Episode #5 – Diana Martin from Rodale Institute explains how her company is growing the organic movement through research, farmer training, and consumer education.
On this episode of Agrihood Radio, we catch up with Director of Communications for Rodale Institute, Diana Martin.
Diana expresses her thoughts on what questions should be asked when considering an Agrihood for your family. She also shares the process of organically grown foods in America.
Biodiversity on farms is also an important topic that Diana raises questions for. For example; what are farms doing to encourage pollinator habitats? The birds, the butterflies and the bees, are they planting milkweed so that when monarch butterflies come through they have a habitat?
How are Agri-Communites encouraging the biodiversity in the soil? Because feeding this microbial community is so important for soil health. We discuss these key points along with many more important questions.
There’s also the concern of how farms only mono-crop corn or soybeans on their land year after year. Those crops become very resource intensive. Which means they require significantly more fertilizer. They’re almost always GMO resistant to glyphosate.
So they’re continuously getting more and more Roundup, rainfall washes those chemicals into the waterways and end up creating dead zones with really hostile life that can have a harmful effect on drinking water.
Diana explains how certain communities in the Midwest are seeing blue babies syndrome from chemicals in their drinking water. It’s having that type of an impact on the health of the population that live there.
Diana Martin oversees all marketing and communications including the Rodale Institute website, social media, email marketing, advertising, public relations, and the print publication New Farm. She is a graduate of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.
Have a listen and enjoy the interview as Diana shares her insightful knowledge with us!
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Brett: Hey, good morning, Dianna. How are you?
Dianna: I’m doing so well. Thank you for having me on the podcast.
Brett: Excited to have you because you guys are doing something pretty cool there at Rodale Institute. We saw the documentary, Sustainable, which is available on Netflix right now. And that was a huge eye-opener, and we’re very impressed with the segment they had on Rodale Institute, so I wanted to catch up with you and share with us what’s going on there, tell us about the history and what you guys are doing and the vision you have.
Dianna: Absolutely. So Rodale Institute we’re a leader of the organic agriculture movement. Our organization, we’ve actually been around for 70 years, and we’re considered the birthplace of the organic movement especially in North America. Today we spend a lot of our time focusing on doing research on organic agriculture, and also education, so training farmers, working with consumers about how organic is a solution to some of the human health crisis, climate change, all these issues we’re seeing with clean air, clean water, it’s all connected to the food on your plate. So that’s what we’re really focused on.
But we do have a really interesting history. Our founder, his name is J.I. Rodale, he started talking about organic back in the 1940’s which is kind of hard to imagine, because it’s really just gaining a lot of momentum recently, but he originally came up with this concept back in the 40’s when farming started using a lot of synthetic input, started putting these synthetic fertilizers on crops and fields. And he just really questioned how can we turn these toxic chemicals, these poisons into healthy food for our families, that just doesn’t make sense to me. He started asking these questions and decided we really need research behind this to start answering them, and that’s how Rodale Institute was born.
Brett: Awesome. This is going to be great for our listeners, because as you know we have the Agrihood Living, farm-to-table lifestyle blog, we’re looking for an Agrihood for our family. And the folks listening right now, the people listening right now can gain knowledge and awareness because a lot of the communities right now are looking for ways to improve their crops, and there’s also people listening right now who want to go work in an Agrihood on the farm, and then you have the residents who want to make sure that the food they’re eating is clean, healthy, and safe for their families. So the whole concept of Agrihoods is to provide people healthier lifestyle options. So let’s get right down to bare bones basic, because there might be some confusion, because I am one of those people who tend to gravitate towards organic foods, but when it comes right down to it, Dianna, what is the bare bones definition of organic?
Dianna: That’s such a great question. I would say organics really starts with soil health. A lot of times we talk so much in organic about the things that we don’t do, so in organic you’re not allowed to use any synthetic fertilizers, you can’t use GMO’s, you can’t use synthetic pesticides and herbicides. So we’re not using glyphosate and Roundup. Those are definitely really important parts of the organic movement. I would say some of the stuff I’m really excited about organic, in organic, is all the things we do do.
So we really think about farming with nature, so cover cropping and doing a diverse crop rotation, using compost, encouraging biodiversity on the farm, pollinators. These are all really important parts of the organic movement. And the way that you can know if something is organic, there’s actually a certification program. So if you’ve ever seen in the grocery store or a supermarket, there’s a USDA certified organic seal. If you see that seal you know that that farm has gone through an independent audit and process that says they are farming this way.
Brett: Right, so we can trust … I want to be able to … because a lot of this is based on trust, because there’s so much deception out there, and now you have big corporations trying to beat the system and use the term organic when it’s not in fact organic. So when we see that label it’s definitely organically grown?
Dianna: Absolutely. And I think … I mean, that’s such a great kind of benefit for the people who are interested in the Agrihoods. I think people are so removed from their food system now, a lot of people who grow up in urban areas now, they think food comes from the grocery store. I talked to so many people who have never even stepped foot on a farm. A lot of people don’t necessarily have the benefit of being able to talk to their local farmer about their practices. That’s something that if you’re in an Agrihood not only do you have the ability to do that, you can probably also participate in the actual farm and learn more about the growing practices.
But the great thing about the USDA organic seal is for all the people who don’t have that opportunity, busy moms and dads who are grabbing stuff off grocery store shelves, they still can know something about the health of that product and how it’s going to impact their family, but also the environment and the climate.
Brett: Sure, and I’m glad you brought that up, because in talking to the farmers around the country at these different Agrihoods, they have all said the same thing that organic is a process. To be certified it costs money, and I believe isn’t there a three-year period you have to grow organically before you become certified?
Dianna: Yes, that is correct. So there’s a three-year transition period from the last time you used any prohibited inputs which basically means using a GMO or an herbicide or a fertilizer.
Brett: Okay. And then the next thing we’ve found is that … so it seems as if, and you can correct me if I’m wrong, we’re still learning, is that you have traditionally grown foods with pesticides, herbicides. Then you have the middle which is, no, we’re not using any chemicals but we’re not organic. And then you go to the next one which is completely organic. So in the middle there we have seen this at the Agrihood farms – no, we’re not certified organic but we’re not using any pesticides. Tell me about that.
Dianna: I would say still you kind of … if you’re looking at agriculture as a whole in the United States, keep in mind right now only 1% of foreign land in the US is certified organic. So these people who are using more sustainable methods are still a very small minority. So even communities like that I definitely applaud them, and they’re still in a very small minority of farmers who are trying to move away from the chemical dependency. So I think that’s a really great step. I mean, we work with farmers all across the spectrum from conventional, trying to get them to just do some things like cover crop. And every step in that direction really makes a big difference.
And I think it also makes a difference for the farmer to know who their market is. If you’re selling at a farmers’ market or CSA where you have a chance to talk to your customer, maybe you don’t need that label to speak for you and maybe certification isn’t right for you. But I would applaud any farmer that you’re talking to who is thinking about those sustainable methods, because unfortunately that’s still very far from the norm in our country.
Brett: Right, and from a health standpoint that’s okay, I can feel comfortable if we decide to move into a community, an Agrihood, that’s not certified but they are using safe practices to grow and harvest their food, then our family should feel safe and comfortable knowing that?
Dianna: It’s definitely, for me would be a really important consideration. I think Agrihoods… obviously, you’re moving into a community like that because you care about farming. I would kind of urge you to do your homework and say, “What do those farming practices look like? Are they good to our local water and soil and the air that we’re breathing? Are they good for our family if we’re going to eat that food?” And as a good farmer, thinking about are they getting fair pricing for their products in this community?
I think this new term we’re actually using a lot in Rodale’s regenerative organic. I don’t know if we could kind of even shift into talking about that for a minute.
Brett: Yeah, I want to definitely … I definitely want to touch upon that, because you guys are leading, you’re the leaders in your industry, you’re doing things so right, you’re setting the bar very high, but not everybody’s there yet as you know that, you’ve been involved with this long enough to know that people … you just said it a second ago, not everybody’s there yet, so we’re taking steps to get there, so that’s why I’m asking these questions and your answers are spot on, very informative. So we just want everyone to know the questions we should be asking when we go to these Agrihoods, first thing is – are you a certified organic? Most are going to say no. Got it, okay, so and then from that point share with us, Dianna, what are some great question. Maybe give us five to seven questions that we should be asking to ensure this food is healthy optimal eating for our family.
Dianna: Yeah, I love that, let’s talk about that. I definitely would want to ask about the growing practices. So it’s important to know about GMO’s, I would say, “Are you using GMO’s in your farming?” I would want to know what kind of chemicals are you using on your farm, are you using pesticides and herbicides? I would want to know what kind of crop rotation are you using, do you make sure a farm that’s just mono-cropping corn or soybeans, that might not be having a great benefit for the community that you’re looking for. What happens to the food that you’ve prepared, is it staying locally? How far is it getting shipped away?
I would want to know how are you encouraging biodiversity on your farm, what are you doing to encourage pollinator habitats. The birds and the butterflies and the bees, are you may be planting milkweed so that when monarch butterflies come through they have a habitat? How are you encouraging the biodiversity in the soil, so feeding this microbial community that’s so important for soil health. I think those are some important questions.
For farms that have animals I would want to know are those animals outside, access to the outdoors, out on pasture. Are you just giving all of them antibiotics and growth hormones? How are you treating these animals? What are their conditions like, are they being humanely treated? I think those are some important questions.
And I think for me I would want to know are there ways for us to participate? What does the community look like on the farm? How are your workers treated? Are their wages fair? And are there ways for me to get involved in learning about the food for my family and participating on the farm? That’d be a couple of starter questions I would have to kind of get a better idea of – is this farm really a good fit for our local community?
Brett: Great questions, those are really great questions, very helpful. Let’s talk about something you had mentioned, corn and soybean, you said it’s not the best. Let’s back up to that corn and soybean topic you just talked about for a second.
Dianna: Sure. So I’m going to throw a figure at you, right now 70% of the United States is just in grains. The majority is corn and soybeans. So I think there’s a little bit of connection, if you think about farmers, they think farmers are growing us food. But actually a lot of that corn and soybean production is going to animal feed, to gasoline like ethanol, and to high-fructose corn syrup, a lot of these farms are actually producing. And unfortunately since all we really ask farmers to do in a country is grow the cheapest crops possible, a lot of times those are being grown in a destructive way.
So just mono-cropping corn or soybeans, meaning that’s the only crop you grow on your land year after year. Those crops are very resource intensive, so they require a lot of fertilizer. They’re almost always GMO resistant to glyphosate, so they’re getting sprayed with Roundup. So see, so you’re having all of this, and when it rains those chemicals wash into the waterways and end up creating dead zones with really hostile life, and harm our drinking water. What we’re seeing in these communities, if you look in the Midwest, there’s communities where they’re having blue babies syndrome from chemicals in the drinking water, it’s having that much of a literal impact on the health of the population that live there.
So this is some of the issues we’re trying to combat as an organization like Rodale Institute – how do we move away from these mono-crops that take lots of chemical inputs, that are really taking the life out of the soil and contaminating the planet. They’re not really providing a lot of food for our communities. You see in the Midwest and these communities, there’s actually a lot of food deserts. The farmers aren’t even being able to have nutrient-dense food in their communities. And then how do we kind of shift away from that to something that encourages biodiversity? So it basically encourages life above and below the soil.
Brett: Excellent. As you’re talking I’m thinking in my head, I’m thinking that every farmer that’s part of an Agrihood, and I’m not limiting to Agrihoods, but people should in my opinion learn as much as they possibly can about what you’re teaching. Are there ways that they can get in touch with you to learn and say, “Hey, look, we’re getting ready to open up this Agrihood, or we want to improve our Agrihood farming system. Can we come out to your farm to take a class, a course?” What about that, what’s that process like?
Dianna: Yeah, that’s a great question, so one of our big focus areas at Rodale Institute is education. We really want to work with farmers, especially conventional farmers who are looking to transition to organic. And they’re kind of trying to figure out a roadmap of what does that look like. So we do offer, we have field days at our site, our headquarters is in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, so we offer field days, we offer workshops, a number of training programs for folks that want to come out and work with us, but we also have online options like webinars.
And something that’s really exciting that we’re working on right now is a regional resource center, so one of the things that we realized is we need satellite locations at other parts of the country. And one reason that that’s really important is because when you’re talking about growing organically in Georgia or Colorado or Montana, they have different soil types, different climate, different crops that they’re growing. In the south you might be growing organic cotton; we’re not growing that in Pennsylvania.
So what we’ve realized is we need these satellite hubs, these kind of mini-Rodale institutes in other parts of the country where we can do research on their local conditions, but also that training and outreach to farmers in the area. So I’m excited that we’re actually, we already launched our first regional resource center, we just launched it about a month ago, so it’s very new, it’s out in Iowa, and we’re working on other centers around the country right now.
Brett: It’s in Iowa you said? Where in Iowa is it?
Dianna: It’s in the Cedar Rapids area.
Brett: Okay, before I forget, because I do forget sometimes, before I forget this question – how can people learn more about Rodale? Send them to your site; follow you Instagram, social media, share with us.
Dianna: Absolutely, so our website is Rodaleinstitute.org, it’s a really great resource especially if you’re new to organic. We have an entire section that’s called Why Organic on our website that just really walks you through what organic is, what are the farming practices, how does something like organic relate to big-picture issues like human health or climate change. So that’s a really great resource.
Brett: Can you spell that for us, spell the website?
Dianna: Yep, Rodale Institute which is R-O-D-A-L-E and then I-N-S-T-I-T-U-T-E.org.
Brett: Perfect. Social media, Facebook, Instagram.
Dianna: Yeah, we have a community of over 50,000 people on our Facebook page, we’re on Instagram and Twitter and YouTube. We have a really great email list that you can join. All of our resources for the most part are free, so there’s a lot of great education materials we’re pushing out to farmers and also just conscious eaters and consumers.
Brett: Right on. Why is it you pay more for organic foods if it takes less chemicals to make that food or produce that food?
Dianna: Yeah, that’s a really good question. I think part of it right now is just the issue of scale and supply and demand. So like I mentioned before, only 1% of our farmland in the United States is organic. Right now 5% of the food we eat in the United States is organic; actually 14% of the produce we’re eating in the US is organic. So part of it is a little bit of a lag with the supply. We’re even importing a lot of our organic food. That being said it’s a really great opportunity for farmers in the US to get into that market.
And I think since organic is still small we can’t take advantage of all the opportunities of scale. I don’t think people realize, but in organic not only does the farm have to be organic and the crops, but basically the entire supply chain. So organic greens need to go in their own trucks to their own green elevator, they need to have their own certified processing facilities. So it’s organic all the way from the farm all the way to what you see in the grocery store. So right now it’s still a challenge for some farmers, let’s say your closest organic grain mill is a couple hundred miles away, and that’s going to add a cost for farmer.
So I think as we continue to scale organic, it’s going to become more accessible and more affordable for more families, and we’re definitely, we’re getting there. The other thing I would mention about the difference between organic and conventional ag, in conventional ag you’re paying a lot of money for inputs, buying GMO, buying fertilizers, buying pesticides. In organic you’re paying more of your cost towards labor. So there is a great benefit to that, you can employ more people in your local community, because an organic farm is more labor intensive. You might actually have to employ just for weeds. So that’s kind of an example of how actually most organic operations would need to employ more staff.
Brett: The biggest thing I’m hearing is that the big corporations are finding loopholes to beat the system, and say it’s organic when in fact it’s not 100% true. Share with us what that might look like.
Dianna: In organic one of the things it is growing, so there’s a lot more corporate interest in organic, which can be good and bad. Right now the top two places in the country that sell organic food, and I think you’ll be surprised, one of them is Costco and one of them is Walmart, which one of the pros of that means a community where people are doing their grocery shopping at Walmart they might have access to organic food for the first time, at the price point that they can afford.
One of the cons of that are when some of these bigger companies come in to the organic movement, they’re different than the farmers who have been there for twenty, thirty, forty years. The people who originally got into the organic movement was all about the philosophy, it was because they believed it was the right thing to do. Now there’s corporations coming into the organic market that see the dollar signs so this is something that’s growing and consumers want to buy.
So that being said, there’s a whole political side to this, where the standards for organic are run through the National Organic Program which is actually a Federal program under the USDA. And there are some corporations who are working to kind of weaken those standards under the USDA, but then there’s also a lot of folks like us at Rodale Institute who are equally at that table fighting to keep them really strong. So that’s kind of where we live in this environment, where we have to keep protecting that seal, so that consumers can trust it, and that we can support farmers who are really going extra mile to do the right thing.
Brett: You really are improving the health and well-being of people on the planet through your organic leadership, and that’s huge, big, big, big applause to you. Can we visit that farm? Is there a way to people to come out for the day and see what you guys are doing and get a first-hand look at this?
Dianna: Yeah, absolutely. So Rodale Institute is open to the public seven days a week. You can come out for an event, we have a garden store, we have a visitors center, we offer tours. So we definitely encourage people to come and find us. We’re only about an hour from Philadelphia or two hours from New York City, so we want people to come out and kind of see firsthand when we talk about regenerative agriculture, when we talk about organic agriculture – what does that actually look like and what does that actually mean? Because we believe that’s the future of farming, and we need to get more people on board to kind of understand what that looks like.
Brett: You know what? As you’re saying this, I’m thinking about our schedule and usually we wind up on the East Coast around October, and we’re going to take you up on that invite, we’re going to pull up and get the cameras out, we’ll interview you live.
Brett: And we can meet in person, face to face. You guys have a top notch organization, five stars across the board. How did you get involved with this? Before I let you go, I have to ask you, I’m going to guess you’re in your mid-20s, late-20s. You sound as if …
Dianna: Yes, I am.
Brett: Okay, I’ve been around long enough to kind of pick up and get a general idea of somebody’s age. I’m listening to you, and I’m thinking this woman has so much knowledge, but I don’t think she’s any older than 30. How did you acquire so much knowledge in such a short time?
Dianna: Well, definitely working at Rodale Institute is a huge help. I know I think about it every day, I look around and I’m like, “This is my office that’s surrounded by world-class research scientists. We have our own animal husbandry folks, beekeepers on staff.” I mean, I’m just surrounded by that much expertise I think if you’re a lifelong learner you really start to pick it up. But I think in general I see a lot of, actually the people who are really leading the organic movement are Millennials. So right now the number one consumer of organic is Millennials, and the number one reason people start buying organic for the first time is when they’re pregnant with their first child. So a lot of young families are involved in this movement.
And I think just in general we have a new class of consumer, and Millennials they’re asking more questions about where their food comes from, and they want more transparency, and they want to support with their dollars things that align with their values. So I think we’ll continue to see this new generation coming up and saying, “I’m actually willing to pay more for food that I know is doing the right thing for the climate, doing the right thing for my health.” So I would say I see a lot of other also young people in this movement who are going out and learning more about how does the food I eat impact the world around me.
Brett: 100% correct, spot-on. You have major developers in our country who recognize the new buyer are the Millennials, and they spending gazillions of dollars on building Agrihoods around the country, catering to that new buyer who wants something different than a golf course, not all of them, I’m saying some of them, as a whole they want to be connected socially to neighbors and to a reliable source of food. Then what happened as we’re discovering once these Agrihoods started popping up, the developers recognized – wait a minute, it’s just not Millennials, there’s people all across the board who are on board with this movement, right? And want something healthier, healthier options. And Agrihoods is now getting bigger and creating momentum among multi-generations of people.
Dianna: It makes a lot of sense to me. I think people are looking for that connection again to what’s real. I think we’ve moved really far into this digital society, and I think some people are ready to bring it back in, and what’s something I can really experience and see and be part of, and they want that community feeling. I think the opportunity with Agrihoods to actually connect more people to sustainable agriculture is huge, because I think one of the reasons we’ve gotten in this situation that we have is because people have become very disconnected from their food. It was able to get very corporate and mechanized and just driven by the cheapest prices, and with that we’re paying the price now. And I think if more people were connected … in their mind when they think about farming they think about people outside growing vegetables and having animals outdoors and something that’s healthy and something that’s really thriving. And that’s not what are we really gone with agriculture as a country. So I think the Agrihood has such a huge potential to reconnect people to the source of their food.
Brett: 100% agree with you on that. Dianna Martin, you’re a rock star. You know that, don’t you?
Dianna: Thank you so much for having me on, it’s just so interesting to hear what you guys are doing. And definitely can’t wait for you to come out and visit us later this year.
Brett: Okay, and between now and then though, I’m going to have you back on to talk about some more stuff you guys are doing over there, so I’m going to reach back out to you. We’re doing a big circuit down here in Texas right now, we’ll be back in Arizona in a couple weeks, but I want to reach back out to you because you said some things today that sparked some interest and people want to hear from you again. So we’re going to invite you back on within the next, I say four to six weeks. How does that sound with you?
Dianna: That sounds great. I would love to talk more.
Brett: All right, Dianna, have a great day. Thank you so much for what you’re doing. We’ll be in touch.
Dianna: Thank you.
Brett: All right.
Disclaimer: Agrihood Radio transcripts are prepared by a transcription service. Refer to full audio for exact wording.