Cultivating Connections at Rodale Institute

Tali MacArthur, PEC Program Manager for Watershed Outreach

On a beautiful late summer day in August a group of 25 watershed conservation enthusiasts representing community-based watershed organizations and the Penn State Extension’s Master Watershed Steward Program participated in a private guided tour of the Rodale Institute.

Since 1947, Rodale Institute, located in rural Berks County, has taken the lead in promoting natural and more responsible ways of farming by conducting research into the cultivation of healthy, living soils. For over four decades the Institute has been researching and demonstrating the benefits of organic farming for water quality, for soil health, for human health, for community and economic vitality, and to help mitigate the impacts and effects of climate change.

Awareness about Rodale’s organic farming mission and leadership varied among the participants, with some just knowing the name and others having visited the Institute as children. Some owned several of the books published by the Institute and have cultivated farming methods in their own backyards based on Rodale’s organic approaches. Regardless of people’s familiarity, it was exciting to have the opportunity to hear directly from staff, including one of the researchers, about the scientific studies whose results demonstrate the clear connections between organic/restorative farming practices, healthy soil, and clean water.

A variety of pollinator-friendly flowers grow at the Rodale Institute in eastern Pennsylvania.

The inquisitiveness and enthusiasm of the Master Watershed Stewards and watershed organization representatives was impressive. In fact, I think we surprised our tour leader, Rodale Program Manager Nadine Clopton, when we spent over 30 minutes of our 90-minute tour asking questions before taking a single step! The group was just as impressed by the deep knowledge and expertise, as well as the passion, of both Nadine and scientist and researcher Dr. Philip Hinson, both of whom discussed the Institute’s history, cultural context, study methodologies, and results of the organic and conventional farming practices and issues.

The group, which included PEC’s Paul Racette, especially appreciated visiting the decades-long Farming Systems Trial research, which includes side-by-side comparisons of three types of farming systems: conventional pesticide/fertilizer “chemical” based system, cover crop organic system, and manure-based organic system. Paul and others were surprised to learn that according to comparisons of corn and soybean production, the most common crops in the U.S., the organic systems match conventional yields during normal or ideal growing conditions and exceed conventional yields during drought, while also better protecting soil, retaining water, costing less, and protecting water quality. Another attendee agreed, saying they never realized how important soil health is and how its degradation through some conventional farming practices is harmful to our waterways and our health. A third noted that not only did they learn more, but they also felt better prepared to speak about how farming practices affect watersheds and drinking water.

A sign at the Rodale Institute’s main campus explains an on-site, decades-long farming trial that compares the use of organic agriculture versus conventional methods.

Throughout the tour, participants did not hesitate to ask questions and share their own learning and perspectives on some of the more complex issues regarding state and national agricultural policies, large- and small-scale farming practices and challenges, and price and consumer equity as they relate to farming and food.

In addition to providing an interactive and enlightening learning experience, the event also created the opportunity for participants to spend some time meeting and exchanging stories, interests, and experiences protecting and restoring their own watersheds with one another. While some participants knew each other, either from having completed the same Master Watershed Steward training or volunteering on the board of the same watershed organization, many were meeting for the first time. During the walks to the research plots, while shopping at the Visitor Center store, or over a light lunch, the group seemed always engaged in conversation, with a couple committing to stay in touch as they both work to “re-wild” their own properties — creating habitat, improving soil health, and protecting local waterways.

This event was hosted by the Pennsylvania Organization for Watersheds and Rivers, and supported by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Chesapeake Bay Fund. POWR extends a sincere thank you to the staff of the Rodale Institute for facilitating such a wonderful and successful tour.

If you’d like to learn more about the Rodale Institute, you can take a virtual tour or enjoy one of several on-site tour options. To learn more about organic farming methods, listen to episode #159 of Pennsylvania Legacies, on regenerative agriculture and its capacity to reduce carbon in the atmosphere.