Posted on 02 June 2006.
ORGANIC FARMING FINDS ITS ROOTS ON A VINEYARD IN NORTHERN CALIFORNIA
|Ceago Del Lago on the spring equinox, 2006
with Mount Konocti in the distance
Jim Fetzer owns a winery called Ceago del Lago in a fine place in California where the hills meet the northern shore of a lake. In the winter the sun shines directly onto the slopes beyond the water and bathes the land in light, allowing a sheltered microclimate where grapes grow warmer. Vineyards march up the low hillsides, and on the shore, a mission-nouveau chateau rises in the misty flats just off the lake.
In this pristine spot, where the air is cleaner than anywhere else in the USA, this winery and vineyards have arisen that emulate the vision of the pioneer of organic farming, Rudolf Steiner. His principles of biodynamic farming, recorded in 1924, were the first formal compilation of organic farming techniques, and in many respects remain the epitome of organic farming theory and practice. In northern California several notable wineries have adopted biodynamic practices, and the wines they make are as good as any.
Biodynamic farming claims to be the original and purest form of organic agriculture. Often misunderstood because biodynamic theories include aspects of mysticism, the practical concepts of biodynamics are the key to restoring the earth, reinvigorating lands; when chemicals and corporations fail, biodynamics can bring back what has been lost in our mechanized world. Ceago’s winery and vinegarden apply the best of biodyamics; scrupulous adherance to the practice of biodynamic agriculture, with a respectful acknowledgement of the vast gray area where realities of the seasons finally may give way to superstition.
Founder of Ceago Del Lago
“It makes sense to work with the rhythms of nature instead of fight them.”
So says Jim Fetzer, owner and founder of Ceago. Fetzer, along with three of his grown children, Katrina, Barney, and Andraya, founded Ceago in 2000, and what they’re doing is a textbook example of biodynamic farming techniques.
There are significant distinctions between organic farming and biodynamic farming. As organic farming techniques have become increasingly mainstream, they have also embraced compromises that have invited criticism from the early adopters. Organic pesticides, for example, are concentrated natural substances which can be just as toxic and as persistant as synthetic pesticides.
“Organic farming has done a good job selecting treatments that won’t hurt people, but applied to insects they can be just as deadly to the good insects and micro-organisms as chemicals,” said Ceago’s vintner and winemaker, Javier Tapia.
Biodynamics is a word built on two words derived originally from ancient Greek; bio, meaning life, and dyn, meaning force. Biodynamics rests on the premise that any farm is still a natural ecosystem to be nurtured, that soil and cash crop health is dependent on retaining a natural balance where the health and vitality of the other plants, animals, insects, micro-organisms and soil are all integral to productive and sustainable farming.
|The Ceago Fetzers
Embracing biodynamic practices was a natural extension of a commitment to organic winemaking that has a long history in the Fetzer family. The patriarch of the family, Bernard Fetzer, started up a winery in the Ukiah area back in the 1960′s, and was among the first to go totally organic. When he passed away in 1981, his wife and their eleven children kept alive the family tradition, until the popular Fetzer brand was sold by the family in 1992. For eight years, under the terms of the sale, the Fetzer family had agreed to stay out of the winemaking business. But during this time they continued to grow grapes, extending and intensifying their understanding of biodynamic techniques, and when their non-compete agreement expired, several of the Fetzer children, Jim Fetzer among them, jumped back into winemaking.
|Semi-wild cover crops shelter the awakening vines
on a warm weekend of early spring
As soon as you approach the the 270 acre Ceago del Lago estate, you know you aren’t visiting just another winery. The Fetzers, who have a reputation for going first class, aren’t holding back. The mission-style winery, nestled on the shoreline, might just be one of the most beautiful new structures you’ve ever seen. To one side are the shimmering waters of Clear Lake, which at 67 square miles of surface and over 100 miles of shoreline is the largest freshwater lake in California. To the other side of the winery vineyards stretch across the flats, backdropped by rolling hills of grass and oak. It is a magical place.
The winery buildings may look like they are made of mission adobe, or Florentine stone, but in reality are constructed of huge blocks made out of a mixture of recycled styrofoam and concrete. These blocks, which are over a foot thick, are hollow in the middle, so when they’re stacked, their hollow core can be filled with steel rebar and cement, creating an extremely strong structural wall. With the outside covered with stucco, these walls are not only structurally strong, but they provide great insulation. These thick walled structures also contribute, of course, to Ceago’s architectural charm. They are manufactured by a Texas based company called Perform Wall, and they are truly building blocks for the green age.
The practice of biodynamic farming rests on six interrelated principals:
Plant Diversity: The farm is an ecosystem, and to be healthy, the farm must embrace, utilize and emulate nature. The land on the farm needs to include habitat corridors and fallow areas. Some plants restore essential nutrients that other plants deplete, and visa versa. With biodynamics, encouraging this synergistic diversity is extended to micro-organisms through composting and use of homeopathic sprays that nurture beneficial micro-organisms.
Crop Rotation: Biodynamics depends on soil enrichment through regular crop rotations. Different food crops, cover crops, as well as leaving land fallow or wild all helps to maintain healthy soils. Crop rotation with biodynamics encourages beneficial insects, reduces compaction, and recycles nutrients.
Composting: This is perhaps the heart of a biodynamic farm, with a focus on soil quality, promoting growth, utilizing natural enrichments. Steiner’s biodynamic vision relied on six key preparations, most of which are buried in the fall then unearthed and spread in the spring – all of this during precise periods in the solar year. Some stay buried a full year. These include chamomile flowers packed into a bovine intestine, oak bark buried inside the skull of a domestic animal, dandelion flowers stuffed into a bovine peritoneum (abdominal cavity), yarrow flowers filling a stag’s bladder, as well as burying whole plants of stinging nettle and valerian flower extract. Each of these are treated in very specific manners in order through their decomposition to greatly enrich and revitalize compost and planting areas.
Homeopathic solutions: Homeopathy is the practice of using minute quantities of material to have a large effect on a large environment. Steiner specified two key homeopathic preparations, one to catalyse formation of life, and one to optimize distribution of light. Each of them are first prepared by burying the material in a cow’s horn through the winter. His life formula uses manure containing billions of diverse microbial organisms, which multiply in the fertile fields if mixed with water and sprayed during certain climatic conditions. This formula, so potent a few ounces can easily cover an acre or more, helps create life in the soil, it promotes root activity, stimulates soil micro-life and increases growth of beneficial bacteria. Steiner’s light formula, minutely ground quartz crystals, is mixed in minute quantities with water and sprayed onto the plants where millions of tiny prisms then capture and distribute more light, enhancing photosynthesis, bringing more light to the vines or other plants.
|Weed Eating Compost Spreaders -
Certain times of year, Ceago’s sheep range free among the vines
Animal life: All native animal life as well as a spectrum of domestic farm animals should be encouraged and managed in an optimal way on every farm. Animals who live on the farm help control weeds and insects, and contribute manure. Wild animals are not discouraged, only managed. Ways Ceago’s keepers nurture animal life is by grazing sheep to eat the weeds (they don’t bother the grapes) at the same time as their manure enriches the soil. Similarly, chickens are released within a mobile chicken coop to eat insects and produce compost.
Life forces: Biodynamics embraces the totality of the influence of the cosmos, not stopping at close attention to the cycles of the sun and moon, which obviously do influence the seasons, but also the planets and stars. Whether or not these finer points are valid is somewhat irrelevant, they provide guidelines that schematicize the myriad of necessary cycles; racking wine, pruning trees, the harvest, the crush. Who is to say where to draw the line between recognizing the influence of the phases of the moon on plants – which is generally accepted – and the influence of the planets, which obviously have a much more subtle role? Steiner certainly didn’t shy away from acknowledging cosmic forces, for better or for worse.
Rudolph Steiner, the founder of biodynamics, was a scientist and mystic whose protean output of writings influenced disciplines ranging from education to theology and philosophy.
It was relatively late in his life, in 1924, that he gave farmers, researchers and landowners who became the founders of biodynamic agriculture two weeks of instruction in his theories in Koberwitz, Silesia, in a part of Germany that is now southwestern Poland. Into seven scintillating lectures he attempted to synthesize everything he’d learned about biodynamic agriculture, incorporating not only scientific principals of agriculture that were being established in that day, but also traditional farming techniques which were being lost in the onrush of modernity. His lectures, which have been compiled in his classic book, Agriculture, aspired to combine the best of these traditions, while comingling somewhat more controversial theories about the influence of astrological forces.
Andraya, Katrina, and Barney
When I asked the Fetzers about the mystical elements of Steiner’s philosophy, they didn’t cringe. “We can’t take everything Steiner said at face value, we have to rely on what works and we have to update his teachings for what we learn,” said Barney Fetzer, who clearly has studied the Steiner writings in great detail. Much of the concepts Steiner writes about that appear at first glance to be somewhat far fetched are in fact well recognized practices around the world, especially in areas where knowledge of traditional agricultural techniques are still strong.
As Katrina Fetzer pointed out, planting on the full moon, when there is less gravity, or pruning on the new moon, when there is more gravity, are time-honored practices that have been validated by empirical observation. Whether or not this means that the timing of other agricultural techniques should take into account the positions of the planets is more debatable, of course, but throughout Steiner’s book
“Agriculture” he reiterates his belief that farmers must see for themselves. Everywhere in Steiner’s writings he urges the readers to verify all of his ideas with scientific experimentation.
If the mystical aspects of the theory and practice of biodynamic agriculture animate its critics, these critics might do well to also reflect on what has happened to organic agriculture as it has gone mainstream. In the May 15th, 2006 issue of the New Yorker, in an article entitled “Paradise Sold,” the author Steven Shapin examines what he calls “Big Organic” agriculture. In this wholly commercialized realm, for example, USDA certified “free range” chickens are grown in a factory warehouse with 20,000 genetically identical birds. Only two small doors open up onto a small outdoor area, and they are only opened up after the birds are six weeks old. Are these birds better than the antibiotic-saturated non-organic chickens? They probably are, but how they are raised is grossly removed from the ideals of organic farming. Big Organic agriculture has been completely coopted by industrial farming techniques, and needs to have its drawbacks recognized equally with its undeniable accomplishments.
The prevailing Biodynamic certification
organization in the United States
If anything might give one pause about biodynamic agriculture, and, for that matter, organic agriculture performed as it was originally intended, it is the high level of knowledge required for its successful practice. It is theoretically possible to eke equal measures of calories from the land using sustainable agricultural practices compared to chemical dependent practices. But the number of people involved in farming worldwide, and the level of expertise they would have to possess, would have to increase by orders of magnitude. Is it likely that we will repopulate the great plains of North America with small biodynamic – or organic – intensively cultivated farms? Because if we did, then American crops might still feed the urban centers of the world, but how likely is that? It is a beautiful dream, but in reality biodynamic or pure organic agriculture will probably remain a practice that takes root slowly, establishing niches of enlightened practitioners all over the world. The best we may hope for at the level of agricultural commodities may be Big Organic, somewhat reformed, more thoughtfully monitored, incrementally improved, but never completely true to its ideals.
Biodynamic agriculture is a science and belief system that transcends Steiner, or anyone’s individual theories and teachings. It was articulated first by him, partly in reaction to the onslaught of industrialized agriculture that began a century ago. Mechanization, chemical treatments, and increasing standardization of agriculture prompted Steiner’s attempt to preserve millenia of accumulated wisdom and superstitions which in their application had practical value – and were being washed away in a single generation.
To see the farm as a healthy ecosystem, to emphasize the health and interdependence not just of the crops, but all the plants, along with the farm animals and wildlife, and the soil and micro-organisms – to recognize the uniqueness of each terrain and live sustainably within the seasons – this at the core is highly advanced organic agriculture, true to its highest ideals. That is what Steiner, who in his heart and throughout his intellectual output was a scientist first, meant to be the overriding meaning of biodynamic agriculture. Biodynamics is a science that is meant to evolve, shedding the superfluous, yet recognizing the seasons, the stars, the individuality of each farm, each farmer, each climate and micro-climate, indeed every distinct culture and tradition where it may find its expression.
|Refining & spreading biodynamic theories
Will Ceago be Koberwitz for the 21st Century?
The Fetzers have plans to expand their Ceago winery buildings to accomodate gatherings perhaps not unlike the one where Steiner gave his lectures back in 1924. A place where anyone can come to learn alternatives to industrial agriculture, and learn about ways to restore lands that have been overused. Imagination alone can visualize exactly what it may have been like in 1924, on a great estate in a tranquil corner of Germany, in the middle of a restless continent, during brief decades of respite from the horrors of total war.
Looking back in time to Koberwitz just eighty years ago, no doubt the hills of Silesia were all the more beautiful because it was during too few years of fitful peace during that second week in June when biodynamics first took root, as the summer solstice approached, and Steiner passed his inspiration on to posterity.
If any place might do such a historical moment justice, and serve as a venue to help carry the principles of biodynamics into the 21st century, it is Jim Fetzer’s spectacular winery “Ceago del Lago” (www.ceago.com) in California’s verdant Lake County, nestling on Clear Lake’s tranquil and bucolic northern shores where land meets water. Who is to say what great new ripples will emanate from these biodynamic pioneers in the heart of California?
Biodynamic Associations and Reference Sources:
ATTRA – National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (logo image)
Objectives in Biodynamic and Conventional Farming
- table showing contrasts
Yield and Quality Under the Influence of Polar Opposite Growth Factors
- table showing earth vs. cosmic
The Biodynamic Agricultural Association – U.K.
Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association (BDA) – USA
Biodynamic Agriculture Australia
The Anthroposophic Press – USA
Biodynamic Growing – Australia
Private Institutions offering long-term courses in biodynamic agriculture and anthroposophy in Europe:
Emerson College, United Kingdom
Landbauschule Dottenfelderhof, Germany
Formation en Agriculture Bio-Dynamique, France
Institute for Biodynamic Research – Germany
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