Promoting Organic Farming: An Interview With The Rodale Institute

By: Justin Chan

Many people are accustomed to going to their local grocery store and picking up fruits and vegetables that have been processed through conventional methods. More often than not, these products have gone through a series of chemical spraying, which keeps parasitic pests from cluttering around the food consumers eat. Some critics have voiced health concerns over this procedure but concede that these products are affordable to those who cannot purchase healthier food. One organization, the Rodale Institute, is determined to change the perception that only the rich can afford organic food and that organic farming is not sustainable.

Headquartered in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, the Rodale Institute is a nonprofit organization that focuses on promoting organic agriculture and farming through research and outreach. Its Farming Systems Trial, for instance, compares conventional chemical agriculture with organic farming. The institute also offers workshops, tours and programs geared at raising awareness about the benefits of growing food organically.

We got an inside look at the workings of The Rodale Institute through an interview with the organization's executive director, Coach Mark Smallwood. Check out what he had to say about their mission...

What kind of work is the Rodale Institute involved in?

We were founded in 1947 by J.I. Rodale, who was the first North American to use the word "organic agriculture." This is where the organic movement was born. We are focused on research. We have greenhouse and compost operations. We plant different styles of gardens. We have livestock here. We have a dairy operation here. With everything we do, there's a research component. We have had hundreds of publications and scientists come through here. In fact, in 2011, we celebrated the 30th anniversary of our Farming Systems Trial, the longest-running side-by-side comparison of conventional and organic farming.

The Farming Systems Trial has three core farming systems: a manure-based organic system, a legume-based system and a synthetic-based conventional system. Can you briefly describe these management practices?

A manure-based system is designed to mimic a beef or dairy operation. The source of nitrogen here is composted manure. The process is much like [one conducted by] a dairy farmer who has access to lots of farm manure. Farmers here compost it and apply it as a fertilizer. There are also two different treatments they can use to apply the manure: a till or a no-till system. A legume-based system uses legumes such as ryes and clovers as a source of nitrogen. This system also applies these legumes through a till or no-till treatment. The conventional system uses chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Like the other two systems, the conventional system can be used with a till or no-till treatment, but the no-till treatment involves a chemical process.

According to your research, organic systems in the Farming Systems Trial are shown to match its conventional yields and even outperform them in years of drought and environmental duress. How is this possible?

There's more organic matter in organic soil. It's the organic matter and the biology that lives in the soil that holds water like a sponge. So in a drought, those plants do better.

What kind of impact has your Agriculture Supported Communities program had on food desert communities so far? What is the difference between the effects of this program and that of a community supported agriculture system?

Well, this is the first year we started the ASC program. We've hired five new interns. They're from Ohio, Missouri, Texas, New Jersey, and Alberta, Canada. At the end of our eight-month training program, they will go back to the food deserts they were recruited from and create their own businesses. We'll teach them how to grow organically and market their products. In regards to your second question, usually a person has to come up with a lump sum of around $700 in a community supported agriculture system. Some people can't afford that kind of money. Our program is a pay-as-you-go shareholder agreement. Unlike community supported agriculture systems, our program also accepts SNAP (Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program) money. We accept food stamps.

Although the global market for organic products has grown, food prices have gone up particularly in countries in Africa and the Middle East. What do you think needs to be addressed in order to make organic food more affordable in these countries?

Well, like I said, there are two ways to grow food: conventionally or organically. Conventional farming is supplemented by government funding. It aims to provide as much food as possible at an affordable price, and that's its goal. Organic farmers, on the other hand, try to grow as much nutritious and healthy food as possible. In order to make organic food more affordable, these government subsidies should go to organic farmers instead. One of the major problems with growing food conventionally is that there can be groundwater contamination.

Global warming has been a huge issue lately. How have organic farmers adjusted to extreme weather changes?

I can speak regionally. We've seen our season extended here in Pennsylvania. It's been warmer. The question now is how we can take advantage of it. Still, during this past growing season, we had a really wet spring, which made it really difficult for farmers to plant. Then, we went through seven weeks of drought in June and July. In August, we had the most amount of rainfall in the history of Pennsylvania. The cycles are unpredictable, and it's difficult for farmers to adjust to them.

In cities where local farmers often have to compete with huge supermarket chains that sell chemically-altered food, what is the most effective way for these farmers to expand their appeal?

The most effective way for these farmers to expand their appeal is to have the government stop subsidizing the chemically-produced food and have it reflect the true cost of what that food is. If you look at the Chesapeake Bay, there's a dead zone that's been created by chemical agriculture. The government can charge the taxpayers to clean up the bay but not the farmers. That lowers the costs that these farmers have to pay. It's the government's fault. The issue here is that it's being lobbied by lots of dollars. We meet with politicians all the time to talk about this issue.

For more information about The Rodale Institute, visit their website here.

Photo courtesy of the Rodale Institute.

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