Since 1947, Rodale Institute has been committed to groundbreaking research in organic agriculture, and providing support and education for farmers and consumers across the world. Every year, the Institute welcomes thousands of visitors to the farm.
“Our visitors represent a diverse cross section of society, ranging from school students, to farmers and policy makers from the United States and many countries around the world,” said Maria Pop, Education and Outreach Manager of Rodale Institute.
In July, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) teachers and students participating in the Pulse 2.0 (the Partnership to Understand and Lead STEM Education) summer camp of Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit 13 visited Rodale Institute. Pulse 2.0 is an action-research project designed to measure the impact of STEM professional development for educators on student learning in math and science. Over an intensive two-week period, participants explore content through the theme of “Pennsylvania Agriculture” by taking advantage of the region’s resources in farming, engineering, ecology and the ancillary industries related to those fields.
“The reputation that Rodale Institute has as a leading expert in research and organic agriculture was really important to us,” said Lauren Beal, Curriculum & Instruction Consultant for STEM of Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit 13.
While on-site for a tour, teachers and students learned how the agriculture industry involves STEM career fields as they listened to Rodale Institute researchers explain their roles and current projects.
“Because Pulse 2.0 is a STEM institute and we are working with the department of agriculture, it was important to have real world experience that got teachers and students out in an actual research facility focused on agriculture,” said Beal.
Kate Harms, research technician of Rodale Institute discussed her research study on investigating bat activity in agricultural landscapes to develop organic pest management. She explained how acoustic monitoring equipment is used for assessing bat populations and activities. Understanding land use and bat presence, can help farmers attract bats and take advantage of their abilities for pest management. She also showed the group how her study involves using a variety of bat boxes and monitoring their occupancy rates.
“One of the highlights of the trip was the presentation about Rodale’s research project on bats. After the trip, teachers spoke about how they could incorporate the research on bats and insect management with the students when they get back to their classrooms in September,” said Beal.
Teachers and students also learned how well-made compost is a fundamental part of organic farming. Rick Carr, compost production specialist of Rodale Institute explained the biology of composting such as how compost improves soil structure and stability, recycles nutrients, stabilizes volatile nitrogen and converts wastes into resources. They also observed the compost turner in action.
“It’s important for us to expose kids to real world problem solving that incorporates all four of the STEM disciplines. Agriculture is the leading industry in our state, so the more we can make teachers feel comfortable with teaching agriculture within their content, the more they can extend that knowledge to their students. If we can get students excited about agriculture and STEM in early ages, they’re more likely to pursue a field as a career,” said Beal.
Daniel Kemper, field foreman of Rodale Institute informed teachers and students about how the roller/crimper operates. The roller/crimper has a cylinder with curved blades which lay the cover crop over in one direction and crimps or crushes its stems. This combination of these two actions kills the cover, therefore turning it into a thick, weed suppressing mulch in one pass, eliminating the use of herbicides.
After touring the farm, the group headed over to the laboratory to view some of the other research being conducted on the farm.
In the outside processing lab, Dr. Kristine Nichols, chief scientist of Rodale Institute, gave a demonstration of the rainfall simulator. The rainfall simulator is a great tool that demonstrates runoff generation, infiltration rates and topsoil loss. The teachers and students observed the simulated effects an inch of rainfall has on three surface soil samples including: soil managed organically, conventionally and that of a perennial buffer from the farm.
In the sterile lab, students listened to Tara Caton, research technician of Rodale Institute explain beetle rearing and insect pest management. Caton discussed her DNA research project that she will be starting with the striped cucumber beetle. This year the beetles spread Bacteria Wilt Disease on the cucumber plants. However, last year the beetles existed on the cucumber plants, but there was no disease present. She will be researching to discover if there is a correlation between the parasatoids (an organism that lives on or in a host organism) living in the beetles and the Bacteria Wilt Disease.
Teachers and students learned about weed density and weed identification in the main lab. Emily Lesher, research technician of Rodale Institute also explained the process of testing aggregate stability and gave a demonstration. Testing aggregate stability is another way to measure healthy soil. The aggregates are small clumps within the soil that provide aeration. Having stable soil aggregates makes healthier soil because it prevents erosion.
“It was evident that this trip was a meaningful experience for our participants. As a culminating activity, we asked teachers to complete a Design Your Farm Challenge using the math and science concepts they learned during our institute. When they were completed, all farm designs included various aspects of the items they saw at Rodale Institute. Teachers included new understandings of compost, contour farming, crop rotation and using natural pest eliminators such as bats,” said Beal.
In addition to local groups like Pulse 2.0, Rodale Institute also welcomes groups from all around the world. During the month of July, farmers from Brazil attended Rodale Institute’s Annual Field Day where they observed various demonstration stations from soil health to honey bee conservancy.
Another group from Argentina visited the farm this summer to learn more about organic no-till in grain production this year. University faculty from China also came to Rodale Institute to discuss future collaboration in organic agriculture research. At the end of August, the Institute will also host a group of policy makers from Azerbaijan who are interested in drafting a set of rules and regulations for their country’s organic agriculture certification agency.
Hosting local groups and groups from different countries, is just one of the many ways Rodale Institute inspires consumers and farmers to live organically.
“Our educational programs contribute to students’ understanding of food and food production and helps them develop respect for nutrition, agriculture’s role in society, and the environment. Every year we have numerous groups of students and teachers come to the Rodale Institute for guided tours,” said Pop.
Rodale Institute believes that their farm is a destination for inspiration and their research is a catalyst for change. With every group that visits the farm, Rodale Institute hopes to inform, inspire and empower consumers and farmers to see the value of organic agricultural.
“With every farmer that was inspired to take a step towards farming organically or consumer who decided to choose organic vegetables/fruits for their next meal, I feel that we are one step closer to fulfilling the mission that J.I. Rodale trusted us to carry on to this turbulent but hopeful 21st Century,” said Pop.
This is a guest post by Communications Intern Amanda Bialek.