San Diego biodynamic farms – are they better?

Jimbo's may be a bellwether

Steiner recommended that farms should always raise animals alongside crops to have an ever-present source of fertilizer on hand. Given the recycling in this kind of arrangement, Steiner considered such a self-contained farm to be a living organism.
  • Steiner recommended that farms should always raise animals alongside crops to have an ever-present source of fertilizer on hand. Given the recycling in this kind of arrangement, Steiner considered such a self-contained farm to be a living organism.
  • Photograph by Matthew Suárez

“My favorite thing about farming is putting my hands in the soil and feeling its life,” says Audrey James, proprietor of Odd Trees Biodynamic Farm. The phrase “Odd Trees” is a play on her first name and the twisted olive trees that line the driveway into the four acres she leases in Fallbrook. “People often think of the soil as just dirt. But the soil is alive!” says James, her voice rising in rhapsody. “As in animal and plant bodies, it has respiration, circulation, and digestion, all of which come from thousands of microorganisms interacting. Thousands and thousands of them. They are what endow the soil with life, many giving off beneficial antibiotics. Even in just touching the soil, you’re coming into contact with all these beneficial organisms that are helping good bacteria to flourish and the harmful ones to not. It is extremely healthy to touch the soil.”

Photograph by Matthew Suárez

James, who is 38 and a gentle soul, wanted to be a farmer from the time she was a child. On her website, she says that at age eight, she put cucumber seeds in a miniature greenhouse that was the toy in a Happy Meal her mother had bought her from McDonalds. She would later plant it in the backyard and finally harvest a cucumber. Her mother called it the tastiest she had ever eaten.

James grew up in Pensacola, Florida, and studied Horticulture at the University of Florida. The class that inspired her the most in the program was Horticultural Physiology. “I found out that animals and plants are not as fundamentally different as I once thought,” she tells me.

Before starting to farm, James worked for Altman Plants in Vista. “A great company, but it was a desk job,” she says. “Then I saw an ad in a national publication asking for a farming partner. The farm was two miles from where I live. So I worked with a guy who has since moved on, and I inherited the farm. I’ve been doing it by myself for a year now. The right things seem like they turn up at the right time.”

Audrey James wanted to be a farmer from the time she was a child.

Audrey James wanted to be a farmer from the time she was a child.

Photograph by Matthew Suárez

It is an overcast day in Fallbrook. James and I are walking between rows of the numerous species of vegetables she has growing now. “Of course, we are in the cool season,” she says, “so you see broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, collards, lettuce, turnips, different kales, beets, asparagus, bok choy, kohlrabi and, surprisingly, still some bell peppers coming. They’re normally harvested in the summer.”

We come to a compost pile that’s bulked up with asparagus plants, recently cut down. “The spears will start growing up through the compost,” James tells me. “In fact, here’s one right now.” She points out a thin shoot that is barely visible.

Reaching the end of one row, we walk in the opposite direction down another. “These are white Japanese turnips here,” says James. “They can be eaten raw and are good for juicing because they don’t have that bitter taste like turnips usually do. They’re sweet, mild, and very nutritious. Cabbage is, too. They are both ‘superfoods,’ a term used these days to mean highly nutrient dense. I make a lot of soups from cabbage.

Stefan Voelkel (left) runs a biodynamically produced German juice company. John Workman is acting as an American consultant for Voelkel.

Stefan Voelkel (left) runs a biodynamically produced German juice company. John Workman is acting as an American consultant for Voelkel.

Photograph by Joe Deegan

“The covered areas you see, and that box, are intended to keep the rabbits away from seedlings I’ve brought out from the greenhouse to get them started in the ground. You can see what the rabbits do; they nibble this kohlrabi here down to the nub. The gophers and snails do pretty well, too.”

At the end of the row, we see the collards and kale. “They’re pretty old,” James tells me, “so they’re being fed to the goats, who come out on the field and graze. I have three, and they stay in their pen at night and go out in the field during the day, where I tether them. I use their bedding in the compost, and they eat weeds for me and the older plants. As the cabbage and kale get older they’ll eat those and recycle them.”

Rudolf Steiner’s ideas became the basis of both biodynamic and organic farming, although the organic movement today rejects his more esoteric, occult, or even “spiritual” claims.

Rudolf Steiner’s ideas became the basis of both biodynamic and organic farming, although the organic movement today rejects his more esoteric, occult, or even “spiritual” claims.

Wikimedia Commons

We talk a little about beets, which are getting a lot of press nowadays as being good sources of extra energy, especially for athletes. “Beets are amazing,” says James. “The colors of a lot of plants are connected with what they’re good for, an example being that the red juice of the beets is very good for the blood.”

Beyond organic

Not long before Christmas, a routine happenstance in Sprouts Farmers Market on Park Boulevard piqued my interest in biodynamic farming, a term I confess I’d never heard before. As I passed the juice aisle, someone called my name. John Workman, an acquaintance I’d run into several times in the last few years, wanted to introduce me to someone. Workman is an ex-pat living in Germany with dual citizenship. It always seemed that he spent at least half his life in San Diego, where he often turns up with a vanload of school-age Germans, giving them exhaustive tours of America’s finest city, then heading out to the Grand Canyon or other destinations for one final excursion before their flight home. But this time, as I learned, he was on a different mission. He had brought the chief executive officer of a juice producing corporation, Stefan Voelkel, to explore exporting the juices from Germany to the U.S., starting in San Diego. Workman was acting as an occasional translator and American consultant for Voelkel.

Panorama Farms sells citrus and avocados to Jimbo’s and People’s Coop in Ocean Beach.

Panorama Farms sells citrus and avocados to Jimbo’s and People’s Coop in Ocean Beach.

Photograph by Matthew Suárez

Voelkel was dressed down in the most casual of clothes and wearing wooden clogs. He was examining the bottled juices on the shelf, especially Lakewood’s organic cranberry and beet juices. He had with him a slim bottle of his company’s own red beet and ginger juice, and he wanted to know whether I thought its labeling would attract American shoppers. The bottle was multicolored, and announced that Voelkel Beet Juice had no added sugar and was produced biodynamically. After I inquired what that meant, the two men and I went off to Lestat’s Coffee House up the street for a full discussion.

Before going into detail, Voelkel made this simple claim: biodynamics “is a step beyond organic farming.” Then he wanted me to know a little about the history of his family’s business. The Voelkel Juice Company was founded by Stefan’s grandparents Karl and Margret Voelkel in 1920. At that time they were living in Hanover, Germany, but, inspired by an escape-the-cities-to-the-country movement called Wandervogel, the Voelkels moved north to an area along the Elbe River known as Wendland, where they began farming. By 1936, in addition to the produce they grew, they started to sell juices, “at first bottling, only 50 to 100 bottles a day,” Voelkel tells me. “And they started saying to the surrounding farmers, ‘Bring me your fruits and vegetables.’”

Seeming to have a sense for the expectations of the U.S. market, he said that “from the beginning, the company refused to sell the juices in concentrate form and has never added sugar.” Apple juice is used to sweeten juices that might be too sour on their own.

Voelkel’s father took the company over when he came back from World War II. “After his death, I took over,” said Voelkel. “Today, each of my four sons has chosen to work in the company, becoming the fourth generation of Voelkels to run the business.”

“Our company is located in the same area where Rudolf Steiner set up an experimental farm in the 1920s. In 1924, Steiner gave lectures on a new type of farming in response to German farmers who worried about the effects of commercial fertilizers on their land. Steiner recommended that farms become self-contained ecosystems that keep external chemicals off the land. Instead, they should always raise animals alongside crops to have an ever present source of fertilizer on hand. Given the recycling in this kind of arrangement, Steiner considered such a self-contained farm to be a living organism.”

Steiner’s ideas became the basis of both biodynamic and organic farming, although the organic movement today rejects his more esoteric, occult or even “spiritual” claims. Along with animal waste, biodynamic agriculture promotes the use of composts for fertilizing. But it calls for the composts to be enlivened by burying a cow’s horn packed with either manure or the silica from finely ground quartz crystal and other ingredients in with the decaying material. Biodynamics relies on the cycles of the moon, planets, and constellations of stars for deciding planting times. Voelkel tells me that in northern Germany during a recent year, a severe drought and heat wave from April to September devastated crops that were conventionally farmed. The organic and the biodynamic farms survived.

Besides the farms in its own neighborhood, with which Voelkel Juices collaborates, the company has relationships with farmers throughout Germany, the rest of Europe, and beyond. “For instance,” says Voelkel, “we are working with farms in Iran. They have to be trained in biodynamic methods — and then certified as genuinely biodynamic. And that can take up to three years, unless they can demonstrate that they have been practicing its principles for a long while already.

“We also have relationships with a few farms in Turkey, too, because they grow the pomegranates we need. Pomegranates can’t be grown in northern Germany. Working with them, even training them, does not mean that we can certify them. That has to be done by a non-profit independent organization called Demeter, named after the Greek goddess of the grain harvest, that each country with biodynamic farms has. In the U.S., the certifying organization is Demeter USA. There is also an international biodynamic organization in Switzerland - Demeter International. You might call it a university of biodynamics.”

Voelkel speaks idealistically of his company’s goals. Unlike a company that grows and grows to the point of making a killing on its sale, he has turned Voelkel Juices into a foundation. All profits are put back into the foundation. No individuals own shares of the company; everyone who works for Voelkel receives only a salary or wages.

“Every company should have a mission other than a simple economic one,” says Voelkel. “Ours is to enrich as much of the soil on the earth as we can by increasing the number of biodynamic farms wherever we can. In Germany right now, only 10 percent of farming is even organic. All of the juices we produce are at least organic, and 40 to 50 percent of them are biodynamic.”

In addition to the question of whether the label on his juice bottles will attract the eyes of American consumers, Voelkel wonders if products coming from a foreign country will sell in San Diego.

I say there are many that do. “So Americans possibly like the exotic?” Voelkel asks. “Even German products, after the Volkswagen scandal? I hope so,” says a bemused Voelkel, who often sports a joking, playful demeanor.

Before the visitors from Germany left town, they held promising discussions with Jimbo’s … Naturally Market. They spoke with Monika Lynn, who came to the U.S. from Germany 18 years ago, and is now the “front end manager” for the company’s Horton Plaza store. Lynn had a slight awareness of Voelkel Juices before the discussions. Having traveled back and forth to Germany to see her parents in the Black Forest region a number of times, she had seen the juices in stores there. She tells me she has “received requests from German immigrants to San Diego for the Voelkel brand, which they hope Jimbo’s might someday carry.”

By now Stephan Voelkel and John Workman are back in Germany, while Jimbo’s awaits a shipment of samples to help them decide if want to put the juices on their shelves. Going forward, Lynn has promised to act as the liaison between the two companies.

Burying a cow horn

Voelkel and Workman tell me that they found distributors difficult to “break into,” so they are happy to have the chance to work directly with a particular San Diego store. In other respects, however, it looks as though they may have chosen an inhospitable environment for peddling anything biodynamic. For one thing, certified biodynamic farms are hard to find in San Diego County. Over the phone, even Elizabeth Candelario, president of Demeter USA, tells me she is not aware of any biodynamic farm in San Diego County.

But Helene Beck, owner of Beck Grove / La Vigne Organics, a citrus farm in Fallbrook, tells me by phone that her farm was certified as biodynamic as far back as the 1980s. The San Diego Union Tribune profiled Beck in January 2016.

“The 33-acres… originally was an avocado grove,” wrote Caron Golden, “but root rot was killing the trees.” The Becks (Helene’s husband has since died) “started over with young citrus, and eventually they discovered biodynamic principles of farming. Beck says now they are a wholly sustainable grove producing 15 crops, also keeping two cows to produce the grove’s fertilizer.”

Panorama Farm is another that practices biodynamics in Fallbrook, but has been certified only organic for 18 years. Soleil and Jacqueline Develle grow blood oranges and avocados. “We do about half citrus and half avocados,” Soleil tells me by phone, “and sell to Jimbo’s and the People’s Co-op in Ocean Beach.”

But, along with Odd Tree, those are the only biodynamic farms I can find in the county. If there are others, I can’t find them on Google, nor by asking around at the Hillcrest Farmers Market.

So, since biodynamic wineries have been increasing in recent years — in France, for example — I contacted the San Diego County Vintners Association for information on any corresponding local developments. “I am not aware of any biodynamic vineyards in the county,” replied Ed Embly, owner of Hungry Hawk Vineyards and Winery in Escondido. “The reading that I have done in trade magazines and other written sources of viticultural practices have a hard time of verifying any benefits of biodynamic farming. Most vineyards in the county practice what is called minimalistic farming, which means that whatever is done is only done if it is actually necessary to protect the plant, or the crop. Wholesale use of any pesticide, whether organic or not, rarely happens unless it is totally necessary.”

Individuals from the wine industry have been the source of a number of criticisms of biodynamics in recent years. In a 2010 blog called “Biodynamics is a Hoax,” Napa Valley vineyard owner and winemaker Stuart Smith may have stated them in the strongest terms: “Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner,” wrote Smith, “gave a series of lectures and discussions on agriculture in June 1924 to a group of several hundred of his anthroposophical followers in Koberwitz, Poland.” Notice the difference of this description of the Steiner lectures, highlighting the esoteric views of a widely criticized movement called anthroposophy, from Stefan Voelkel’s calling them a response to farmers “who worried about the effects of commercial fertilizers on their land.”

“Steiner had never been a farmer,” continued Smith, “yet he delivered these lectures... which became the foundation for biodynamics. In recent years biodynamics has been embraced by an ever widening group of vineyardists and wineries around the world. Some of the world’s most renowned wineries farm biodynamically and many consider biodynamics to be the ‘Rolls Royce’ of organic farming.

“Yet, after reading Steiner, I conclude that Rudolf Steiner was a complete nutcase, a flimflam man with a tremendous imagination, a combination if you will, of an LSD-dropping Timothy Leary with the showmanship of a P.T. Barnum. His books, writings, and lectures should be catalogued under ‘science fiction,’ because there is not a scintilla of truth in any of his writings. Reading Steiner is tough sledding, because it makes no sense in our real world, yet when viewed as ‘science fiction’ masquerading as some sort of Jim Jones new age cult, you are forced to admit that Steiner was extremely clever and creative in actually making this stuff up. Unfortunately, it is quite sad that someone—anyone—would actually believe in this hoax and profoundly disturbing that the biodynamic movement is gaining ground.”

In subsequent posts, Smith argued that a lack of commitment to scientific research in biodynamics is its major weakness. “Can someone show me,” he asks, “the rigorous peer reviewed research that demonstrates [the benefits of] burying a cow horn that transmits cosmic energy into the earth?”

The attack continued: “If it is a closed system, then why is it OK to truck in compost from up to 250 miles away from the farm?... Why is it OK to use a nasty pesticide made from chrysanthemums [rather] than a more environmentally friendly one made from the petrochemical industry?”

According to Smith, claims by the biodynamic movement’s representatives that its wines are superior to conventionally grown vineyards in caring for their natural environment have no basis and, furthermore, they divide the wine making community, which Smith portrays as working “together to solve problems - as most farmers do.”

Smith did give a backhanded compliment to one biodynamic speaker he heard at a wine industry event. “To her credit, she mentioned what she called the Achilles Heel of Biodynamics, which are exotic pests.”

Food fight

The intensity of Smith’s criticism suggests something beyond the issues of scientific truth, especially when he worries that he finds it “profoundly disturbing that the biodynamic movement is gaining ground.” He worries, too, about the movement’s claims of superiority dividing the wine making community, as though the wine industry is not competitive. Is this not one side of a marketing argument?

On the other side, in the face of such criticism as Smith’s and a number of others calling biodynamics “bullshit,” the aficionados hardly go quietly into the night. They defend its farming first and foremost, by appealing to people’s sensual perceptions, not only of its grapes and wine, but also of its fruits and vegetables. Stefan Voelkel wants his juices on San Diego store shelves “so that customers can see for themselves how good the juices taste.” Other factors are the color, sizes and texture of the produce. In these times of heightened environmental sensitivity, the practitioners and promoters, however much they’re attacked, promote biodynamics as a self-sustaining “spiritual-ethical-ecological approach to agriculture, and a healer of the earth.”

The term “spiritual” as a designation for farming and the associations with astrology and other unconventional approaches grate on the scientifically-minded. Demeter USA’s Elizabeth Candelaria has addressed the issue. She maintains “that the terms ‘alchemy, astrology, and homeopathy’ are not mentioned in the Demeter standard.”

“We are certainly not in the business of certifying people’s spirituality,” she says. “The standard does not represent all of the ways farmers practice biodynamic agriculture, just like one type of yoga… does not describe the entirety of what yoga may mean to the yoga movement.”

The other major bugaboo for strict rationalists, of course, is the role cow horns play in creating the biodynamic preparations for fertilizing the soil and spraying crops. Here Candelaria pulled no punches in her description of the practice. “Cow manure is a dense, nutrient rich material,” Candelaria continues. “When placed in a cow horn under the ground, where the temperature is constant throughout the winter, the manure ferments, much like a sourdough inoculate, or [how] a kombucha culture ferments. When it is exhumed, the material looks like chocolate and has a beautiful earthy aroma. This inoculate is then added to water and broadcast on soil, where it directly impacts the microbial life of that soil.”

She does acquiesce in a certain scientific procedure by Demeter, which she describes as “collecting topsoil samples from biodynamic farms. This will help the organization determine if the soil quality is improving year after year on certified biodynamic farms.” According to Candelaria, Demeter is the only national farming organization implementing this practice.

Candelaria remarks optimistically that the topsoil samples “will provide a tool for farmers who continue to focus on building healthy soil, and give a voice to the powerful about biodynamic agriculture’s role in mitigating the impacts of climate change.”

But she adds that beyond agronomic benefits, “You may also find some biodynamic farmers who ... may describe their personal relationship with their farm that speaks to a deeper connection with the farm and its place in nature.”

Takes a whole community

At Fallbrook’s Odd Tree Biodynamic Farm, Audrey James is aware of the controversies surrounding biodynamics. In regard to the influence of the moon, the planets and stars, she believes that biodynamics is oriented not to astrology but to astronomy, which also recognizes constellations of stars, although in a somewhat different way.

“And think about the influence of the moon on water in the tides” she says. “It also influences water in the ground.”

“I do listen to people who are critical of biodynamics,” James tells me. “And what they think doesn’t bother me. The biodynamic process just feels right to me, and I follow its principles and use its preparations, although I’m not certified. I’m happy with the results I get. It’s amazing how much you can grow on a small piece of land.”

So far, her farm only breaks even, but it seems to have the potential to make money. “But one person can’t do everything,” she says. James leads a meet-up on biodynamics and brings people to her farm for hands-on experience. “It takes a whole community,” she says.

If others work on the farm to help it make money, what will the financial agreement be? Payment in produce? Or a prearranged scheme for dividing up profits? “We’ll see,” she says. “I’m not sure. I think, as things develop, the best way to do that will come about.”

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