ecological certification organization in the world, and the only biodynamic certifying body in the United States. Now that’s some serious street cred, or should we say, farm cred.
If you really want to dive in, take a look through the Demeter Farm Standard handbook. It runs nearly 60 pages, and outlines guidelines for everything from record keeping to crop protection. But here are the basics, including the four steps every farm has to follow to pursue certification.
Step 1: Fill out the forms
Farmers might be buried in bountiful produce every summer, but when they start the certification process, they’ll also be buried in paperwork, at least temporarily. It’s all part of the kick-off that involves submitting a completed “Certification Pack”—a detailed application, explanation of the farm’s past management history, plus a proposed schedule and vision for moving forward. Internally, it’s known as the “Farm Plan,” and you can think of it like a business plan, but for the land. Ideally, new applications should be received before April 1, so a farm inspection (see Step 2) can be scheduled during the busy growing season.
Step 2: Send an invite
Once the Certification Pack is accepted and processed, an inspector is assigned to the farm. Time to arrange a visit! Visitors will take a tour, evaluate the land, and make recommendations.
Step 3: Evaluate
After the farm visit, the farm’s application and inspector’s recommendations are passed along to the Evaluation Circle, a committee who hands down final approval. (Back to business terms, it’s like the board of directors.) If a farm gets the go-ahead, it signs off to accept the requirements and suggestions to implement over the next year.
Step 4: Repeat and renew
If you thought the process was over, it’s only just begun! Once a farm is certified, it’s evaluated year after year with additional annual inspections and farm reports. This is a chance for the farm to explain any potential changes in land management, growing practices, or anything that might affect the farm as a whole.
Biodynamic Farm Practices
Get ready for a little tour around the farm! In this section we’re digging up all the essential practices you’ll find on a biodynamic farm, based on Demeter’s Biodynamic Farm and Processing Standards.
To help preserve wildlife, and endangered species habitat, a certified biodynamic farm must dedicate a minimum of 10 percent of its land base as a biodiversity reserve.
A farm’s fertility is measured by the ability of its soil to sustain agricultural plant growth. Here are a few ways biodynamic farms can help boost vitality.
- Green manure
- Crop rotation
- Legumes and nitrogen catch crops (aka, fast-growing plants that grow between plantings of a main crop)
- Using rotational grazing
Disease, insect, and weed control
Pests, be gone! But don’t worry, there are no pesticides or sprays found on a biodynamic farm. Instead, farmers utilize a range of practices like crop rotation, plant diversity, and timed plantings based on understandings of a pest species life cycles. When it comes to keeping weeds in their place, farms rely on mulching, grazing, and crop canopies (among other techniques) to keep weeds from sprouting up.
Use of biodynamic preparations
Biodynamic preparations are like healing remedies for the earth, and Steiner developed them to help enhance soil quality and boost plant life. A preparation is usually made from mineral, plant, or animal manure extracts that are fermented and applied to small areas of compost, soil, or directly on plants to stimulate root growth. All natural!
Water and waterway conservation
Irrigation on a biodynamic farm is all about water conservation. Here are a few of the practices you’ll find:
- The use of alternative pumping methods, like solar pumps, wind pumps, or nose pumps
- Soil moisture is monitored to avoid excessive watering
- Natural wetlands are protected by an uncultivated buffer at least 25 feet around
- Efficient irrigation systems are installed
Instead of segregating animals to separate feed lots, they’re part of the team on a biodynamic farm. Mixed livestock populations are encouraged and help ensure the farm remains self-sufficient. After all, manure is a farmer’s most valuable fertilizer!
Gentle post-harvest handling
Once the plants are reading for picking, attention must be paid to details like keeping storage facilities and packaging free from pests, and not using any synthetic chemicals post-harvest.
Cheers! The next time you stop into your favorite wine store, check the shelves for biodynamic options. Just as the farm is seen as a living organism, the vineyard is, too! Demeter’s Winemaking Standard helps ensure “distinct archetypal rhythms permeate and form the fruit of the vineyard.”
Demeter offers two wine-labeling options:
1. Biodynamic Wine
This category means a wine is made with 100% biodynamic grapes and is meant to provide a complete expression of a given vineyard estate. A few manipulations are allowed on a case-by-case basis (like machine harvesting instead of hand harvesting), and the wine must be made in a Demeter-certified winery and follow strict processing standards (see below!).
2. Made With Biodynamic Grapes
This category is also made with 100% biodynamic grapes, but permits more manipulations as defined by the National Organic Program (NOP) “Made With Organic Grapes” category.
Biodynamic Wine Making Standards
When you open a bottle that’s certified biodynamic, here are some of the standards that inform the vineyards and winemakers.
- Hand harvesting is preferred
- Processing aids like rice hulls (to keep grapes from sliding around during pressing) must come from certified organic or biodynamic sources
- Biodynamic wines must stay separated from non-biodynamic wines at all times
- Plastic containers are prohibited for use as storage vessels
- No imported aromatic yeast or malo-lactic bacteria (to preserve subtle flavors); approved yeast nutrients are permitted on a case-by-case basis
- No pasteurization on wine juice
- Acid and sugar adjustment is a no-go
Certified Biodynamic Wineries
Before you hit the wine trail, map out these wineries where you can enjoy a little taste biodynamic wines.
Quivira Vineyard | Sonoma, California
Located on West Dry Creek Road, this vineyard takes a holistic approach to farming and visitors can walk the property to visit pigs, chickens, and compost heaps, along with sprawling vineyards of Grenache and Sauvignon Blanc grapes. Don’t miss the hundred-year old oak tree on the property!
Montinore Estate | Willamette Valley, Oregon
Established in 1982, this winery is the second largest estate producer of biodynamic wines in the United States, and is known for its 200 acres of Pinot Noir, as well as several Italian varietals. A special region known as Merriam is a 30-acre dry-farmed vineyard that boasts LIVE certification (generally considered the highest certification in the world for sustainable viticulture practices). Here’s one example of its high standards: instead of purchasing cultivated yeast, Montinore Estate sources yeast from its own vineyard, which helps produce more complex flavors.
Fuchs-Jacobus | Germany
Demeter certified, this German winery operates nearly 40 acres of vineyards all with the biodynamic philosophy in mind. Grapes are hand-picked and gently pressed before being fermented with natural yeasts.
DeLoach Vineyards | Santa Rosa, California
Biodynamic certified since 2009, DeLoach encourages a range of biodiversity on its estate with chickens, bee hives, vegetable and herb gardens, as well as compost piles.
We’re adding more biodynamic products picks all the time, but here are some of the top sellers from our site!
Our new line of biodynamic pastas will really upgrade your next Italian night. The organic whole wheat is grown in the Tavoliere delle Puglie region of Italy, using a form of regenerative agriculture called biodynamic farming. Once harvested, the wheat is crafted into pasta using antique bronze plates, which give it a coarse texture that’s ideal for soaking up sauces and flavor. (Try the fusilli and penne, too.)
Organic and vegan, Weleda’s nourishing oil gently protects baby’s delicate skin. Made with 99 percent organic ingredients, the oil combines calendula and chamomile flower extract, plus a sweet almond oil for rich moisturization.
This herbaceous tea blends moringa and mint from Egypt’s Sekem farm. Thrive Market member Rachel from Connecticut shares it’s “just the right amount of mint and gives me a boost of energy.”