Biodynamic Farming By the Cosmos: A New Foodism

Writer Kathryn Mattingly of LPMagazine spent some time recently with Daniel D’Agostini of Abbondanza, where she learned all things biodynamic farming and the cosmos, and how and why food becomes an ‘ism’ in the foothills of Northern California.


Daniel D’Agostini sells his produce to all in search of good quality, organically grown fruits and vegetables. Although biodynamics is his most recent passion, he’s had several others. Daniel taught middle school art and science… in an unconventional way. He’s the type of teacher you’re still talking about years later when your therapist asks if anything ever went right in your life.

At the beginning of each school year he took his middle school science students camping for 3 days at Mono Lake so they could experience chemistry, ecology, geology, history and do a little star gazing all at the same time, creating a bond among the subjects – human and otherwise. Did your science teacher do that?

He also did organic gardening with his students, and was commissioned by the California Department of Education to produce a large format wall poster and draft the vision statement for ‘A Garden in Every School.’ Baby chicks were born and nursed to adolescence in his classroom, causing even the toughest school bullies to find their softer side and develop nurturing abilities. Moved outside when too big to run around the classroom any longer, adult chickens laid eggs that were sold by the students to buy their organic farming supplies.

Art classes were more of the same. Hands-on, eye opening, and centered around participation rather than book learning. They were without a doubt lessons for a lifetime – not forgotten, but forged into ‘best school memories.’

Biodynamic farmer & photographer Daniel D’Agostini

And then there’s photography. Capturing those moments that pass us by and freeze framing them for all eternity. Daniel has a passion for pictures. Not just any pictures. His photographs have made their way into shows that rub elbows with the work of some very renowned photographers like Ansel Adams himself.

Kathryn Mattingly at the Farm

I helped Daniel pick Fava beans from one of his raised organic beds that he constructed himself and later, while eating them alongside his succulent organic lettuce, I asked a few questions about his yummy food grown in the good, biodynamic balanced earth he is so dedicated to producing. My first question, however, was about photography – because it defines Daniel. His most recent shots, symbolizing the spirituality of the land, are fascinating indeed.

When did you become serious about photography?

I didn’t become serious about photography until my early twenties. I had just returned from an extensive period of travel and working around the country. The photos I had managed to capture on an old Argus I really didn’t know how to use were disappointing.

I purchased a new 35mm in 1971, and in 1972 began my first year as a teacher. With a real job and paycheck I felt flush and bought a complete darkroom setup figuring if I was going to be a real photographer I needed to do everything. I scoured photography books and began reading about the lives of photographers.

Before long I was spending weekends in the city investigating the galleries and the museums, particularly studying the photography collections. Adams’ books were well marked and used. My students and friends became used to me with a camera in hand. The walls of the classroom often had a new series of 8×10 prints and on parent visits I would spread the pictures out for them to take. I moved five different times in the course of the next eight years and a darkroom was created in each space…it’s what one did.

By the mid-70’s I began using medium format and also purchased a beautiful 4×5 field camera. I was beginning to think of myself as a photographer. In 1978, I stopped teaching and began a serious study of many things and did a lot of backpacking in the Sierra. By 1980, I moved back to Amador County and lived off in a cabin out of River Pines while working at the family winery and building my studio behind our family home.

I know a lot of your photographs take place at Mono Lake, and you’ve used the area as a field trip for middle school science students. Tell me about your connection to that lake.

When I finished the studio in 1981, I began photographing the world around me in b/w again and working in the darkroom for marathon sessions. That’s when I began a connection to Mono Lake that resulted over time, with my experiencing its presence each month of the year.

In 1983, Stephen Johnson, Al Weber and Don Worth selected me to be a part of fifty-two American Photographers whose work was showcased in the At Mono Lake Photographic Exhibition held at the Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.

Featuring the work of Ansel Adams, Brett Weston, Timothy O’Sullivan, Edward Curtis, Ted Orland, Don Worth, Philip Hyde, Dave Bohn, Clinton Smith, Stephen Johnson, Robert Dawson and others the show traveled to numerous locations before becoming a permanent revolving show at the Mono Lake Visitor Center. Seeing my work next to Ansel Adams at the Academy of Sciences was a deep affirmation to me.

In 1983 I was offered the position of teaching 7th and 8th grade math and science at a local school. I’ve always been a person who wants to make lessons alive and real and to be able to teach from the heart – from direct experience – not something memorized from a book. So it seemed logical to me that I should take these students to Mono Lake where they could learn first hand about chemistry (the lake is a “triple chemical mixture of carbonates, calcium, and sulfur), it is an ecologically unique environment, it has fascinating geological characteristics, grand history, deep beauty and spirituality.

I know you have started some organic gardens in the school system too. What can you tell me about your experiences with that?

In 1985, a few friends and I established a school garden at the Pioneer school in Somerset, California, where I was teaching and had taken the kids to Mono Lake. Moving to the Yuba City area in 1989, I ignited two creative school garden projects. In 1997, I received a commission from the California Department of Education to produce a large format wall poster and draft the vision statement for the State Superintendent of Schools – promoting: A Garden in Every School.

The idea for the school gardens was again giving the kids a direct hands-on approach to learning. We all eat – food is the common ground for all of us and the growing of it is deep in our life memories. In a diverse garden setting one can touch every subject. In our American culture dominated by fast food I was saddened by how few children knew anything about gardening or food. The link that follows gives a good overview of my garden in Yuba City and has direct quotes:

These days you are into biodynamic farming first and foremost. What is it and what types of produce do you grow?

Biodynamic Farming is the best of organic farming carried a little further, working with the rhythms – those underlying forces or energies of the cosmos. One begins to think of the farm as a self-sufficient organism enlivened by the stewards (farmer) through the use of compost and spray preparations made from certain flowers and minerals on the farm.

I grow vegetables, particularly those one might find in Italy and France. I also grow figs, plums, lemons, grapes, plums, olives, mandarin oranges, culinary herbs of all sorts, flowers – as many as possible (I have over 150 lavender plants) and sunflowers for the bees.

Daniel has built an innovative home for his new hive of bees (the top slats are removable). He gently transported them (Is there any way but gentle to transport a bee?) from an undesirable location in an attic to their new outdoor haven on his biodynamic farm.

At first I was fearful of the honeybees but they didn’t really take notice of us. The bees were busy, so to speak, with whatever bees do best besides stinging. Truth be told, we could have put our noses against the glass window of their new home and they couldn’t have cared less. Now that’s a happy hive of bees! I’m sure the sunflowers are partly why. It’s one of their favorite foods.

Moving on from biodynamics and bees, what inspired you to do the book on wine caves?

Since 1985, I have worked with Molly Chappellet on many of her projects in the Napa Valley. While working on Romance of California Vineyards with Molly and her daughter Carissa during the spring of 1996, I experienced a modern wine cave. That moment triggered a curiosity.

Over the course of the next twelve years I photographed over 100 wine caves at all stages of creation. I realized how few people really knew about these unique spaces. I also discovered there wasn’t a single book written about them, not even as a source of reference. I felt compelled to create a book that could serve as the benchmark to explain and share what had occurred underground in the past 25 years. I mean when you think about it, from 1981 -2006 something had occurred that hadn’t happened anywhere in the world for almost 100 years -creating a wine tunnel – and for the most part it had gone unnoticed! Some were absolutely amazing spaces. The ripple effect was starting to show around the world again. The story needed to be told. Hence the book.

My friend Molly Chappellet was instrumental in getting the publishers to take me seriously. Molly took the lead in the design of the book while the concept, research, writing, and photography was done by me.

What will your next project be? Perhaps the fascinating story of your parents and how they met, the lives they carved out together here in Amador County?

The story of my parents is like a fairy-tale for me. My sister and I loved them deeply. We were a close and loving family. I still feel very connected to them and always will. My father was one of 19 soldiers who arrived in Melbourne, Australia on March 20, 1942, having escaped from Java. American headquarters had yet to be established. Australians were asked to open their homes to these men.  The door to the home that my dad knocked upon happened to have a beautiful young woman in residence, and approximately six weeks later they had become engaged. I hope to write this memoir one day.

I’m sure the photography for this memoir will be a culminating event of your skill for capturing energy and beauty as an art form.  

Daniel D’Agostini has a photography show through June 24 at the Hanford Street Gallery in Sutter Creek featuring photographs from his 30 years of photography, including work from his book on wine caves Into The Earth. The show also features new work centered around his biodynamic farming. (Hanford St. Gallery, 291 Hanford St., Sutter Creek, CA 95685) You can see his work online at:

Article by Kathryn Mattingly

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