Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Where to Go: Rodale Institute, Kutztown, PA

When we were in Pennsylvania, we stumbled upon the Rodale Institute by accident— we were driving to a park, and I happened to glimpse a sign by the highway. “Wait, the Rodale Institute?” I exclaimed, craning my neck. My sister-in-law Tessa remarked that it was some sort of farm, and I realized it was the same place I had heard mentioned in several dozen books and articles about organic farming. I knew that Zach and I had to carve out some time to visit!

The Rodale name is one you can’t miss if you’ve read a lot of gardening books— they have a series of books about organic methods and often show up in bibliographies. The Rodale family pioneered organic farming, and their acreage in Pennsylvania is the place where for decades they (and their nonprofit) have conducted research on different techniques, led internship groups, and educated the public about organic practices. They would be open for visiting hours the next day, so Zach and I decided to go.

We parked at a gravel lot and walked into a one-room schoolhouse that had been converted into a welcome center and farm store. A fridge of produce sat outside, with some of the items being cheaper than even their conventionally-grown counterparts in the grocery store. The farm store was a nice gift shop full of everything from apple butter, heirloom seeds and natural chapstick to mushroom starter kits, tea towels and fermentation crocks. The woman behind the desk said we could wander the farm as we pleased, and we decided to buy a $2 brochure that pointed out the different features of the farm and how they worked.

Stepping out into the nippy air, we started along a gravel path, looking over the map to see what we were passing. We passed some huge fields where CSA crops are grown (though they were mostly covered in stubble, with a few stray rows of parsley), then headed over to a large plastic-coated building that housed the farm’s pigs. They had three different heritage breeds, and two separate litters of piglets, some almost grown, some much smaller. The piglets oinked and played with each other like puppies, rolling in the deep beds of straw in the pens. The area smelled earthy but not disgusting like conventional pig farms, and we saw some of the hogs contentedly grazing at pasture, like squat cows. The pigs grunted at us, pressing their quivering noses against the bars of the pen. 

The tour took us along larger fields where they grow large-scale organic grains, and we glimpsed beehives, a wetlands area, several barns, interns cleaning produce at an outdoor kitchen, chickens out in “chicken tractors” (large movable pens), as well as grazing goats and sheep, ducks, Holsteins far afield, donkeys, and, of course, a couple barnyard cats. They also had an area full of greenhouses of all shapes and sizes, demonstrating cold frames, conventional greenhouses, and geometric domes with huge black tanks inside, which would be filled with water and used to collect thermal mass from the sun in the winter. We thoroughly enjoyed poking through these buildings and seeing all the different techniques they use to grow food.

I would love to return sometime in summer and see all the beds full of veggies, since there were a variety of methods for those as well. But I still really enjoyed seeing the livestock and getting a better picture of what humane animal husbandry looks like. Seeing all these animals, pastured and healthy and content, made me more determined than ever to seek out humanely-raised meat.

We wandered around the farm for almost an hour, and if we had come during the height of vegetable season we could have stayed much longer. For anyone interested in local agriculture, sustainable living, or organic farming, it’s a wonderful field trip. I hope we get the chance to visit again!


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