Rodales Organic Life: This Farm Is Looking to Settle The Organic Debate Once And For All

by James McCommons | September 29, 2017

For more than 60 years the Rodale Institute has led the way for organic farmers and gardeners.

On a warm May morning—one that signals the advent of a steamy summer—a tractor grumbles through a hillside apple orchard, misting the newly emerged fruit with a clay slurry for protection against codling moths. Beneath the cool shadow of a barn, two staffers chat about a recent trip to Guatemala, where they taught young farmers how to rebuild soil fertility. Nearby in the demonstration garden, chattering schoolchildren gather around a sunbonneted guide as she spins a tale of good bugs versus bad bugs.

On most days, The Rodale Institute displays a curious blend of working farm, soil research station, tourist destination, international agency, and outdoor classroom. That’s not surprising when you consider that for decades the Institute has been a dynamic force in the progress of the organic agriculture movement. The knowledge gained from these fertile acres of Pennsylvania Dutch countryside has helped growers from the deserts of Africa to the rice fields of Japan to the backyard gardens of Iowa find success without chemicals.

(Whether you’re starting your first garden or switching to organic, Rodale’s Basic Organic Gardening has all the answers and advice you need—get your copy today!)

Over 60 years ago, J.I. Rodale established an experimental organic farm in response to skeptics who said, “Prove it.” His experiments and the research carried on by his son, Robert, produced much of the data and techniques that transformed organic farming from a fringe concept into a practical alternative to chemically based agriculture.

Today, the work of the Institute focuses less on providing proof, or validation, than on spreading the good news about organic agriculture.

Regenerative Farming

The Institute originated in 1947, when J.I. Rodale bought a small farm in the rolling countryside outside Allentown, Pennsylvania. There he experimented with raised beds and compost and reported his findings to readers of his new magazine, Organic Gardening. Convinced that soil health was the key to growing wholesome food, he established the Soil and Health Foundation, the forerunner of The Rodale Institute.

Bob Rodale worked alongside his father at both the farm and Rodale Press, the family’s publishing business. In 1971, after J.I.’s death, Bob bought a 333-acre farm—today’s Rodale Institute—near Kutztown, Pennsylvania. On this new parcel of farmland, Bob brought together a team of scientists and technicians to raise crops on a large scale by using and documenting various organic methods. The team brought greater scientific credibility to the organic experiments begun by J.I. Rodale.

Bob’s travels to impoverished Third World countries in the 1970s, and the Institute’s investigations into soil enrichment, led him to adopt a philosophy of regenerative farming. The aim was not only to avoid agricultural chemicals but also to promote a holistic farming system that could heal depleted soils, stressed natural environments, and malnourished people. It led to the Institute’s motto, “Healthy Soil = Healthy Food = Healthy People.”

In 1990, Bob went to Russia to set up a magazine and teach the tenets of regenerative agriculture to farmers just coming off collective farms. While in Moscow, he was killed in an auto accident. The magazine, Novii Sadovod i Fermer (New Gardener and Farmer) went forward despite the tragedy.

Today the Institute functions as a nonprofit agency. It runs hands-on training and provides technical advice to farmers in the U.S. and beyond. It often works with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), such as the World Bank, to spread its message of regenerative agriculture to farmers and politicians. This fall, it is pioneering a new certified regenerative organic label, which will support the work of farms that go a step beyond organic to support healthy soil in their farming practices.

The Farming Systems Trial

Much of the institute’s credibility stems from the Farming Systems Trial, an experiment that has been running at the farm since 1981. The trial directly compares organic farming practices with chemical ones and stands as the Institute’s most significant scientific achievement.

On the surface, the trial’s 12 acres of alternating strips of soybeans, corn, and wheat look rather unremarkable. The difference lies in the soil. One-third of the crops receives conventional chemical fertilizers and pesticides; another third receives a combination of cover crops and manure for fertility; and the remainder is nourished by cover crops only. The trial simulates different types of farms raising the most commonly grown grain crops in America—and year after year, the organic plots have shown comparable yields to the chemical plots, especially over time as the soil builds up with organic matter.

Talking to Farmers

The Institute invites visitors of all kinds to visit the Farm Systems Trial, which helps win farmers over to organic methods, says Jeff Moyer, Executive Director of the Institute. Farmers like to be shown, not preached at, he says.

“We can’t talk to farmers from a basis of knowledge unless we’re doing it, too,” says Moyer, a stocky man who looks like the farmer he has been for decades, with sunburned skin, dusty jeans, and ball cap.

Consequently, the farm brims with experiments. In the apple orchard, workers spray fruit with kaolin clay to create a physical barrier between apples and hungry bugs. If the promise shown by this new natural product is borne out by the trials, the Institute will recommend it to orchardists. Along one field, piles of compost cook in the midday sun. The Institute sells the finished compost as fertilizer, a practice many farmers could adopt as an added source of income, says Moyer.

To survive in the future, American family farmers will have to run more diversified operations, grow specialty crops for niche markets, and when possible sell directly to consumers, says Moyer. Much of the Institute’s emphasis is on helping farmers find these new revenue streams.

“We want to change this whole notion that farmers have to grow a single crop, let someone else set the price, and then be at the whim of worldwide markets,” he says. “We’re not saying that farmers just need to go organic. They need to rethink how they do business.”

“Most farmers have some land to spare,” says Moyer. “They’ll earn more money by renting the land and putting it into food production than by growing another 2 acres of field corn. The other benefit is that it helps a younger person get started in farming.”

If You Visit

The Rodale Institute is located near Kutztown, Pennsylvania—2 hours east of New York City or 1 hour northwest of Philadelphia—near exit 13 of Interstate 78. For more information on classes, events, and guided tours, visit