Organic farming’s Garden of Eden open to public
J.I. Rodale’s 40-acre homestead turned over to Rodale Institute
The 40-acre farm in Lower Macungie Township that became the epicenter of the organic farming movement was just home for Maria Rodale.
The granddaughter of the businessman J.I. Rodale, founder of Rodale Inc. and the Kutztown-based Rodale Institute, Maria remembers weeding the stone mulch gardens on the property off Minesite Road — a chore that could leave the uninitiated with scratched knuckles. She remembers frolicking around the farm with her siblings, eating the food that came from the same soil that stained their hands and knees.
In the wake of the Hearst company’s acquisition of Rodale Inc., the family has gifted the property, which came to be known as the Founder’s Farm, to the nonprofit Rodale Institute, a worldwide leader in organic and regenerative farming research.
“What we’ve really learned here is that nature soothes the spirit. This was a garden of Eden,” Maria Rodale told a crowd gathered on the property Monday evening for a ribbon
cutting ceremony to formerly recognize the donation. “And we believe this is possible for the whole planet.”
Considered sacred among those in the world of organic farming, the land where J.I. Rodale started his agricultural experiments in the 1940s will soon offer the public a space to learn about the history and the future of agriculture.
“For decades we lost the value of agriculture in our own backyard,” said Jeff Tkach, chief impact officer for the Rodale Institute. “We want this to be a hub for organic, regenerative farming in Lehigh County. We believe this could be a catalyst for health and healing for the community.”
Tkach is referring to the latest iteration of the organic movement — an emphasis not just on sustaining the health of the soil that supports agriculture, but improving and enhancing it naturally. The methodology, coined by Robert Rodale, has come to extend to animal welfare and worker fairness, encompassing a philosophy aimed at working harmoniously with nature to make things better for all involved.
Margaret Wilson, media relations specialist with the Rodale Institute, said a growing number of farmers and consumers crave a way to interact with nature in a way that benefits the crops, soil and creatures as well as the people gathered around the dinner table.
“We’re showing farmers that it can be done here and its scale-able no matter the size of an operation,” Wilson said.
The specific plans for the land and a timetable for implementation are still being hammered out, Wilson said.
On Monday night, that futurecentric view of agriculture mingled with history as guests sipped wine and strolled around the original grounds where J.I. Rodale first started experimenting with growing crops as naturally as possible.
A New York City businessman plagued by a variety of health issues that baffled his doctors, Rodale bought the run-down farm property to serve as a research center for his theory that cleaner, healthier soil would produce healthier food and healthier people. Just as Rodale was pursuing the purer approach to agriculture, the industry was embracing chemicals as the future.
Rodale’s modest operations at the Minesite Road farm expanded in 1972 to the sprawling 333-acre Rodale Institute campus. That’s where the cuttingedge research is being conducted and farmers are being trained to bring back regenerative farming to their own fields.
But to fully appreciate the journey, Maria Rodale said the family realized the original homestead needed to be a part of the institute’s mission.
“We realized this really belongs to the Rodale Institute,” she said of the property and its legacy. “The two farms together tell the whole story. This is such a special place. The world needs to know about it.”
Molly and Michael Schmaeling are the property’s groundskeepers. They live on the land with their toddler daughter, tending to the gardens and raising hundreds of colonies of chemical-free bees in an apiary that uses the regenerative model. Molly Schmaeling, who grew up on a farm in the Poconos, was always in awe of the Rodale family’s legacy in organics, but said she never dreamed of being a steward for the original property.
“There’s something special about it,” Schmaeling said of the tract she calls home. “We feel so blessed to be a part of it. It will be wonderful to share.”
Molly Schmaeling is caretaker of the homestead with her husband, and they live there with their toddler daughter. The homestead has been given to the Rodale Institute and will be opened to the public.
The Rodale Institute is taking over as the owner of the Founder’s Farm, original homestead of J.I. Rodale, considered the father of organic agriculture.