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part 8: the consultants 

Perhaps the most common way for a vigneron to make the transition from conventional or organic viticulture to biodynamics is by hiring a consultant, and Jacques Mell may well be the first flying biodynamic consultant in Europe. At any one time he consults for around 25 growers, and in addition to his contracts in France, he currently has three clients in Italy, although he can’t give names because of confidentiality clauses (one is based in Brescia, one in Verona and Sicily, and the third is in Etna).

Trained as a lawyer, Mell discovered organic agriculture in 1967 through his involvement in beekeeping, and then found biodynamics 10 years later. He formed his own consultancy in 1989. At this time there were only six winegrowers who practiced biodynamics in France; now he estimates that there are over 100 (Demeter alone currently have 56 certified vignerons on their books). Mell deals with general agriculture as well as winegrowing, although it's the latter that is currently growing fastest. To hire his services would cost some €1500 a year, which seems reasonable. ‘My aim is to make it affordable’, Mell explains. ‘It is not just something for the rich farmers’. He is also the secretary of Demeter in France.

Mell is keen to point out that this is the first time in history that people have had the choice between three types of agriculture: conventional (with its reliance on chemicals), organics and biodynamics. ‘It is very interesting’, says Mell, ‘because each can choose in complete freedom.’ He’s seeing more conversion to biodynamics in wine growing than general agriculture. ‘9 out of 10 people who change to it are wine growers’, he points out.

One of Mell’s clients is Francis Boulard of Champagne Raymond Boulard. Boulard is not yet fully biodynamic, but he has been curious enough to experiment with part of his production (last year, 2002, around 1 hectare) to see what difference biodynamics makes. Two years in to this trial, he has noted consistent improvements in the plot he has farmed this way, and he plans to continue with it.

Boulard tells me that he is one of the growers participating in a five year trial that has was initiated in spring 2002 by the CIVC (the official body that looks after the Champagne region). They are systematically comparing three different viticultural regimes: organic, lutte raisonée (an integrated approach with limited, selectively targeted chemical inputs) and biodynamics. According to Boulard, the CIVC are taking samples of soils and grapes, and then comparing finished wines. It will be fascinating to see the results of this experiment, but the CIVC won’t comment on it until all the results are in.

I asked Mell why there is still a reliance on copper fungicide treatments in biodynamics. Isn't that admitting that biodynamics doesn't work properly if chemical means are still needed to combat disease?  His explanation was as graphic as it was unusual. ‘In vineyards, vines are usually there for many years. There is no crop rotation. If you grow a plant yourself and use your own excrement to fertilize it the plant will eventually become ill and you will become ill also if you eat it. Vines stay in the same soil year after year so they are living on their own excrement. They become feeble because there is no reviving of the soil, and this weakens them. They are in a state of weakness where they are liable to attack.’

There are a number of biodynamic consultants at work, not just in Europe but also in the USA – Alan York is probably the most visible for his work in California. Frequently, though, biodynamics spreads through personal contact between growers. As one adopts it, and finds that it works, then they share their knowledge with other growers who take an interest in this new way of growing. Either way, biodynamics seems to be growing as a movement, driven largely by the enthusiasm of both individual growers and also consultants like Jacques Mell.

Other topics in this series 


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