Rodale Institute Propels Organic Farming into the FutureJun 30, 2022 09:31AM ● By Sheila Julson
Jerome Irving Rodale was a visionary for his time. Despite the fact that chemically based, industrial farming burgeoned during the post-WWII era, he realized that healthy soil equated to healthy food and ultimately, healthy people.
On his farm in Pennsylvania, Rodale began experimenting with growing food without chemicals. In 1947, he founded the Soil and Health Foundation to give farmers solutions beyond chemical farming by using biological growing methods. That project was the genesis of the organization that bears his name today—the Rodale Institute. With nine campuses worldwide, today Rodale Institute is recognized as a leader in the regenerative organic agriculture movement.
Jeff Tkach, chief impact officer at Rodale, says the institute’s work has grown exponentially over the last few years. “We’ve seen this incredible acceleration of our work because I believe that the world is finally ready for what we have to offer,” he explains. “For seven decades, we’ve been trying to convince farmers, policy makers and ultimately consumers that regenerative and organic farming is the future.”
The political, socioeconomic, human health and climate change crises faced across different segments of society are precipitating a demand for regenerative agriculture, Tkach says. “I think we’re finding ourselves at a real tipping point in history where people are beginning to wake up to this type of farming. They’re seeing what Rodale has to offer as the way of the future.”
Rodale Institute has more than 30 active research projects going on at its Pennsylvania headquarters and eight other campuses around the world. They have a team 85 employees, including 13 Ph.D. scientists, and their research projects show farmers a better way of farming. Areas of focus include chemical-free pest, weed and disease control; mitigating and adapting to climate change; and food insecurity.
The Vegetable Systems Trial compares the nutrient density of vegetable crops grown organically versus conventionally. Rodale’s Watershed Impact Trial partners with Stroud Water Research Center to study the effects of both regenerative and organic farming on watersheds. The Industrial Hemp Trials look at how hemp can be used as a cover crop to help improve the health of the soil. Other trials include integrating crops and livestock, and raising livestock healthily and humanely.
The Rodale Institute Farmer Training (RIFT) program is a comprehensive training platform for those seeking organic farming techniques. “Our program hosts students from all over the world,” enthuses Tkach. “We provide them with housing, class education and a stipend during training.”
The upcoming Regenerative Healthcare Conference, which takes place from October 16 through 19, is their inaugural healthcare conference to be held on a farm, Tkach says. “Through generous funding from a private foundation, we will host 60 doctors and medical professionals from across the U.S. and invite them to our main campus and farm so that they can get their hands in the soil. Through this highly interactive conference, our attendees will receive training and education about the concepts of food as medicine, the soil health and human health connection, and the overarching principles and strategies of regenerative organic agriculture.”
Tkach advises that because most medical professionals lack adequate nutrition training and education, Rodale’s goal is to provide them with an immersion into regenerative agriculture so they can go back to their clinics with an increased knowledge of the vital link between soil health and human health.
Standardizing Regenerative Agriculture
Farmers that engage in soil health thus see healthier, more nutrient-dense crops that are also more flavorful. Tkach notes that Rodale is the only organization that put a standard to the term “regenerative agriculture.” “Many people and brands are beginning to use the word ‘regenerative’, but unless you put a standard to it, it means everything and nothing,” he says. “At Rodale Institute, we helped to launch the Regenerative Organic Certification, a holistic process that involves soil health, animal welfare and human well-being. That’s the standard Rodale Institute has set and raises the bar for all brands and producers so that our food and agriculture system can truly be about healing—which begins in the soil. If we want to heal our society, we have to start with how we treat the soil.”
Rodale Institute maintains a consultancy with 14 full-time employees across the U.S. that are available to work with farmers and help them help transition successfully to organic and regenerative production methods. The consultancy strives to help farmers make sound agronomic decisions in the field and connect them with viable markets and lucrative contracts, along with a pathway to achieving certification.
Rodale Institute promotes regenerative organic agriculture through global media channels, social media and corporate partnerships. They also invite food brands to play a role. “We need food companies to see the value in what Rodale is espousing,” Tkach affirms. “We need food brands to commit to changing their supply chain and growing food in a healthier, more ecologically sound way. And ultimately, we need to educate consumers on how to vote with their dollar.”
Their “power of the plate” concept is based on the idea that every consumer votes three times a day as to what they put on their plate; if society demands food grown in a regenerative way, farmers will have to change how they produce that food. Ultimately, food companies will change how they produce that food.
Tkach believes we’re seeing a seismic shift as consumers wake up to how food is produced. He notes that the pandemic has also accelerated a trend of people making better food choices. “We realize that we can control our health and how what we eat was produced,” he says.
The popularity and growth of farmers markets over the past two decades serves as testament that consumers are becoming more engaged in the food system. Tkach also points to Organic Trade Association reports that show double-digit growth in the organic food market (ota.com/organic-market-overview/organic-industry-survey). Change is happening quickly.
Rodale Institute offers several in-person and virtual learning opportunities for the public to get involved with organic, regenerative agriculture. The virtual campus includes a free course, Becoming the Regenerative Consumer, designed for consumers that want to learn about how they can support the movement.
Custom guided tours of the main campus are offered every day of week, along with online courses, workshops and webinars. “Consumers can come from anywhere in the world to learn about regenerative organic agriculture,” Tkach notes.
Rodale Institute’s Organic Field Day takes place from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., July 22, 2022, at the main campus in Kutztown. Attendees can watch demonstrations, learn about research projects and interact with Rodale Institute experts about regenerative agriculture. To register, visit RodaleInstitute.org/visit/organic-field-day.
Rodale Institute is headquartered at 611 Siegfriedale Rd., in Kutztown. For more information, call 610-683-1400 or visit RodaleInstitute.org.
Sheila Julson is a freelance writer and contributor to Natural Awakenings magazine.