What we talk about when we talk about biodynamics: A conversation with la garagista’s Deirdre Heekin

One vigneronne reflects on how Rudolph Steiner’s philosophy and practice fit into her Vermont vineyards.

I clearly remember the first time the word “biodynamic” caught my attention. Ten years ago, my sister and I were visiting a farmers’ market in Berkeley, California. We noticed a sign for “biodynamic wine” and walked over to learn more. The woman staffing the table patiently explained the manure-filled cow horns, the farming in accordance with the cycles of the moon, planets, and the sun, the way this influenced the purity and energy of the wines, the cosmic spiritualism that informed it all. 

We listened politely, thanked her, and walked away, stifling incredulous laughter.

But it wasn’t long before my skepticism about the ideology of biodynamics bumped up against my convictions about the planetary and human health benefits of holistic farming. I noticed the term being used in connection with farms and, increasingly, wines I loved and respected. They aligned with my values and my palate. I began to go out of my way to find them, drink them, and understand what made them different.

Today, the word “biodynamic” seems to float around wine like a nimbus – vague and luminous. Retailers often throw biodynamic wines in with their natural and organic offerings, as if the three belonged to some separate triumvirate, the unarticulated distinctions among them only adding to consumer confusion about an already niche “category.”

To clear a few cobwebs: “Biodynamics” refers to a set of farming theories and practices laid out by esoteric Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). In the wine world, most people think of Steiner as an agricultural reformer, but in fact, he only turned his attention to farming in the last year or so of his life. The basis for what we might call Steinerian biodynamics is a series of lectures on agriculture he presented to an audience of farmers in eastern Germany (now Poland) over the course of ten days in June 1924. The farmers were hungry for advice on how to revitalize their crops, weakened by intensifying monoculture and industrialization. Their minds appear to have been opened by desperation.

Photo courtesy la garagista

In lectures, Q&A sessions, and visits to nearby farms, including the large estate whose sympathetic owners hosted the event, Steiner offered deeply cosmic explanations for the way water, minerals, seeds, soil, sun, moon, and planets interact with animal and human activity to bring forth life on Earth.

He channeled these theories into suggestions — the preparation (“preps”) of plant and compost teas, homeopathic insect repellents, fermented fertilizers, and, planting and harvesting in accordance with planetary and lunar cycles. He urged farmers to decouple from products of the chemistry lab and the microscope and to reconnect with what he called an “instinctive science” based on astronomy, folk wisdom, observation, and intuition. “If I had a farm myself,” Steiner told his audience, “I would not wait for [scientific]verification; I would start with this right away.” 

Nearly a century later, his theories have taken root and his practices gained acceptance in select places throughout the wine-growing world. But just how do biodynamic practitioners — in the case of wine, the growers — view Steiner‘s original precepts? Is there an orthodoxy that must be followed? How seriously do growers take his cosmic theories and how do they square them with the rooted-in-tradition, practicable advice that came from someone who had no background in agriculture or viticulture and was a teetotaler to boot? And among so many other forms of thoughtful farming, why has “biodynamic” emerged as the term that somehow captures them all?

I knew one biodynamic grower who would have answers. She had already given a great deal of thought to biodynamics and grappled with it, eloquently yet accessibly, in her 2014 book An Unlikely Vineyard. She tests its precepts daily in one of the most challenging, marginal wine-growing climates in the United States. She is thoughtful, open-minded — and uncompromising. She is, of course, Deirdre Heekin of la garagista, an 11-acre farm, orchard, and winery in Barnard, Vermont. When Heekin visited New York City last month, she generously made time to share her perspectives. Our (lightly edited) discussion follows.

Valerie Kathawala: Have you read Rudolf Steiner’s original texts?

Deirdre Heekin: Yes, I’ve tried. [She laughs.] Sometimes they seem impenetrable. And they’re so philosophical. I’ve found it easier to read them and then read references to them. Nicolas Joly, for example, does a really good job of pulling out some of the key things to think about. My favorite biodynamic book is A Biodynamic Manual by Pierre Masson. It’s very practical. He writes about preps and how to work in vineyards and orchards. It’s my bible.

VK: That’s something I keep coming back to. How so many growers seem to know Steiner mostly through a refracting lens of interpretation. Another thing I struggle with is that Steiner was not a farmer and never lived and worked on a farm. How is it that he has so much credibility among farmers?

Photo courtesy la garagista

DH: It’s important to remember that these are not Steiner’s original ideas. I think if he were sitting with us right now, he’d say, “Yes, you’re absolutely right: I’m not a farmer, I’m a philosopher.” But I think he felt a need to collect information. When those lectures came to be, the audience was a group of farmers within a community saying, “Our crops are failing. We are now seeing the effect of industrial farming,” (which actually started in the mid-1800s), “We’ve lost touch with the old ways. What do we do? We’re all going to eventually starve to death.” The couple who owned the estate where the lectures took place felt obligated, as significant landowners, to help those farmers have a conversation. My understanding is that they had a relationship with Steiner and they presented this idea and it was intriguing to him given the other things he was thinking about. His idea was that somebody needed to go around to all the old-timers and gather information about the lost ways of agriculture. That’s where the prescriptive pieces come from. I can relate my own experience in trying to listen to the old ways and how these older systems connect to each and go way back in time. 

As an example, you read in Steiner, and Joly, that you need fresh moving water to properly clean and “charge” barrels, either by taking them to a running water source or by creating an ionic charge in the water through a process like dynamization. The old farmer I learned to make cider from in Vermont cleans his barrels by taking them down to an active stream. He doesn’t know who Rudolf Steiner is, this is what his father taught him, and his grandfather taught his father, and so on. It’s an idea that’s been handed down through the centuries.

VK: So, it’s wrong to speak of Steiner as the ‘founder’ of biodynamics?

DH: Right. I don’t think Steiner himself would want that at all. He didn’t even come up with the name. It was called biodynamics after he died. He was a gatherer of age-old information, that was pre-industrial. Steiner was able to catch enough of it to be able to codify a system to help farmers transition away from industrial farming and back to a style of agriculture that related to nature. But because he had a spiritual bent in his own life and other work, people assume these practices are some kind of new-age voodoo witchcraft. How many times have you heard people say the word “woowoo” when talking about biodynamics? What they don’t talk about is the science of what’s happening. That’s what I think is really important at this juncture. We need to start talking about the actual science. The preparations used, the teas, are all about fermentation and inoculation. The appropriate vessel, like a cow horn or stag’s bladder, which may sound suspect in our highly technological age, actually, scientifically, happen to have the right molecular structure and are used as a fermentation vessel and inoculated with these other plant materials like dandelion, yarrow, oak bark, or different kinds of animal manures. When they ferment, they then create a new form, a new molecular structure, that then becomes a very important tool in farming. It’s physics and chemistry. Fermentation is a mysterious business.

Photo courtesy la garagista

VK: There are so many strands and elements to what we might call holistic agriculture. As you describe in your book An Unlikely Vineyard, Steiner’s theories and suggestions are really just one thread, albeit a very specific one. It seems we are taking this thread, along with Fukuoka, permaculture, regenerative farming, and everything else, and calling it “biodynamics” as a blanket term for anything that goes beyond standard organic farming. I’m curious about why it is that people have latched onto “biodynamics” instead of something less specific to Steiner.

DH: The thing about biodynamics is that it includes all those things. There’s a lot to grapple with and understand. The farming component that is biodynamics has been around a lot longer than when the term was coined. All Steiner did was compile this basic system to give people a jumping-off point and to understand that they had some tools available to them.

When I began to study biodynamics for the vineyard [in Puligny, France]what I really loved was that one of my teachers [Bruno Weiller], said, “We’ve got these organized, universal preps and we can use them. But the reality is that your vineyard is going to be different than the next person’s vineyard over there. We know that these codified preps will work in a vineyard, but the whole point of biodynamics is observation. You are going to have plant material in each site that will inform what you do, this flora will tell you what you need to do. These plants will inform your spray program, let you know if you need to till or not till, and tell you all of the things you need to pay attention to. Because nature will give you what’s needed for managing the site.”

A lot of what Bruno taught me was botany, but botany from the biodynamic perspective of deconstructing a plant to understand it: Does it relate to the sun? Does it relate to the earth? You look at color, how it grows, what the flower petals are like, what its shoot and root systems are like. And that is how I approach each of our vineyard parcels.

VK: Where does something like biodynamic certification come into that?

DH: I have two feelings about it. I understand its usefulness, particularly if you’re starting out. You’re basically getting a guide to figuring out how things work. So that can be really great. It’s also great for the consumer to know “This is (for example) Demeter certified. I know what to expect.” But certification costs money. And small producers don’t have money. The costs are enough to be daunting. As far as I know, you can’t get a grant to become certified. I understand why [the certifying organizations]have to do it, to keep things running, but I feel it’s a larger issue. I feel conventional farmers should have to pay for using synthetic chemicals that kill the soil, and biodynamic or organic farmers shouldn’t have to pay to do the work we’re doing. I have a big issue with that.

I’m super excited to be participating in the Biodynamic Association’s 2019 North American Biodynamic Conference this November. We’ll have a whole pre-conference workshop devoted to wine and cider.”

VK: Do you and your East Coast peers ever talk about forming a more localized association that would achieve similar aims and allow you to support each other without the big costs?

DH: I think there are probably just too few of us to form a more local and formal organization, though those of us working within a biodynamic model, or experimenting here, do communicate with each other. On the East Coast, there are some really great projects starting. Old Westminster Winery [in Westminster, Maryland]has bought land that they are devoting to biodynamics. They just inaugurated the land at Burnt Hill with a celebration of biodynamics on the solstice. They have put a lot of energy into this project and I think they will be a standard-bearer in terms of biodynamic wine on the East Coast. I think there are also many eastern annual vegetable farmers who are using biodynamics. 

But in terms of wine and perennial farming? I think we’re pretty few and far between at the moment. There are some growers who are experimenting a lot. But it’s with small plots, it’s not necessarily the whole farm. This is a fantastic start, but to be fully practicing biodynamics, you need to commit all your land to this way of agriculture. My hope is that those who have started to experiment will be patient and stay the course. It’s really important to remember that an agricultural methodology like biodynamics takes time to take root. If you are converting a vineyard, it takes three years to transition the land, and it takes a total of six years to really see the benefits of stronger, more resistant, and resilient vines. Farming has never been for the faint of heart.

VK: Are people coming to you looking for advice, to start working this way themselves?

DH: Yes. But people are not necessarily saying, “I’m going to be biodynamic. Where do I start?” It’s more “What can I use from biodynamics that might work for where I’m farming?” They want the freedom to use different methods for different situations. So they are looking at it in a more compartmentalized way. Many people who come to us are at the beginning of their journey. They’re trying to figure out what they want to do and how they’re going to put it all together. So they have a lot of questions about “What does this look like? What does this do?” It’s more of a big-picture conversation about how we farm. I think people do get excited about these ideas of biodynamics though. Then they go away and cogitate for a little bit. I don’t always know where they end up. If nothing else, I hope they take away the idea that farming is about patience and observation.

VK: How do you feel about serving as an educational resource for biodynamic wine-growing in the northeastern United States?

DH: Somebody should definitely be doing it. But right now everything I’m doing is with the goal of keeping focused in the vineyard and the cellar. There are many aspects of teaching that I like; I am constantly learning so much myself by having detailed conversations about biodynamics and whole-farm agriculture, and how this work translates into the winery. But I don’t think that’s where I’m supposed to be devoting all my energy. It’s a part of it, but I think I can best engage by doing. We have a lot of people who want to come and visit us, and I find it’s easy for me to get sidetracked by the big, philosophical questions — it’s exciting and it’s a very interesting conversation — but I have to somehow make time for those questions separately, to find a space outside of the workday to have this kind of dialogue so that I can maintain that focus on the land and on the wine. On the farm, our primary concern is that we have to get work done, and we want to enjoy the process. But we’re not a teaching vineyard. And I’ve come to realize teaching and growing wine, these are two very different things.

VK: Do you think people have to understand the science behind biodynamics to be convinced of its validity? Or do the practitioners have to understand it so they know why these things are happening in their fields and vineyards?”

Photo courtesy la garagista

DH: I think both. I had a similar conversation with somebody the other evening. We talked about the science behind biodynamics. But at some point, you have to take a leap of faith. Or see it work in the vineyards. We don’t necessarily have all the scientific tools right now to be able to explain why these things work. I think we can make some reasonable guesses but we might not be able to provide that data in a really hard science kind of way. Of course, the ancients didn’t have the tools to collect the data that we have now. So, it’s an evolution. And you have to trust. I have to be open to not knowing why. I think it’s important to understand something of the science but also to let it go. Ultimately, I think the science needs to recede, and you need to rely on yourself and the honing of your sensory skills.

VK: What about scaling up? Can you grow bigger than your current size of 11 acres and still farm the way you do?

DH: I can see growing to 13-15 acres. I think we can still manage that and farm and make wine the way I want to farm and make wine. I don’t want to be bigger. We are at about 850-900 cases. I don’t want to be doing more than 1,500 because of the kind of work I want to do which is all hands-on. We had originally thought we wanted to grow to 2,000 cases. Last year we had a great harvest and a really great yield. And we realized if we want to double, our logistics will have to double. We’ll need a second press, a bigger press, at least two more people working. It doesn’t make any sense to make 2,000 cases. It might make sense to make 8,000 cases. I think there is a sweet spot at 1,200 cases, and then again between 6,000 and 8,000 cases. We’ll stay small.

VK: What about biodynamic farming on a far bigger scale — 250 acres for instance? Do you think that’s even possible?”

DH: I do. And I think the people trying to do it on a large scale are brilliant. It’s not easy, though it’s certainly easier in some places than others, weatherwise. But I think we should be trying to farm that way no matter the scale. It’s the only way forward. The argument is always that biodynamic farming is for a small, intimate holding; it takes too much labor to support in a grander scheme. But think about something simple like the size of the California vineyard workforce. There are a lot of people out there working in the field. But what are they doing? In many cases, spraying chemicals. They could just as easily be spraying a biodynamic tea. At the end of the day, I think if you have people working in the vineyard, it’s about the same amount of labor and while the yields might not be as high, there are other economic factors that come into play, like plants and soil live longer, they don’t need to be constantly replaced. There is a larger and more complex conversation about the economics of farming this way, but even in my experience working on a small farm, I can see that it can work on any scale.

VK: Can biodynamics help growers manage the challenges of climate change?

DH: The point of biodynamics is to help you find balance within nature as a farmer, within a cultivated landscape. As farmers, that’s what you look for, the balance. It’s actually realistically impossible, but that is what you look for, you aim for in your craft. But now, the ecology is changing so fast, and I think we need to also look ahead. When we talk about terroir, variety is an important part of that. Some varieties will have the latitude to accept some of the climatic and environmental changes; others may not. At some point, climate change will evolve the terroir more quickly. It’s already happening, and things will begin to shift even in our lifetime. For me personally, biodynamics is not about always staying the same but is about always looking ahead, and asking important questions of ourselves and of the land: ‘What is this site hospitable to? What does this site want to grow now? What might it want to grow in the future? What is this landscape, this season trying to say?’ We catalog each plant in the vineyard each year because that tells us where we’re going. It’s about adaptability and the willingness to improvise, just like the plants on the vineyard floor are constantly changing. As farmers, I think being adaptable and improvising along the way are two of the most important things we can do as we look this fast and furious future in the eye.

In the end, whether we understand the science that underlies it or accept the cosmic spiritualism that infuses it, what seems to matter most is that biodynamics is a way of farming whose time has come. And what we owe producers like Heekin, who wrangle with the complexities, take the risks, accept the losses, invest the specific labor, deepen and advance our understanding of the beautiful delicacy of biodynamic viticulture, is an open mind.

Comments (2):

  1. David Crossley

    July 17, 2019 at 8:00 am

    A profoundly thought provoking article that covers all the bases. I think La Garagista is such an important project on so many different levels, and boy do they make some delicious wines, wines with real soul.

    I believe the strand that follows Fukuoka and permaculture is also important to follow. Farming vines still needs to be part of the wider ecology. Whilst there are those whose chemical applications don’t merely kill the soils (they affect insects, birds and other fauna), biodynamic farmers are creating an environment which should act as a beacon for rejuvenating our whole approach to holistic agriculture.

  2. Valerie

    August 4, 2019 at 10:04 pm

    Thank you, David! You are absolutely right that farming vines, and perennial agriculture more broadly, requires rethinking on a much wider scale. How wonderful that biodynamic growers such as Deirdre are there to lead the way!


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