Teaching the World to Farm

For 55 years the Rodale Institute has led the way for organic farmers and gardeners.

By James McCommons


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.

Fifty-five years ago, J.I. Rodale, founder of Organic Gardening magazine, 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, says Anthony Rodale, the Institute's chairman.

"Our mission now is global—to convince producers to grow food organically and to help people feed themselves," explains Rodale. "We have knowledge and expertise that can change the way people live."

A sincere and serious man, Rodale is the third generation to lead The Rodale Institute. He's determined to build upon his grandfather's and father's legacies and keep the farm a place where gardeners, farmers, and especially children can learn about the benefits of organic agriculture. "We want to be a place where people come not just for practical advice but inspiration, too," he says.