RODALE FOUNDER’S FARM
On a late fall morning in 2019 when gray skies dripped with freezing rain and cold temperatures made teeth chatter and noses run, two unlikely greeters welcomed a visitor to the Rodale Organic Farm and Working Tree Center at the corner of Minesite Road and South Cedar Crest Boulevard, Lower Macungie Township.
Brothers Lewis and Clark, a pair of broad-shouldered oxen, ignored wet weather to stand at the border of their pasture to get a better look at who had stopped by a location affectionately known as Founder’s Farm, the home of the late J.I. and Anna Rodale and their family and the epicenter of modern organic agriculture in North America.
Molly Schmaeling, CSA operator and landscape designer, and on this particular day tour guide, at the farm said the brothers are named for pioneer explorers Capt. Meriwether Lewis and Lt. William Clark and are pioneers in their own right.
In December 2019 the brothers were among the only livestock-in-residence at the farm. One of the cats making up the pair Angelina and Jolie had died, Schmaeling said. The arrival of laying hens early in 2020 was anticipated. Other residents included bees tended by Mike Schmaeling, Molly’s husband.
Meanwhile, Lewis and Clark patiently wait for the change to come to make Founder’s Farm a more visible point of pilgrimage for the modern organic agriculture movement by potentially opening the farm to the public.
“I’d love to see this be like a living museum,” Schmaeling said of the farm.
The site is described in literature available at the farm as “a 40-acre certified organic farm and arboretum.”
Purchased in the mid-20th century by J.I. and Anna Rodale, the farm dates to the 1800s. The site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as significant to agriculture.
Organic Gardening, the flagship publication of the Rodale publishing company, began at the farm and evidence of J.I. Rodale’s pioneering ideas about organic gardening, including an innovative stone mulching garden and the 16 concrete cylinders in which he experimented with organic growing techniques, remain much as they were during his lifetime.
As a working farm, much of the land was cleared for planting and harvesting when the Rodales purchased the homestead. J.I. Rodale opted to change the location’s mission, restoring many native species of trees and planting many out-of-the ordinary trees which have gone on to be towering exemplars.
Evidence of Rodale’s innovations in animal husbandry, such as chicken coops designed to more easily collect droppings for composting, also can be found here.
“J.I. Rodale spent his money on time,” Schmaeling said, discussing Rodale’s investment in the connection of healthy soil to healthy food and healthy people.
The farm also was a family home. An extensive library houses shelves filled with books and artwork. The family swimming pool, on a late fall day covered for the coming winter, sits in an open part of the yard near a petite playhouse built for children and within easy walking distance of an herb garden plot and a greenhouse. Statuary dots the landscape.
“There is a positivity that radiates here,” Schmaeling said.
Planned additions to the farm include more bees. Mike Schmaeling, the beekeeper for the Rodale Institute, breeds bees there without the use of treatments, pesticides or antibiotics. He focuses on bee health and uses traditional techniques in new ways to strengthen the bee population. For example, colonies of bees at the farm are small, about 15,000 bees or so. In contrast, commercial farms may have colonies of 70,000 plus bees. Schmaeling also maintains multiple small colonies on the farm and configures the colonies to promote bee health.
“There are a 1,000 reasons bees are dying but only a handful of reasons they are surviving,” Mike Schmaeling said.
“We want to be ahead of that curve,” Mike Schmaeling said.
Self-guided walking tours of the farms paths also may come in the future if the farm opens to the public.
A traffic light at the intersection of Minesite Road and South Cedar Crest Boulevard is believe to increase the accessibility of the farm to the public.
The farm also is kin to the Rodale Institute, in Kutztown, dedicated to “advancing regenerative organic agriculture through research, education and outreach,” according to its mission statement.
Techniques, ideas and theories started on a smaller scale at the farm on Minesite Road imbue the work done at the much larger Rodale Institute.
“There’s so much potential and possibility,” Schmaeling said.
Just ask Lewis and Clark. They used to live in Kutztown before making the journey to become ambassadors of organic agriculture in Lower Macungie Township.
Their original mission was to provide power to plow the fields.
The mission has changed a bit in recent years.
“They are more like pets,” Schmaeling said of the siblings.