The Rodale Institute

January 13, 2015

In 1947, J. I. Rodale established the Soil and Health Foundation on his experimental farm near Emmaus, Pennsylvania. In 1972, the Foundation moved to a much larger farm in Maxatawny, Pennsylvania, where for a time it was known as the Rodale Research Center. It still exists there today as the nonprofit Rodale Institute. Here we track its history through our pages.

June 1972

The “old” Organic Gardening Experimental Farm is a great place. After 30 years of being composted and mulched, its fields are almost as soft as a Persian carpet. In fact, you can walk the land after a rain and come home with no mud sticking to your shoes. Pick up a handful of soil anywhere and the woodsy smell of primeval earth clings to your fingers.

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Yet despite our success on the 75 acres, we have long been looking for another farm. We are being inundated by the organic idea itself, which has grown so rapidly that our small farmyard is no longer adequate for the hundreds of visitors who come each week. There is just not enough space to display for visitors all the advances in organic technique, which are coming along each season. In short, we have wanted a new, larger Organic Gardening Experimental Farm whose central purpose would be to welcome and teach people about all aspects of organic gardening and farming, from tilling the soil to preparing organically grown foods for the table.

After several years of looking, we have found such a place. The new farm is 305 acres in size; it is really a small farm village, with three houses, two large barns, several sheds, and an old one-room schoolhouse nestled along a small stream.

There is a tremendous challenge to this place, although it is a different kind of challenge than faced J. I. Rodale in July 1941, when he bought the first farm. The land of the new farm needs improvement; it’s been chemically farmed, dosed with chemical fertilizers, weed-killers, pesticides, and so forth. Our challenge is to light the fire in this soil, and to flush away the toxins that have been left there by chemical farmers. We are confident that it can be done.
We aim to create at this farm an educational and research center that  will serve many people and still not disturb the rural beauty of an area  that looks today almost as it did when it was deeded to former owners over 200 years ago by the sons of William Penn. Yes, there are some paved roads now and a few new houses here and there, but in this Pennsylvania hollow there is the look of peace and openness which is fast fading from the scene in too many parts of America. We want to do a lot here, but we don’t want to spoil anything.—Robert Rodale

Photograph courtesy of Mario Frova/Rodale Family Archives

June 1984

The question is always asked by longtime readers of Organic Gardening after I’ve taken them on a tour of the Rodale Research Center. We stand there, getting ready to say goodbye. They say how pleased they are to see all the bustling research activity. Then they ask the question: “What would J. I. Rodale say?”

What would my father say if he were here today? My thoughts go back to the beginning of his organic research work. The year was 1941. I was 11. He had just bought 63 acres of eroded Pennsylvania land and broken-down buildings. His goal was to make that farm into a showplace of the new kind of gardening and farming that was still only a vision in his head.

The main challenge then was simply to show a skeptical world that a place degraded and almost ruined by the old way could be resurrected organically. We bought cattle, mainly to get their manure. We made piles and piles of compost. Leaves and all kinds of organic wastes from all over found their way to our place. Soon, J.I. could in fact point with pride to his demonstration of organic methods. The concept worked.

Today, a visitor to the Rodale Research Center sees a different pattern of effort. We have known for years that organic gardening and farming methods work. Decades ago, our crop yields moved above the average for the region. From the beginning, insect and disease problems were handled easily without pesticides. No longer is our research a demonstration to convince unbelievers. No, we are now working to improve organic methods, to make them work even better.

Visitors see the conversion experiment, our pride and joy. On 15 acres, divided into 72 plots, we are learning the best way to convert land from the old high-input pattern using chemical methods to the regenerative system based on crop rotations and organic practices.

Results are impressive. Crop yields are fine in the organic plots. In summer, the organic soil is soft. Tillage is noticeably easier compared to turning the soil in the chemical plots. And here is the big change from the old days of organic farming: The conversion experiment shows that organic farming can be the most profitable kind of agriculture. We are proving that high-cost chemical inputs simply aren’t necessary. Business-minded farmers are taking note.
Sometimes, when I go to the garden to smell the herbs and watch the predator insects at work doing what those terribly toxic poisons still do in many other gardens, I think I can indeed hear what J. I. Rodale would say. “I told you all this was going to happen.” Then his voice in my head trails off. I can’t hear the words, but I get the message. And the message is: Get back to work. There’s plenty more to do. —Robert Rodale

Photography by Mitch Mandel

June/July 2011

The Rodale Institute’s Farming Systems Trial (FST) has been tracking the performance of organically grown grain crops (corn and soybeans) and conventional, synthetic-chemical-reliant grain crops for the past 30 years. As America’s longest running side-by-side comparison of these farming systems, the FST has revealed that crops grown organically are truly healthier and hardier in the long run, and better able to cope with weather extremes. Organic fields in the FST produce just as much as the chemical-reliant fields, despite claims that organic farming uses more resources to produce less food. But it is the performance of the organic fields during drought years that is truly amazing.

In four out of five drought years, organically grown corn produced significantly more than conventionally grown corn. The organic corn of the FST was even more successful under drought conditions than drought-tolerant corn varieties were in industry trials. The Institute’s organically managed fields produced between 28.4 percent and 33.7 percent more corn than conventionally managed fields under drought conditions.

So why does the FST’s organic crop outperform the chemical crop? “The current toxic-chemical approach to growing our food destroys the life of the soil with pesticides, herbicides, and high levels of inorganic fertilizers,” says Elaine Ingham, chief scientist at the Rodale Institute. “They are destroying the support system, developed by nature over the last 4 billion years, that grows healthy plants.”  That natural support system is what makes plants more drought-tolerant. Rather than crop failure in times of stress, the organically cultivated plants can rely on the soil to provide what the weather has not.
“The organic matter in soil acts like a sponge, providing water reserves to plants during drought periods and preventing water from running off the soil surface in times of heavy rains,” says Rita Seidel, agroecologist and FST project leader at the Rodale Institute. “This organic matter has significantly increased in the FST organic fields and is actually diminishing in the conventional fields.”

Even in times of severe water shortage, organic fields can contribute to our drinking water reserves. In the FST, the organic fields recharged groundwater at rates 15 to 20 percent higher than the conventional fields.

Thirty years of research proves that organic farming and gardening grows food and grows it well even during extreme weather conditions. Good news, for in the face of a warmer, drier future, the more we can rely on our soil rather than our hoses, the better off we’ll be.—Amanda Kimble-Evans

To learn more about the Rodale Institute, including tours, events, courses, or how to donate, visit RodaleInstitute.org

Photography by Susan Eugster
Originally published in Organic Gardening magazine, Special Collector's Issue, February/March 2015