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  • 17 April 2020
  • Wine 101 Guides

Farming without Chemicals:
A 101 Guide

Great wine is made in the vineyard. It is very easy for us human beings to just sit and think, “ah yes, wine is made from grapes,” but those grapes have come from a vine - a perennial plant - that may have been annually producing this fruit for several decades. Furthermore, it’s important to consider the place in which the vine lives - plants are intrinsically linked to their environment - whether that be the soil, microbes, fellow plants, trees or even animals.

As we outlined in Save Our Soils, we live in a world where the soil is rapidly degenerating. Hence, it has become more paramount than ever to care for the ground beneath our feet. This has seen a rise in farmers switching to organic, regenerative and biodynamic practices - so to help you navigate the waters of field and soil, we have dedicated an article to the different forms of farming without chemicals. 

Organic vine, surrounded by grasses

Organic farming 

Until the early 1900s, all farming was by definition organic. But what does the word actually mean? Breaking down the definition of “organic” is actually very simple. Often, when one reads definitions, it says something like “produced or involving production without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or other artificial chemicals.” However, this largely ignores what the word actually means - which is material that has been derived from living matter - from nature. 

However, there are several other hidden meanings behind the word. The use of the word itself actually came out of a student of biodynamics (which we’ll refer to later) - Sir Walter James. He referred to the farm as an organism, and that one must manage the farm as an organic whole, in his groundbreaking book Look to the Land, published in 1940. Arguably this gave birth to the widespread use of the term “organic” today. 

The definition of “produced or involving production without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or other artificial chemicals,” is possibly used more in order to emphasise that “conventional” farming does use these chemical products. In a sense, it is a backlash against the chemical farming that grew to such prominence in the 20th century. 

What this means for wine farming is that only natural materials may be used. This is particularly relevant when combatting pests and disease: instead of using synthetic insecticides or fungicides, only copper and sulphur and other organic compounds may be used. It also means that only manual weed killing methods such as ploughing or hoeing may be used (or sprays that are composed solely of organic compounds), instead of synthetic herbicides. 

Why each grower decides to choose the path of organic farming is entirely unique to them: some may feel a discomfort at using chemicals when we do not know their long-term impacts, whereas others may feel a personal connection to natural methods, or to continuing their ancestral practices.

Grasses amongst vines at the pre-phylloxera vineyard of Closerie des Moussis, Bordeaux

Nate Ready of HIYU Wine Farm, Oregon, hoeing manually with a scythe

Regenerative farming 

Just the word “regenerative” is enough to send despair: this method of farming largely focuses on the notion that not only our soils need healing, but our planet does too. There is no particular definition or singular “way;” rather it focuses on tending the land, defending and improving the ecosystem and - perhaps most importantly of all in this current age - the sequestration of carbon from the atmosphere and fixing nitrogen in the soil. The basis of this way of farming lies in organic practices, but the focus lies with using agriculture as a method to reverse climate change.

No-Till

There are many means of farming in a regenerative manner. The method that has risen to prominence in recent times for vine growing is that of “no-till” - a method whereby the land is not opened or ploughed at all. This protects the soil, slows evaporation in dry climates and promotes the improvement of organic matter. Furthermore, the no-disturbance policy keeps the carbon in the soil, not exposing it to oxygen and therefore not releasing more carbon dioxide. 

Lupine seeds being sown at Sadie Family Wines, Swartland, South Africa: "nitrogen fixers"

Cover crops in Claus Preisinger's vineyard, Burgenland, Austria

Cover Crops

These are various types of plant that may be sown (or in some cases appear naturally) amongst the vines. They have many purposes. The complex root systems of these crops mean that the soil is much less likely to erode, particularly in tricky, steep regions, or regions that are prone to flooding. They also promote diversity, which encourages the health of the entire ecosystem, and brings oxygen and nitrogen to the soil, the latter of which is particularly important for building up a “nitrogen bank” for the plant to use. 

This, however, is only possible in soils with good levels of organic matter. Organic matter is the part of soil that is composed of decomposing plant and animal material, various microbes and substances that these microbes synthesize. At very best, around 6% of the soil will be organic matter. If a farmer is managing this, their soil is very healthy. At worst, when nearly all organic matter is lost, this becomes known as desertification - literally so-called because the soil resembles a desert, which naturally has under 1% organic matter.

If the soil is in this state, all of the complex transformative processes can’t take place, and the soil ceases to function and to give life. This is one of the primary arguments against the use of synthetic fertilizers - as when these are used, the soil depends on this artificially created Nitrogen, and therefore no longer depends on its organic matter. This means that the quality and quantity of the organic matter will likely be ignored, eventually leading to soil degradation and to a soil that can no longer sustain itself.

In short, the amount of soil organic matter and the fertility of that soil works entirely hand in hand, and cover crops are a useful addition in the farmer’s toolbox to improve this organic matter. 

Cows at Michael Gindl's farm, Weinviertal, Austria

Plough horses at Timothée Stroebel's farm, Champagne

Animals 

Many farmers promote the use of animals on their farm - whether chickens for eggs, goats for cheese, cattle for meat, or simply as pets. Not only do these animals contribute to the livelihood of the farmer, making him or her less dependent on one sole crop, they also contribute greatly to the ecosystem and soil health of the farm, namely due to their manure! If you are able to create your own manure, you no longer have to go to drive to collect manure - which has likely been transported from somewhere else (meaning a greater carbon footprint).

Furthermore, animals have brilliant power in aiding to fight against pests and diseases - for example releasing chickens in the vineyard will reduce the threat of all sorts of bugs to the vines, as the chickens happily eat them. From a more human point of view, there is also great potential joy to be found in the coexistence of human beings and animals - such as working with a plough horse and building a deep bond with that animal.  

Biodynamic farming 

Emphasising the importance of hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen and carbon, encouraging a healthy ecosystem, incorporating animals on your farm, amongst many other aspects also lie at the heart of another farming philosophy: biodynamics. 

Biodynamics, however, has the addition of philosophy. 

“Search outside of you for what is within, and search within for what is outside” - Rudolf Steiner

Biodynamic principles draw on a series of lectures given by the philosopher Rudolf Steiner in 1924, and as such actually predates the organic movement. Steiner is not only known for biodynamics but also for the philosophical field of Anthroposophy, a philosophy which delves into the spiritual questions of humanity, often dubbed Spiritual Science. 

The two are intrinsically linked, and the biodynamic lectures of Steiner also delve deep into spirituality. However, one doesn’t have to delve into the anthroposophic side of biodynamics, and many farmers who follow biodynamic principles focus largely on the teachings that relate specifically to plant and soil. 

Grower Christoph Hoch emphasises that biodynamics is “a modern form of agriculture,” which examines many different aspects of farming and the environment that together form a “clockwork.” By studying biodynamics, the grower is encouraged to change the way of thinking about plant life - to take into account the entire environment of the farm, and to see the farm as a self-contained organism, one with its own energy, embedded in the larger landscape of the Earth. It is impossible to summarise the teachings of Steiner, but in short he foresaw a problematic future if human beings were to continue the path of chemical farming. 

Herbs used in biodynamic preparations at Christoph Hoch

His teachings focus largely on the importance of soil health, and on keeping soil alive, for soil transforms itself into plant material:

“Soil that is permeated with humus-like substances in the process of decomposition contains living ether. That is what is important. When such soil shows us, by virtue of its particular structure and character, that it contains matter that is etheric and alive, it means that the soil is on its way to becoming a kind of plant sheathing.”

He then goes on to say,

“There is an intimate relationship between the content within the contours of a plant and the soil surrounding the plant. It is not at all true that life stops at the plant’s perimeter. Life as such carries on from the roots of the plant into the soil, and for many plants there is no sharp dividing line between the life inside them and the life in their surroundings. We must be imbued with this idea and understand it thoroughly in order to appreciate the nature of soil that has been manured or otherwise fertilized in some way.”

These agricultural lectures highlight perhaps first and foremost the importance of compost, something so simple and ancestral that Steiner even brands it “the least pretentious type of fertilizer.” 

Compost at Claus Preisinger's winery, Burgenland, Austria

The Biodynamic Preparations: Compost & Sprays 

Arguably the most useful and important teachings that Steiner gave for the modern farmer were in relation to improving and regenerating soil health. He did this by compiling a key list of natural preparations that can aid in supporting the plant and soil health; from invigorating, calming or improving. 

All of the preparations are given numbers from 500 - 508. During nazi rule, they were banned, so the preps were given numbers in order to be clandestine.

The paramount preparations are the Spray Preparations:

500: Horn Manure - cow manure that has been fermented in a cow’s horn, buried in the soil during winter. This promotes a healthy root system, revitalises the soil and helps the plant to find the nutrients and minerals it needs

501: Horn Silica - finely ground quartz meal that is buried in a cow’s horn during summer. It helps to stabilise plant metabolism and enhance development 

Preparation 500 at Weninger

Dynamising

Tiny amounts of this manure or quartz are dissolved in water and stirred for one hour. Usually this stirring is done by hand, in one direction so that a vortex is formed. Then, the direction of the stirring is changed, causing a moment of “chaos.” This moment was emphasised by Steiner as being the moment in which the preparation receives the imprint of the cosmos. The preparation would then be stirred in the other direction. In basic terms, what this does is ensure that the preparations are fully concentrated in the water. It is then sprayed onto the vines usually by hand, with the dynamised water in a backpack. 

Steiner also outlined various medicinal plants that may be used together with compost, in order to boost the soil’s health and to increase the plants’ vitality and natural resistance to disease. They key compost preparations, and a brief summary of their roles are:

502: Yarrow - replenishes 

503: Chamomile - stabilise plant nutrients and invigorate growth 

504: Stinging Nettle - stabilises nitrogen and promotes the formation of humus

505: Oak - increases resistance to fungal attacks and other plant diseases 

506: Dandelion - activates the influence of light and aids in interrelationships in nature 

507: Valerian - acts as protection for the compost pile 

508, meanwhile, is a tea-style preparation made from Horsetail, which is fermented and sprayed onto the vines. It is particularly thought to work as a preventative and a curative for fungal disease. 

These preparations are often ensheathed in various animal parts that are said to act as catalysts, due to the functions roles they play within the animal’s system. 

Nettle tea

Valerian plant

The Moon & The Cosmos 

We all know that the weather has an immediate effect on plant and animal life. However, Steiner also worked to outline the effect of the moon, stars and the planetary system, emphasising that we should take into account their positions and forces when carrying out tasks such as sowing, pruning, weeding and harvesting. 

The moon’s influence on tides has long been documented, and thus biodynamic farmers also believe that the moon has an influence on plant life - namely through sap flow. When the moon is rising, they contest that the sap flow is concentrated in the top part of the plant - above the roots, whereas when it descends, it is concentrated in the root system. Hence, when it’s descending it is a good time to focus on compost, whereas when it is ascending, it’s a good time to sow seeds or to harvest. 

The moon orbits the earth once every 27.3 days, and as it does so, it passes through the 12 constellations. It is believed that the constellations bring influence to the soil through the elements of earth, air, fire, air and water. These elements then affect the way in which a plant grows - earth = roots, air = flowers, fire = fruits and seed, and water = leaves. The work of one of Steiner’s students, Maria Thun, brought this research to where it is today: an biodynamic calendar which is published annually for biodynamic practitioners to follow. 

Whether or not you choose to investigate the more philosophical realm of Steiner, one thing is for sure: the practical principles that he put forward have been seen to improve soil health in agriculture around the world. And the wine? Many wine professionals defend the notion that biodynamic wines express an untold energy within the glass - an energy that may not be tangible, but rather something sensory. 

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