It’s easier to work with Mother Nature than to fight her, according to some North Fork farmers.
These farmers don’t use conventional farming methods – applying synthetic pesticides and fertilizers — but they aren’t considered “certified organic” either, although their growing techniques involve only natural materials.
They farm using biodynamics.
The Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association describes this technique as “a spiritual, ethical, and ecological” approach to agriculture, food production and nutrition. It dates back to the 1920s, when a group of farmers became concerned with the declining health of the soils, plants and animals on their land, according to the association.
“The basic premise is to bring the natural ecosystem and natural local ecology back on to your farm,” said Barbara Shinn, owner of Shinn Estate Vineyards in Mattituck. She described it as “restorative farming.”
Ms. Shinn said synthetic fertilizers and pesticides upset a farm’s natural ecosystem, stripping away healthy organisms as well as the pests they are designed for.
“It’s about balance,” said KK Haspel, owner of The Farm in Southold. “When you have a lot of pests it’s an indication there is an imbalance in your soil.”
Instead of chemicals, these farmers use what they call “preparations” made from fermented manure, minerals and herbs, Ms. Haspel said.
Different preparations add microbes back into the soil, stimulating effects like root growth and photosynthesis, combating fungus and regulating the plant’s use of nitrogen naturally bound up in the soil, according to the Josephine Porter Institute for Applied Biodynamics Inc., which makes the preparations.
“It increases the microbial action exponentially in the soil,” Ms. Haspel said, who began planting biodynamically in 2000 and attended a year-long course at the institute to learn about the different farming methods.
Other techniques include following a calendar that estimates the best days for germination when planting seeds, and leaving parts of the farm untouched.
Ms. Haspel said she farms only two of her five acres.
Both she and Ms. Shinn said that, aside from helping the environment, there is a cost benefit to biodynamic farming.
The preparations cost between $5 and $8 per acre and are simply mixed with water. The solutions are then applied by hand using a whisk-type tool, Ms. Haspel said.
“I can say with using the natural additions to my soil, and not man-made fertilizer, I estimate I save approximately $2,000 a year just on soil additions alone,” Ms. Shinn said.
She began the transition to biodynamic farming in 2004, wanting to take a more organic approach to maintaining her vineyard. She said she relies on books and seminars to learn the farming methods.
Biodynamic farming, she said, allows her vineyard to use the yeast that occurs naturally on the grapes’ surface for fermentation.
“What you’re growing is going to be a much more natural reflection of the farm and of the place your food and wine is growing from,” Ms. Shinn said. “We’ve definitely seen an evolution in our wines. Our wines have become much more complex much more concentrated and definitely have an earthy characteristic.”
Those who take a biodynamic approach “treat their farm as a single living organism,” Ms. Shinn said.
“It is a whole different way of thinking and doing things,” Ms. Haspel said. “I’m doing it, and I am doing it successfully.”
Both farmers, who are among just a few currently using biodynamics locally, say they hope others will begin using these methods to restore the health of the North Fork’s soil and surface water.