Rodale Institute

 

“Relax, You’re At the Farm” read the sign along the road as we approached the Rodale Institute. After several years of effort from people like Roy Ballard and Tamara Benjamin of Purdue Extension, our trip to the Rodale Institute had finally become a reality. I was recently fortunate enough to be included in a group of 20 individuals from throughout Indiana to get the chance to attend this three-day workshop.  Agriculture professionals from Purdue University, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Indiana Soil and Water Conservation Districts made the trip to the Rodale Institute to learn more about organic agriculture.

We flew in the night before the workshop, so I got my first glimpse of rural, south-east Pennsylvania as we made our trip from the hotel to Rodale. It is an area of picturesque rolling hills complete with old stone barns and farmhouses.  The Rodale Institute is located outside of Kutztown, and consists of 333 acres of devoted to organic agriculture. Our two-and-a-half day stay would give us an opportunity to learn from the staff at RI, as well as a chance to network among ourselves.

We began our lesson with a brief history of the Rodale Institute.  In 1947, J.I. Rodale founded the Soil and Health Foundation, which later became the Rodale Institute. His philosophy was that healthy soil equals healthy food, which equals healthy people. The Rodale Institute was involved in the movement which got funding for organic agriculture in the 1985 Farm Bill. The Institute is a leader in organic agricultural research. It was emphasized that organic farming is modern agriculture, utilizing the latest technology and research. Certified Organic operations do not use chemicals or GMOs (genetically modified organisms).

Our training covered a variety of topics including cover crops, livestock, soil health and organic certification. There is more to organic agriculture than not using chemicals; it is a holistic system. The concept of farming as a sustainable system is something that can be shared by all farmers, not just those who are Certified Organic. For example, the Rodale Institute focuses heavily on soil health. Their belief is that the better the health of the soil, the less the farmer needs to rely on chemical inputs. No matter what your opinion on agricultural chemicals, improving soil health is something all farmers can strive for.

Cover Crops are used frequently at the Rodale Institute. Having plants continually growing in the soil allows for healthy soil microbiology. The soil organisms (like bacteria, fungi, protozoa, earthworms, etc.) provide benefits liked improved nutrient cycling and increased infiltration. Since this soil resource works for the farmer, it is important to maintain a healthy, diverse population of these organisms. If a field remains bare between cash crops, then the soil microbiology suffers. Jeff Moyer, the farm manager at the Rodale Institute, compared this to an athlete not training for months and then suddenly being expected to perform at peak level at a moment’s notice. In addition to soil health benefits, cover crops provide weed management. This is particularly important in organic systems, since producers can’t rely on herbicides if weed pressure becomes a problem. 

One of my favorite parts of the training was the demonstration of the roller-crimper. The roller-crimper is a large cylinder with raised blades laid out in a chevron pattern. It is mounted to the front of the tractor, and flattens down the cover crop (in this case, cereal rye and hairy vetch). The stems are broken every seven inches, killing the cover crop. This essentially creates mulch that is anchored to the soil. The planter is mounted to the back of the tractor and plants the cash crop into the residue. This mulch holds moisture, suppresses weeds, and will provide food for microorganisms as it decomposes.  

The Rodale Institute raises a variety of livestock, including chickens, hogs, sheep, and goats. They also have a partnership with a neighboring organic dairy, where animals graze on the Rodale Institute’s pastures. All animals on the farm were on pasture. Temporary, electric fences were used to rotate animals around the farm, allowing areas of land to “rest” between grazing. There was an emphasis on raising heritage breed livestock, which are animals that would have been found on farms a century ago. These animals have traits that make them well-adapted for the pasture. Certified Organic animal products cannot contain hormones or antibiotics.

Another topic of discussion during our training was the Farming Systems Trial. This long-term experiment (beginning in 1981) compares different agricultural systems: Organic Manure, Organic Legume, Conventional Synthetic and No-Till Systems.  The research focuses on corn and soybean production. The use of GMO crops and no-till systems has been added recently to better represent current US farming trends. There was a discussion about the use of cover crops in the non-organic plots, and they may incorporate them in the future as they become more popular in mainstream agriculture. The study compared several factors: soil health, yields, economics, energy, and human health. The study argues the organic farming is superior in all categories.

The topics covered during our time at the Rodale Institute sparked conversation among our group, as well as with the staff at the Institute. There can be a great deal of emotion tied to one’s farming system. One of the most beneficial concepts to come out of all the discussion and debate was the idea that there shouldn’t be an “us versus them” mentality among farmers. That can be true with between organic and conventional, or those that use tillage and no-till advocates. We should all collaborate and share ideas to help producers to have healthy, sustainable operations.

To see photos and video from the Rodale Institute training visit our website at http://www.tippecanoecountyswcd.org/about/photo-gallery/rodale-institute/

 

 

To learn more about the Rodale Institute visit their website at www.rodaleinstitute.org/

 

 

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