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 Natural Awakenings Lancaster-Berks

Rodale Institute is Growing the Organic Movement : Through Research, Farmer Training and Consumer Education

Feb 28, 2019 12:19AM ● By Zoe Schaeffer

Workshop at the Rodale Institute

Organic is a term used to designate a type of farming that does not use synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers or genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Historically, farming had been organic. It wasn’t until World War II when there was an excess of petroleum that synthetic fertilizers were developed. 

Since then, conventional agriculture has led to a host of unintended consequences, including soil erosion, water pollution, a decline in the nutrient density of our food and issues in human health, including diabetes and obesity. The chemicals associated with conventional fertilizers and herbicides, such as glyphosate, have been designated probable carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

The organic movement in America was created in response to the new, harmful technologies that came out of wartime, and it was started right here in Pennsylvania by a man named J.I. Rodale. Rodale believed that the way we treat the soil is the same way we treat each other, and he encouraged more farmers to use organic practices in order to protect environmental and human health.

He formed the Rodale Institute in 1942 in order to conduct research on organic growing practices. At the same time, he began publishing Organic Gardeningmagazine, which quickly gained a loyal readership of farmers and home-growers interested in organic methods.

In the 1970s, the Rodale family purchased the 333-acre farm in Kutztown where the Institute remains today. In 1981, the Institute began a scientific trial comparing conventional and organic agriculture. It’s the longest-running experiment of its kind in America, and it has produced invaluable data on the differences between organic and conventional farming. 

Data from this trial has shown that organic yields are competitive with conventional after a five-year transition period; it takes several years for a piece of land that has been farmed conventional to become organic. 

Organic also uses 45 percent less energy and releases 40 percent fewer carbon emissions while earning farmers three-to-six times greater profits. Organic leaches no toxic chemicals into the soil or water because it doesn’t use any. And best of all, organic yields can be up to 40 percent higher in times of extreme weather like drought or flooding due to organic soil’s unique ability to retain water and nutrients. Statements that organic yields are lower than conventional are misguided and typically derived from experiments that took place only over a couple of years. 

The organic industry is rapidly expanding. It’s now worth $47 billion and growing. In order to be certified organic, farms must undergo a review and approval process annually with the United States Department of Agriculture. The organic label designates that the food is non-GMO and will not contain harmful pesticide residues. According to the Organic Trade Association, currently, 85 percent of households purchase at least some organic products.

In addition to the farming systems trial, groundbreaking research at Rodale Institute includes the vegetable systems trial, watershed impact trial and experiments with industrial hemp. Research areas of focus include: growing organic agriculture by helping farmers fight pests, disease and weeds without synthetic chemicals, and helping farmers transition from conventional to organic methods; mitigating and adapting to climate change with resilient farming systems; and solving food insecurity by growing nutrient-dense foods. 

Rodale Institute is a destination for inspiration, and educates the public on why organic is the best choice for people and the planet. Farmer training programs involve hands-on and classroom education in organic agriculture; areas of specialization include vegetable production, livestock, beekeeping and more. 

The Garden Store, located in a historic, one-room schoolhouse on the farm, has cookbooks, organic grocery items, apparel, kids’ items and more available for purchase. Visitors can spend a leisurely day exploring the historic property or sign up for a workshop or class on organic gardening, backyard composting, keeping chickens and more. Consumer education opportunities also include a film series and family-friendly farm events year-round.

Zoe Schaeffer is the content creation and media relations specialist at the Rodale Institute, which is located at 611 Siegfriedale Rd., in Kutztown. For a complete listing of events, and to read more about the Institute’s history, research and training programs, visit

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