Teaching the World to Farm

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

By James McCommons


The Farming Systems Trial
Much of that 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.

"We're simulating different types of farms raising the most commonly grown grain crops in America," explains Peggy Wagoner, a soil scientist. "The organic plots have shown comparable yields to the chemical plots, especially over time as the soil builds up with organic matter."

On this day, Wagoner gives her presentation—complete with detailed charts and graphs—to an accepting audience of tourists and backyard gardeners. But frequently, the visitors are groups of farmers, government officials, and extension agents, many of whom are skeptical about regenerative farming.

Some of the best evidence for organic practices emerged from the drought of 1999, the worst dry spell to hit the East Coast in a century. While the conventionally managed crops mostly withered in the fields, the organic plots performed surprisingly well. Organic soybeans yielded 30 bushels per acre while the Institute's chemically treated plots yielded 16 bushels per acre and neighboring farms using conventional methods produced 21 bushels. The organic matter held the moisture like a sponge, and the tilth allowed roots to reach deeper for water, says Wagoner. "The drought was tough on the organic crops, too. But we couldn't have asked for a better scenario to show the benefits of creating a healthier soil," she adds.

Talking to Farmers
This type of demonstration project helps win farmers over to organic methods, says Jeff Moyer, the Institute's farm manager. 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 is, 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."

To demonstrate that, workers in an Institute greenhouse snip away at bedding trays of wheat grass bound for a health-drink manufacturer. Vegetables from the production garden sell at a local supermarket. And last year, Moyer rented 2 acres to a former Institute staffer who wanted to start a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) operation but had no land.

"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."