North we drove, almost due north, until we swung north-east at York, up to a small town in Pennsylvania with big things happening on a farm just outside it. We took a road trip to the Rodale Institute Experimental Farm near Kutztown, between Reading and Allentown. There are more good things happening up there than I can count! Lest you think that the title of this article is a touch hyperbolic, let me tell you about some of them.
The Rodale name is familiar to anyone acquainted with organic gardening. Indeed, Organic Gardening Magazine is the flagship publication of an empire dedicated to healthy lifestyles, with books, magazines and social media encouraging self- and world-improvement; for instance, they published Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. The experimental farm puts into practice what the publications advocate.
Driving up to the farm, one is first impressed by the view of rolling green fields against a blue sky.
Then comes a picture-perfect farmhouse complete with cats, but inside it’s all bustling. The house is a business center, one of a collection of buildings: classrooms, barns, greenhouses, equipment sheds, a geodesic dome (!) among other livestock housing, and environmentally responsible tertiary-treatment recycling toilets. At least one of them has a green roof.
And rain barrels with messages (for the school groups).
Aaron Kinsman met us with a golf cart, and gave us a tour. First stop was the organic apple orchard: 1100 trees, managed with LISA (Low-Input Sustainable Agriculture). Their leaves are sprayed with kaolin (clay) to make them taste bad. The coddling moth’s mating cycle is interrupted by pheromones. The result? Beautiful apples without pesticides.
There are 330 acres of experimental agriculture. Aaron was eager to explain them all.
There are many animals. The pigs are heritage breeds, Large Black and Tamworth. They are raised for 7 to 8 months before their meat becomes a palette for some very lucky restaurant chefs.
There is a veterinarian on call, who treats the animals with a mix of conventional medicine, homeopathy, herbs, and acupuncture. Now, I find acupuncture barely credible for humans, but am stretching mightily to imagine it for pigs and donkeys.
We met Mr. Tuggs and Irwin. “They’re rescue donkeys,” said Aaron. “We didn’t plan on them.” But the goats are on purpose. Nigerian dwarf goats named Alfalfa, Rose, Daisy, Iris, Clover, Marigold, and Zorro – he’s the buck.
There are oxen, Lewis and Clark. There are chickens, of course there are chickens, housed in movable coops.
And there are bees, a colony of hives. It’s the Honeybee Conservancy, dedicated to studying how to make them thrive. They are Thomas Hybrid Hives, looking like nothing I’ve seen before, of vertical African design. The bees draw their own comb size. Forcing bees to live in over-sized comb cells is apparently one of the stressors contributing to honeybee decline in conventional hives.
Then we went to see the fields. We drove past the field leased to the CSA,
past the compost piles,
out to the flat rows of green. These were not so photogenic, but were educational. Rodale ran a great experiment here, for 30 years, practicing crop rotation, all varieties of cover crops, no-till methods, GMO, non-GMO, you name it. The Farming Systems Trial’s results show that organic methods are at least as good, and often superior to, conventional farming, by several measures: healthier soil, less greenhouse gases, less energy input, and more profitable. Read more about it at www.rodaleinstitute.org.
On the way back, we met James Burkholder, Rodale’s neighbor farmer. He is applying Rodale’s methods on his farm, thereby extending the oasis of organic farming in the midst of the conventional wilderness. He raises cows.
The Rodale farm welcomes visitors. There will be an Apple Festival on September 20, when the public will be invited to harvest those organic apples. There is much more information at www.rodaleinstitute.org.