Teaching the World to Farm

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

By James McCommons


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, recalls John Haberern, the Institute's president, who worked closely with Bob.

"Regenerative food systems came out of Bob's research and his concern about preventing famine. It led to the Institute's motto, Healthy Soil = Healthy Food = Healthy People," Haberern says.

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 and recently celebrated its 10th anniversary.

Today the Institute functions as a nonprofit agency, which is completely separate from Rodale Inc., the for-profit publishing company. The Institute runs hands-on training in Japan, Guatemala, and Senegal and provides technical advice in several other countries. It often works with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), such as the World Bank, to spread its message of regenerative agriculture to farmers and politicians.

"One of the big things we have going for us is that we've been doing this work for a long time," says Haberern. "When we walk into a room filled with scientists and decision makers, we have instant credibility."