On a warm summer day at Rodale Institute, the wind brushed past my face and the bumps of the tractor cheerfully jolted my legs as I learned about the regenerative agriculture movement. I met researchers, consultants, farmers of the future, and media representatives—all trying to make the world a better place through education.
I left with an understanding of what the natural products industry can do to improve the lives of farmers, farm animals, and our communities. The best way to share my newfound knowledge? Stories. Here are three true tales of passion, purpose, and connection that provide a narrative on the state and future of farming.
Michael Conner, Partner at Sarahsway Farm in Gilbertville, PA, grew up in farm country and was led back into farming after an eye-opening trip out to Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. On his ride, he found himself pondering the idea of providing his children with a transformative experience: Moving to a farm. So that’s just what he did.
Early on in his farming journey, Michael realized he wanted to go organic. But he heard backlash in the farming community. “We listened to other farmers that told us organic is too expensive, requires too much paperwork, and government regulation,” Michael told me. Yet, it got harder to ignore the call to organic. “It just didn’t feel right spraying the ground,” he said. After attending an informational event for farmers with Rodale’s free consulting program, his mind was made up: Organic was the way to go.
Since the start of his partnership with Rodale in 2019, Michael and his partner Marcy at Sarahsway transformed their land through no-till farming and organic practices, but it didn’t come easy.
Sarahsway Farm now manages a 300-acre apple orchard and maintains 800-acres of land. “Most of our farms and fields have life in them,” Michael said. “When you look at the soil, you don’t see rocks, grains, and root masses anymore. We finally feel connected with the soil.”
It’s more than just farming for Michael and Marcy—it’s about the relationship between the farmer and the soil. “We as farmers were asked to take care of this, so that’s what we do,” Michael explained. “When we were doing it the conventional way, it didn’t feel good using those chemicals. We always wrestled with that. Organic hasn’t been easy, it’s a challenge.” But, he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Jeff Tkach is the Chief Innovation Officer at Rodale. Yes. Interesting title that suggests creative thinker and eloquent speaker. He lived up to every expectation. At Rodale, Jeff is responsible for expanding Rodale Institute’s global influence in healing people and the planet.
Jeff took our crew out and hosted us throughout the day. He introduced us to the scientists and was able to sit down with me to discuss Rodale’s vision, and how we as a society can solve agricultural and health problems. His understanding of regenerative agriculture in the food chain provides a great framework for natural products industry members to learn about how to improve operations for a more sustainable future. First up in our conversation: How can we become “stewards of the soil.”
“We need to cut down on our degrees of separation from source,” Jeff explained. “We need to keep our food dollars in our local economy. We need to support farmers in our own backyard. If you’re not able to do that, then how can we support independent food retailers that are keeping food dollars in our own economies that are supporting farmers in the region?”
There’s an opportunity to build more regionalized supply chains that help to benefit everyone in the supply chain from the farmer, to the retailer, to the consumer. Jeff added, “We as retailers have an amazing opportunity to build more regionalized supply chains, pathways for food producers to have economies right in their own community. If our farmers in our community are flourishing, then we can live healthier lives.”
The big takeaway from Jeff: Invest in farmers and the soil and our personal health will improve.
This conversation opened my eyes to how every retailer and consumer can make a difference in the supply chain. Like Jeff said, we vote three times a day with our dollar—so let’s vote well.
Arguably the most exciting part of the day for me: Meeting Rodale’s interns, or as I like to call them, the farmers of the future. I met interns who plan to manage strawberry farms, improve African farming techniques, and who yearn to lower violence in communities through community farming. Nothing short of inspirational here!
I met women stepping into this industry to make the world a better place, leading the way for future women farmers, scientists, and researchers. One inspirational woman, Patricia Hodge, Army Veteran and Rodale Institute Veterans Farming Intern, has goals to help her South Philly community through farming. On her journey thus far, she learned how farming can improve mental wellness in addition to improving the planet through first-hand experience.
“In my community, they don’t expect women to be farmers,” said Patricia. “I was born and raised in South Philadelphia. Right now, we are leading the country in homicides and women are being killed along with children. One of the problems is lack of education and information on wellness and good food.”
At Rodale, Patricia has learned just how farming can help solve the problems of her community. She learned that food intake also helps with emotional behavior. She recalled learning about a study in which crime went down when there was a garden or farm in the area. “For some reason,” she told me, “humans behave better and are less violent when there are trees and animals around.”
That’s why Patricia got into farming. “I wanted to help the community by bringing health and wellness to them. Along with letting the veterans serve while we’re retied and recovering at the same time.”
Helping Nature Do What Nature Does
On a mission to help nature do what nature does, Rodale is working on exciting research. The Farm Systems Trial, Vegetable Systems Trial, and the Industrial Hemp Trial are just three projects yielding essential research for the agriculture industry. “The way we define regenerative is always innovating,” said Dr. Andrew Smith, Chief Operating Officer at Rodale. That becomes apparent when riding on a tractor learning from the experts.
The researchers, consultants, farmers of the future, and media representatives I met on this outing restored my excitement for the future. I understand the benefits of organic farming from a scientific level (organic yields 30% more in drought year as just one example) to a consumer level.
Talking with Michael, Jeff, and Patricia showed me just how effective farming is at improving our world and connecting with nature can heal a variety of wounds.
P.S. Don’t be surprised if you see me farming one day!