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Elizabeth Candelario On Biodynamic Farming

Understand the difference between organic and biodynamic farming

Elizabeth Candelario is the managing director of Demeter Association Inc., the nonprofit certifier of Biodynamic® farms and products in the United States, as well as the board president for Demeter’s accredited organic certifier, Stellar Certification Services. Before that, during her time as marketing director at Quivira Vineyards, a pioneering Dry Creek Valley winery in Sonoma, Candelario gained a deep interest in biodynamic farming as the wine estate made the transition from conventional practices. She signed on to the concept of Biodynamic agriculture, a precursor of modern organic farming methods that began in Europe in the early 20th century, and has carried forward its premise that farming should be a regenerative and holistic system that considers the farm as a self-sustaining and self-contained whole that can also help heal the planet. Candelario is quite the expert, and evangelist, on organics.

With Demeter, Candelario works to help increase awareness in Biodynamic agriculture and how it can positively impact what we eat and drink, as well as the environment. The WTS spoke with Candelario—who is also one of our advisors—to learn how tomatoes can serve as a tool to understanding the benefits of Biodynamic agriculture for both growers and consumers.

World Tomato Society: What inspired Quivira Vineyards to transition from conventional farming to Biodynamic practices and how did that pique your own interest?

Elizabeth Candelario: We were one of the first landowners in Dry Creek Valley to start focusing on watershed issues and we were doing creek restoration to Wine Creek, which bisects the estate. We felt there was a little bit of a philosophical disconnect between that work and getting our organic certification. We hired Alan York to get our organic certification and he said, ‘Well, don’t stop at organic, you guys should be biodynamic.’ We really trusted him, so we decided to just go for it and keep an open mind. It was pretty remarkable because fifteen years ago, Quivira was one of the early adopters in the wine industry of biodynamic practices. Over the course of five years, we were completely blown away by the transformation of the estate. I’ve been so happy to see that since then, so many landowners around Dry Creek Valley and the Russian River Watershed are committed to restoration work.

WTS: What are some of the key elements of biodynamic farming for people to understand as they relate to both the health of the farm and the planet?

EC: Biodynamic farming can simply be viewed as a very comprehensive form of organic farming. While organic is more focused on what you don’t do—you don’t use synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, avoid GMOs, no sewer sludge or irradiation of products—biodynamic is much more about what you do. The organic standard forms the base of the Demeter Standard, so if a farm is certified biodynamic, it means it has de facto met the requirements of organic certification even if it’s not certified organic. The standard builds on top of that.

For example, in organic you can have a large winery property, and you can have the portion of that property that’s certified organic. With biodynamic, maintaining the idea of the farm as a living organism, the entire farm has to be certified. Ten percent of that total acreage must be set aside for biodiversity, so that can be naturally occurring like an oak grove or it can be created via hedgerows. The idea is that the living dynamics of the farm itself should be used to address issues on the farm—fertility, pests, disease control. What we look for in biodynamic is instead of importing solutions from the outside, we would ask ourselves, ‘Why are we having these issues?’ Then, within the farm system, create solutions.

Also, in organic, there’s one processing standard for all products—dried apricots, wine, cheese. In biodynamic, we have eighteen processing standards. There’s a processing standard for oils, for spices, for textiles, for wine, etc. And within that standard, there are two categories—for example, wine that’s made with biodynamic grape wine, which tracks with the organic standard; and then the biodynamic wine category, which does not allow for any manipulation, though it does allow up to 100 parts per million of sulfur.

Now, what’s really cool, is that we’ve been focused on developing a natural marketplace with products in addition to wine, and I’m pleased to say that some of the best natural food companies are bringing biodynamic products to market. Having been in the wine industry for so long, one of the things that I’ve noticed is that you see all of these mono-culture vineyards moving into polyculture. You see farms growing vegetables to sell at market or at the winery for events, and that’s a beautiful thing.

WTS: What are some of the key elements for growers to communicate to consumers about biodynamic farming and what are some of the benefits that they can hope to see from making the shift?

EC: There are three wonderful rewards that one would have by moving their farm into a biodynamic model. Number one is that it just helps farmers be better farmers. It provides a standard by which all agriculture can aspire, and it shows up in the health of the estate, the quality of the products, and the engagement of the employees and customers. Demeter is actively engaged with building consumer awareness in the marketplace and that was the strategy behind working with these national brands to get these products to the grocery store shelves so we can start telling the story of biodynamic farming.

From a cost standpoint, it can be a little daunting upfront because you have the cost of certification, and you need to renew it yearly with an inspection. It takes a while to get the fertility on the farm going so that you can really close the door on bringing stuff in, but once one achieves that, then it really has an impact on your out-of-pocket costs.

WTS: How can the natural food industry help to push toward more regenerative farming and how does that have an impact on addressing climate change?

EC: I’m happy to say that leaders in the natural food industry are starting to realize that they can’t have a sustainable business model if the farming that stands behind their products is unsustainable. So, what they’re starting to pay attention to is this notion of regenerative agriculture. You see a lot of organizations really doing their part to start to understand what it means to be regenerative and how they can promote that and incorporate it into branding. You have General Mills partnering with Organic Valley to help farmers transition from conventional to organic, and in doing so, create more of a supply chain for organic products that they want to bring to market.

The biodynamic farm standard has been around since the 1930s and biodynamic farms have been sequestering carbon since then. Whether you’re talking about biodiversity, food security, climate mitigation, climate adaptation, food quality, soil health, these are all issues that are addressed by the Demeter Biodynamic® Farm Standard. Also, as part of the Demeter inspection process, we now include the inspector taking a soil sample from one of the production areas; that sample will be tested to determine the percentage of carbon in it. We’re going to use that data to help farmers to see that the number is increasing each year—in other words, that they’re building soil each year via the practices within the standard. Then we’re going to aggregate that data to give voice to power, to spread the word about the ability of biodynamic agriculture to be a remedy for climate change. I think we’re the only agricultural organization at this point that’s made that commitment here in this country, and I’m really excited about it.

WTS: How might tomatoes serve as a key for educating both consumers and farmers about biodynamic practices?

EC: You can’t have healthy soil when you’re conventionally farming. The addition of synthetic fertilizer and pesticides kills the microbiota in the soil, and discourages the plant—tomato or otherwise—from pulling carbon out of the air. What happens when that plant can pull carbon out of the air is that it exudes some of it back into the soil, which encourages the microbiota because it needs that carbon and can’t get it without the plant. And then the by-product of the microbiota is nutrients used by the plant—it’s a beautiful bridge between the plant and the soil. And it’s exactly that that imparts flavor into the food.

Tomatoes are like the canary in the coal mine, because when you have dead soil, you’re going to have a tomato that doesn’t taste like anything. And when you have nutrient-rich soil, you’re going to have a fabulous tomato. So in a way, a tomato becomes a vehicle for us to talk to consumers about why there’s this rich reward in focusing on regenerative agriculture. Sometimes, the long-term goal is too big of a subject for people to get really passionate about this notion that we have to deal with climate change by changing the way we farm. The short-term reward within that is that we can create this beautiful, nutrient-rich food.

WTS: What kind of impact can regenerative farming have on carbon sequestration and why is making the shift to those methods important right now?

EC: I think most people will agree that from seed to shelf, agriculture is the number one man-made contributor to climate change. That is a result of farming practices, the production and use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and transportation. Given that, we will not effectively address climate change if we don’t reimagine the way that we farm. The number one problem with climate change—in addition to the contribution of energy—is that all of this carbon that’s in the atmosphere has come out of the soil, and it’s not in the soil, but falling into the ocean and creating acidification and warming the planet. What we need to do is get that carbon out of the atmosphere and put it back into the soil. The tool to do that happens every day when the sun is shining: it’s photosynthesis, and plants do it beautifully.

There’s a French initiative called the 4 Pour 1000 Initiative, and what they’ve said by doing the math is that by increasing the organic matter in the world’s agricultural soil by just four percent, the annual increase of atmospheric CO2 would stop. So agriculture is one of the solutions to climate change, and the beautiful reward of that is that we can also address food quality, food security, biodiversity, and all these other issues that we’re really concerned with.

WTS: And finally, because we can’t resist, what is your favorite tomato variety?

EC: My favorite is the Pink Berkeley Tie-Dye. They are just so beautiful, incredibly juicy, with a fabulous tomato flavor. Shout out to Wild Boar Farms for this varietal.

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