Months of learning help to put together more pieces of farming puzzle
Interns are like farmers, kind of: We learn best by seeing and doing.

By Mary Honablew

editor's NOTE:

This season our interns will be taking turns tracking their observations and sharing what they are learning helping out the various department here at The Rodale Institute.

This next generation of farmers offers insights into what motivates them to go against the tide when so many farm families struggle to keep up-and-coming generations interested in farming.

As they will tell you, it’s a combination of love for the land, good food, sharing community, and a sense of purpose that keeps them going.

--NF Editors

October 12, 2006: I have learned much from my time at The Rodale Institute over these past seven months. My education here has had many facets, a diverse experience that will allow me to build upon all kinds of new information no matter where I go or what I do. Of course, the Rodale name is almost synonymous with organic, but this organization has its arms around many other good things which have been shared with me.

Fortunately, Rodale has science researchers who educate as well as guide their interns. Working with pleasant, dedicated people encourages enthusiasm for the tasks at hand resulting in careful, quality work of which everyone can be proud. This is essential in deriving correct and complete data for analysis.

The Institute reaches out to audiences ranging from young children who can visit the on-site demonstration garden (or stay at home and learn from, to presidents and top representatives of national and international NGOs and private companies, to American universities.

Because of Rodale’s long history and current accomplishments, it attracts many curious visitors and conducts successful field days geared toward farmers, scientists and the general pubic. I’ve learned to network and to help complete my puzzle of the food system through these sessions and workshops. These collaborations are vital in the never-ending quest to educate a wide audience about a sustainable food system.

A perfect example of collaborating, networking and outreach is the field day we participated in at Cedar Meadows Farm (see Cedar Meadows Farm Field Day for more on the event). This was a joint effort of Penn State’s Cooperative Extension, The Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) and Steve Groff, who runs the Lancaster County farm. Rodale staff presented findings from field experiments made possible through collaboration with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, USDA-ARS and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Farmer research network

Rodale purposefully works with a network of farmers because it knows you cannot expect growing conditions to be the same in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, as everywhere else. We collaborate with farmers in and outside of Berks County, other parts of Pennsylvania and across the country. Our “on-farm research” means we conduct planned and measured experiments in their growing conditions.

It seems that many farmers are more apt to get their knowledge from across the fence and in the field rather than through reading scientific journals. Which means doing this kind of outreach is important. When farmers and researchers share first-person experiences, other farmers are more than willing to listen, learn and possibly adopt new practices that can save them money, time, increase their profits and protect and enrich their soil.

If the farmer never receives the information, or doesn’t trust his source, then nothing happens. The confidence that comes from farmer-to-farmer information helps people get beyond simple curiosity in a sustainable idea to actually implementing it on their farm.

A bonus the interns experience here is the opportunity to attend workshops with other interns on other organic farms. Called the Sustainable Agriculture Internship Training Alliance of Southeastern Pennsylvania (SAITA), this exchange program allows us to learn from other interns and also take our turn and share with others what we actually do here. Their topics of interest are different from our current predominant focus on cash grain crops and cover crops. Some of the topics covered this season included creating, maintaining and flourishing as a CSA, and developing educational programs geared toward children.

Diversity in marketing

An interesting concept that goes along with organic farming in general is not to put all your production and marketing eggs in one basket. By this I mean that organic farmers tend to have several diversified crops, maybe even different varieties of one crop. The farms we visited not only had CSAs but also sell at farmers’ markets, restaurants, auctions, to other CSAs and maybe even form some sort of organic cooperative. I have learned that diversity in the marketplace is as important as diversity in the field.

Dedication to producing organic food by nurturing healthy soil is a common tie I found among many people connected to organic agriculture. Whether it be picking 10 to 12 hours a day to get the produce in CSA members’ tummies or braving the pollen-infused fields of corn and soybeans on a nice, hot and humid 90°F day in order to gather biomass samples, the thought that no chemical inputs have been splashed or scattered and that one can grab the fruit and eat it right off the plant—without fear of the quiet warnings from the FDA about washing pesticide-coated foods—is astoundingly rewarding.

You know that some sort of dedication lives in a person when they hold an academic degree. This type of dedication translates to the organic farmer, who must be smart enough and clever enough to learn to work with nature. Since they spend most of their time in their fields, they see problems as they happen and must learn by observation, trial and error—and, of course, from other organic farmers.

An advanced degree won’t necessarily teach me or anyone else these skills; what’s needed is focus and dedication. So I will continue to observe and to combine all my experiences to make a complete picture, which I’ll share. Learning by doing and communicating real examples will hopefully help others understand and support not only organic farms but other businesses and organizations ready to embrace these ideals.

As for me, I will support organic and local farmers, organic agri-businesses, and the notion that being sustainable is the best way to live.