Biodynamic fruit growing
Organic and biodynamic fruit production in a nutshell
By Joke Bloksma, March 2010
- Fruit trees are susceptible to pests and diseases. Most fruit trees are propagated vegetatively: cultivars selected for taste are grafted onto rootstocks selected for growth vigour. Disease resistance is usually not the primary selection criterion, and many fruit tree varieties are therefore susceptible to pests and diseases. As a result, pesticide use in conventional fruit orchards is higher than in any other agricultural crop. Organic fruit growers face a difficult task. They can only work with a very limited number of natural crop protection products, such as sulphur and botanical extracts. Even fewer methods are available to biodynamic growers. Consequently, biodynamic fruit yield and (external) quality may vary considerably between years.
- Balancing growth and differentiation processes. Fruit growers seek a balance between tree growth and differentiation processes, through careful observation and decisions on rootstock selection, pruning, spring frost protection, flower bud thinning, fruit thinning, irrigation, fertilization, and harvesting. A well-balanced, vital tree has a steady production over the years, of good quality fruit. Conventional fruit growers may save time by using chemicals, for instance for flower thinning and fertilization. Biodynamic growers use biodynamic spray preparations to balance tree life processes.
- Choosing between better taste and higher yield. In balancing growth and differentiation processes, fruit growers can make subtle choices that either result in better tasting fruit or higher yields. The cost price of a sweet, juicy, aromatic apple is therefore always somewhat higher. The biodynamic market usually favours the tastiest, and therefore more expensive fruit.
- Influence of the non-physical realm. The difference between biodynamic and organic fruit growers is that the former work by the principle that non-physical forces also play a role. In their view, fruit is not merely a source of sugars and vitamins, but also a source of life forces. They use biodynamic preparations with homeopathic effects to prepare their fields and make compost. Individual growers add their own spiritual footprint: they work with mindful attention, or reserve a corner of their orchards for nature spirits. An interesting question is how this way of working ultimately affects product quality.
- The basis is a healthy, living soil. Bacteria, fungi and earthworms take care of nutrient cycling processes and help to increase orchard soil vitality. To reduce competition from weeds in young orchards, organic fruit growers use mechanical control, mulching, or non-competing ground cover vegetation, rather than herbicides. A plant or mulch cover is much better for soil life than a bare, herbicide treated soil surface. In autumn, organic growers shred the fallen leaves to promote decomposition and to reduce survival of the scab fungus during winter.
- Feeding the soil instead of the trees. Rather than directly fertilizing the trees, organic growers focus on improving the fertility of the soil. As a result, water, nutrients and trace elements become available to the trees at a natural pace. This organic approach requires a larger tree root system, a more intimate connection between the tree and the soil, than conventional systems. Organic fruit growers only use organic fertilizers, preferably composted, and wherever possible based on material produced on organic farms. These requirements are stricter for biodynamic growers, who use biodynamic compost preparations to improve their compost. Furthermore, fertilizer use is minimized by adding nitrogen-fixing legumes such as clover to the grass strips between the trees, or by growing green manures before planting the trees. Fertigation − the application of water soluble mineral fertilizers through drip irrigation systems, used in conventional fruit production − clearly reflects an entirely different philosophy.
- Using disease resistant varieties. Organic fruit growers prefer to grow varieties that are resistant to pests and diseases. Diseases such as apple scab and pear scab are particularly difficult to control. Broad-based, multiple gene resistance is preferred over single gene resistance. Organic growers do not use genetically modified cultivars. Well-known conventional varieties are often highly susceptible to diseases, and therefore difficult to grow organically. As a result organic growers often have to resort to less familiar varieties, which makes marketing more difficult. A number of biodynamic fruit growers are actively involved in breeding new organic apple varieties. This work requires much patience, and many years of trials, selection and crossbreeding.
- Organic growers prefer trees from organic nurseries. Conventional fruit tree nurseries use hormones to create well-branched saplings, and pesticides to reduce diseases. Organic fruit tree nurseries use neither, leaving them with a smaller number of trees suitable for sale. As a result the cost price of organically raised trees is almost twice as high, and the trees generally have fewer side branches. If organic fruit growers are unable to locate specific varieties at organic nurseries, they are allowed to purchase trees from conventional nurseries instead.
- Using sustainable materials. Organic fruit growers use sustainable materials wherever possible. For instance, they use tree support stakes made of concrete or sustainably grown wood, rather than chemically treated wood. They also use environment-friendly packaging material.
- Increasing diversity. Conventional orchards are usually rather sterile, monotonous plantations. Organic fruit growers explicitly aim to increase biodiversity on their land, to contribute to a better natural environment and for its beneficial effects on fruit production. Honeybees and bumblebees pollinate fruit trees; insectivorous birds, parasitoid wasps and earwigs help to reduce pest insect populations. The presence of herbaceous flowers, leaf litter, nesting boxes and berry bushes helps to attract these pollinators and natural pest enemies to the orchard. Insects and birds introduce ‘the animal element’ to the orchard, and connect the orchard to the surrounding landscape. Biodynamic growers also seek to increase diversity in terms of the different elements or ‘spheres’ (earth, water, air and fire), as a means to enhance farm vitality.
- The farm as an integrated whole. Biodynamic fruit growers organize their farms and farming activities in such a way that each farm becomes an integrated whole, a coherent system with a unique identity. This farming system has clear boundaries, includes different farming activities that support one another, and is resilient to market fluctuations and weather extremes. The farm is considered a ‘living organism’. The farm’s identity is expressed in its products, logo, website and open days. It is created, defined and shaped by the farmer.
- Social relevance. The social relevance of biodynamic farms is usually not limited to the production of good quality food. Many biodynamic growers offer green care (care farming), recreation and education, and actively contribute to nature conservation. These activities help to involve citizens in food production and make them more aware of the earth’s carrying capacity. The cultural significance of agriculture, lost in the past, is thus restored.
- New forms of land ownership, and fair trade. High land prices combined with low food prices have been the driving forces of agricultural industrialization. This has led to the careless exploitation of soils, plants, animals, people and their environment. A number of biodynamic fruit growers are actively involved in defining alternative socio-economic approaches, such as new forms of land ownership, minimum price agreements and risk sharing. There is still a world to be gained.
- Work as an opportunity for personal growth. Biodynamic agriculture attaches great importance to inner growth and development. Everyone faces hurdles in their work, but these may offer opportunities for developing new skills and insights. A ‘learning path’ for this personal growth process has been described by Rudolf Steiner, the founding father of biodynamic agriculture. To his original teaching various other ideas on personal development have been added, allowing people to explore and gain insight into material as well as spiritual aspects of life. Biodynamic fruit growers may attend study days, workshops and coaching sessions for this purpose. In an ongoing pilot project, growers evaluate each other’s businesses to assess whether they deserve the Demeter quality mark.
A view on biodynamic fruit quality
What determines biodynamic fruit quality? How would you measure it, and what growing methods are needed to achieve it? This discussion is still ongoing, and many questions have yet to be answered. Some people limit the discussion to the quality of marketable fruit. Others include the qualities of the farm, the trading business and the influence on society. Although the latter issues are certainly relevant, they will not be considered here.
Product qualities such as size, external appearance, taste and storage quality are important characteristics for conventional, organic as well as biodynamic fruit. There are established methods for evaluating these qualities. But how would you measure specifically biodynamic qualities such as the ‘vitality’ or ‘life force content’ of an apple? Biodynamic quality concepts are not always entirely clear, and circular reasoning is a potential pitfall. The Working Group on Biodynamic Fruit Production runs a pilot project, in which researchers are testing various quality assessment methods such as emphatic observation, crystallisations, circular chromatography, capillary dynamolysis, and formative force image analysis.
A question that raises much interest among biodynamic fruit growers is whether fruit quality is influenced by tree shape. Would larger, freestanding apple trees with greater root systems accumulate more ‘vitality’ or ‘character’ into their fruit, than smaller apple trees grown together in hedgerows? How does the fruit quality of trees that were allowed to grow for a number of years before starting to produce fruit, compare to trees that started producing earlier on? Are the differences between saplings raised at conventional versus biodynamic tree nurseries still noticeable when they have grown into mature, fruit-producing trees? How does the fruit quality of high-stem apple trees with single vertical trunks compare to cup shaped trees? The Working Group on Biodynamic Fruit Production addresses these and other questions in a collaborative research project.
Webpage last edited on: 2010-04-13