Every fall, paper bags of dainty green grapes arrive at Weaver Street Market from Marian Farms, a 100-acre biodynamic farm in Fresno, California. The grapes are known for their juicy sweetness and their tender skins. You may not realize that the grapes are Thompson seedless, the popular American grape. Their small size is the natural size of the grapes; most Thompson grapes are treated with a growth hormone—sometimes an all-natural one—to make longer bunches and bigger grapes. As grape size increases, sweetness disperses. Grape companies are paid by the ton, not by quality or taste, so bigger grapes are to their advantage. Marian Farms doesn’t use the growth hormone as part of their mission to “grow good food, craft good spirits, and take care of the earth.”
At Marian Farms, workers pick the grapes by hand to avoid damaging them. Gena Nonini, a third generation farmer and owner of the farm, describes the rigorous quality control her grapes undergo before shipping. She pays her workers by the hour, not by the weight of grapes picked, to encourage them to pick carefully and avoid damaging the grapes. Most of the pickers are women, because she’s found that the women examine the grapes better as they pick. Grapes are picked as orders come in, not picked ahead and put into cold storage. A golden color means the grape is at its sweetest, not that it is getting old. Grapes don’t keep ripening after picking, so the workers pick them when they reach this color.
Workers bring the grapes to a cleaning table in the shade, where they are examined again. Packers examine the grapes a third time. Most of the workers are the friends and family of Gena’s three full-time field workers. Gena cares about their comfort; she has worked every aspect of the farm. “I know it’s hot and dusty in the fields,” she says. “My philosophy is, don’t ask people to do something you’re not willing to do yourself.”Biodynamic farming practices
also set Marian Farms apart. Gena explains the additional practices that biodynamic farms follow, beyond being organic. Biodynamic farms follow the teachings that Rudolf Steiner put forth in 1924. They use nine “preparations” to increase soil fertility and fight disease. They pay attention to cosmic movements, especially those of the nearby moon. Their ultimate goal is to be a self-sustaining “farm organism.” Marian Farms only lacks the animal component, instead bringing in cow manure from a nearby Organic Valley dairy.
Biodynamics involves a huge amount of planning. For example, one of the preps, “horn manure,” is manure from a lactating cow that is placed in a cow horn and buried, open end down, in a pit with compost-rich soil. The lactation process adds calcium, and the cow horn has a solid tip that a bull horn lacks. Mulch keeps the pit cool for four months as the manure ferments; the final product is dissolved in water and mixed, first in one direction for an hour, and then in the other. It is sprayed or sprinkled onto fields in late afternoon, at the descending phase of the moon. Farmers can buy the horn manure, but must take care of the mixing and spraying themselves.
With organic farming becoming mainstream, it is harder for small farmers to compete. Being biodynamic sets a farm apart. Small farms can also produce value-added products or provide direct-delivery. Marian Farms has a distillery. They make orange liquor from the oil in their orange peels, and skin care products with the oil from broken almonds.
Organic farming has often become about “input substitution.” Some farmers even “do” biodynamics because it works, without thinking much about it. But true biodynamics requires not only thinking and planning, but also being led by your heart and getting involved with the land and the nature spirits, Gena says. “The universe has a way of teaching you things when you’re ready to listen—listen with your heart, not your brain.” The preps are receptors for the life force from the cosmos; they help it get into the food and then into the eater. Food should provide nutritional support and spiritual support, but most food is dead—it uses our body’s energy to break down. Humans need food that gives back. “My job as a farmer is to grow the finest food.”