#6 | Diana Martin: The Rodale Institute - Birthplace of the Organic Movement
Did you know fertiliser was first introduced in the 1940s because the US had lots of leftover nitrogen that wasn’t made into weapons during WWII?
Hey, this is Daniel Hartz with Sustainability Matters Today, a podcast where I showcase sustainability experts and discover their journeys.
The aim of these conversations is to share ideas from leaders in the field on the financial benefits of adopting eco-friendly methodologies. Can it really be cost-effective to be sustainable?
Through these talks, we also cover ways you as an individual can incorporate environmentally-friendly practices into your daily life.
In this episode, I interview Diana Martin, the Director of Communications at The Rodale Institute, a nonprofit considered to be the birthplace of the organic movement in North America. The Institute educates consumers and farmers on the benefits of organic and researches organic farming practices.
Diana and I talk about the significance of the Institute’s motto “healthy soil = healthy food = healthy people” and why it’s problematic that we’re losing topsoil 10 times faster than it’s being replaced.
We discuss the profitability of organic farming, especially in a time when many farmers sell their produce at break-even prices and live off of taxpayer-funded government subsidies.
Diana describes carbon farming, a practice that takes advantage of plants’ natural ability to sequester carbon dioxide and put it back into the soil, where it belongs.
This is a great interview and I’m really looking forward to it! If you know someone who’s passionate about organic food, farming, or sustainability, share this episode with them! You can find us at sustainabilitymatters.today. If you’d like to learn more about the Rodale Institute, visit their website at rodaleinstitute.org.
And let us know you’re listening to this episode on instagram! Tag us - @sustainabilitymatterstoday and @RodaleInstitute. We’d love to hear from you!
Daniel Hartz: Did you know fertilizer was first introduced in the 1940s because the US had lots of leftover nitrogen that wasn't made into weapons during World War II. Hey, this is Daniel Hartz with Sustainability Matters Today, a podcast where I showcase sustainability experts and discover their journeys. The aim of these conversations is to share ideas from leaders in the field on the financial benefits of adopting eco-friendly methodologies. Can it really be cost-effective to be sustainable? Through these talks, we also cover ways you as an individual can incorporate environmentally friendly practices into your daily life. In this episode, I interviewed Diana Martin, the director of communications at the Rodale Institute, a nonprofit considered to be the birthplace of the organic movement in North America. The Institute educates consumers and farmers on the benefits of organic and researches organic farming practices. Diana and I talk about the significance of the institute's motto 'Healthy soil equals healthy food equals healthy people' and why it's problematic that we're losing topsoil 10 times faster than it's being replaced.
Daniel Hartz: We discussed the profitability of organic farming, especially in a time when many farmers sell their produce at break-even prices and live off of taxpayer-funded government subsidies. Diana describes carbon farming, a practice that takes advantage of plants, natural ability to sequester carbon dioxide and put it back into the soil where it belongs. This is a great interview and I'm really looking forward to it. If you know someone who's passionate about organic food farming or sustainability, share this episode with them. You can find us at sustainabilitymatters dot today. If you'd like to learn more about the Rodale Institute, visit their website @rodaleinstitute.org and let us know you're listening to this episode on Instagram. Tag us at sustainability matters today and at Rodale Institute. We'd love to hear from you. All right, let's jump in.
Daniel Hartz: I'm excited to be speaking with Diana Martin, the director of communications at Rodale Institute. Diana has been with the Institute for over three years telling the world about the important work they're doing. Diana, thank you for joining me today.
Diana Martin: Hi Daniel. Thank you so much for having me on the show.
Daniel Hartz: You're very welcome I'm really looking forward to diving into a bit about your background and a lot about what the Rodale Institute is doing. But if we could just take a quick step back and get some info about who you are and what your background is. How did you get started in organic farming?
Diana Martin: That's a great question. So, I'm actually, I'm from a farming community. I'm from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which is usually known as Amish country that's what most people think about. My grandparents grew up on a farm I'm the 10th generation of my family to live here. But just in those, since for my grandparents to me, we already became really removed from farming. So, I didn't grow up on a farm, actually studied journalism and I was working in a nonprofit job and just always had a lot of interest in food and farming. And after I took a little traveling stint, after my last nonprofit job and I found myself doing something called 'WWOOFING', which is an acronym, but it's basically an opportunity to work on organic farms anywhere around the country or around the world. and you can ...yeah, they'll give you housing and food in exchange for your work on the farm.
Diana Martin: So, that just gave me such an appreciation. I was 'WWOOFING', at a farm up in Vermont, and I think I've heard other people say that everyone should work in a restaurant once or everyone should work in a nonprofit once. I think everybody eats, everybody should work on a farm once, even if it's just for a couple of days or a week. Because it gives you so much appreciation for where your food comes from and just the challenges that our farmers are going through to produce that food for you. So, it just...that kind of spurred me to get really interested in how our food connects to things like our economy, our health. The environment is something I felt like I was taking place every day and I just wanted to learn more about the impacts and that really started my organic journey.
Daniel Hartz: Awesome. Yeah, it sounds like, a very great way to start and yeah, 'WWOOFING', it sounds very cool. It's something I haven't tried before, but I've always been interested. It sounds like a really great thing to get introduced into farming and seeing how the organic side really works.
Diana Martin: Yeah, it's a good way to get your hands dirty.
Daniel Hartz: Yeah, so speaking of learning about how food affects the economy and healthy environment and everything else, could you please give a brief background on the Rodale Institute?
Diana Martin: Absolutely. So, the Rodale Institute we're actually considered the birthplace of the organic movement here in North America.
Daniel Hartz: Cool.
Diana Martin: Yeah, our founder, his name is J I, Rodale, he actually started talking about organic agriculture back in the 1940s.
Daniel Hartz: Wow!
Diana Martin: So that's been... yeah, we've been around for 70 years, even though organics is really just taking off now as its mainstream movement. And he was a really interesting guy J I Rodale, he wasn't a farmer. He actually grew up in New York City. He had a really successful electrical manufacturing company and he decided to move it out of New York into Pennsylvania and one of his goals was to move onto a farm and he wanted to actually produce food for his own family. And I think, you know, him not being a farmer, he really, he had no idea what he was doing. I always see these pictures of him in a suit and tie, he was kind of this gentleman farmer. so yeah, he called up Penn state, which would be our local extension agent and basically asked them what to do and this was the time that we were just coming out of world war II. This was the green revolution; so basically, all these, nitrogen we have been using to make weapons. They didn't know what to do with all of it after the war. So, they figured out that we could spread it on fields and the fields would be more productive and this was kind of seen as the future of agriculture.
Daniel Hartz: Wow!
Diana Martin: Yeah, Jai was really the first person to kind of stop and question, how do we take these toxic chemicals and poisons? How am I supposed to turn that into healthy food for my family? It just didn't really make sense to him. And that's when he decided that we really need more research on the way we're producing our food. and nobody really wanted to take his money. Everyone, as I said, this was kind of seen as this is modern agriculture, this is where we're going. So, he was just kind of fine, we're going to start our own research Institute, and the Rodale Institute was born. so, we've been around now for 70 years comparing organic and conventional agriculture doing a lot of farmer training, working with farmers who want to transition to organic and also really focusing, our motto is actually 'healthy soil equals healthy food equals healthy people'. So, at the end of the day, we're really focused on the human health side and working with consumers who are trying to make smart decisions about the food that they purchase.
Daniel Hartz: Yeah, that's great. And you mentioned a number of things there that I'd love to unpack individually, but
it's absolutely crazy to think that modern kind of quote-unquote conventional farming came from after a war and there is there's too much nitrogen leftover from the war and you didn't know what to do with it. So, we just decided... people just decided to put it on fields and feed people with basically war chemicals. It doesn't sound quite right.
Diana Martin: It's interesting even today there's a lot of crossover between these agrochemical companies, are also pharmaceutical companies. Also, you know, the same company, Bayer that now owns Monsanto, they were the same company that produced gas and the gas chambers in world war II. So there's a really like scary link actually between chemicals that we've been using in warfare to now chemicals we're using in our food and then those same companies sell you the chemicals to help you get better, quote-unquote when you're getting sick from these foods.
Daniel Hartz: Yeah.
Diana Martin: So, I think people would be shocked if they did a little bit more research on, Bayer who you buy aspirin from is also selling, the glyphosate that's ending up on your food and making you sick.
Daniel Hartz: Yeah, yep. Absolutely it's ...yeah, it's pretty scary. You mentioned something earlier, which was about, how the Rodale Institute studies growing food or grain specifically, conventionally, verse organically. So, you have something called the farming systems trial and there is I think a number of important lessons that have been learned from these tests. But if we start specifically with crop yield and profits back in 2016, the part of the Rodale Institute farm that was growing food with no-till and organic manure produced 200 bushels of corn per acre and for those of you who don't know, a bushel is about eight gallons, just a little less. Those 200 bushels was almost twice the amount of corn that was produced on the conventional no-till part of the farm. And that's where you're using chemicals and insecticides and pesticides and all sorts. So, separately, there were another one of your reports mentioned that organic farming produced $558 per acre per year in profit while the conventional farming side produced $190 per acre per year, which is almost three times as much in profit for the organic farmer than it is for the conventional farmer. So, my, my question is why does organic produce more food and why is it more profitable?
Diana Martin: Yeah, that's a great question, so at our headquarters, our headquarters are in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. We do research on, we actually do, we grow grains, we have livestock, we grow to produce, we have orchards. So, where we work on this very cool experimental farm, it's actually opens to the public. So, if you're ever in Pennsylvania, definitely come out and check it out.
Daniel Hartz: Awesome.
Diana Martin: But the trial that you mentioned is our most famous research trial; it's called the farming systems trial. And it's actually been going on for 40 years. So, for 40 years, we kept pairing organic and conventional grains and the reason that we actually started with greens is that I don't think most people realize this, but 70% of what we grow in the United States is just grains.
Daniel Hartz: Wow!
Diana Martin: Yeah, and about 50% of what we grow in the US is just corn and soybeans.
Daniel Hartz: Wow!
Diana Martin: So, it's already like the topic is really interesting to me because, I think we've developed this narrative that, Oh, we need conventional agriculture to feed the world. So that's kind of what justifies, we need to feed all these billions of people, so that's why it's okay to do it at any cost. But ironically, most of what we're growing in the US actually isn't really feeding people a lot of that is going to ethanol. It's going to feed for livestock, it's going to high fructose corn syrup, it's not even feeding all nutrient-dense food. But we did start with grains because that's what a lot of our farmland is...that we're growing in the United States. So, that research project has been really fascinating cause we've learned a lot. Basically, the number one takeaway is that organic can feed the world. We found that there's no statistical difference in yields in an organic system versus a conventional system and part of that is you have to be a smart farmer to get those yields up.
Diana Martin: It's not that you can just go from planting conventional corn to then monocropping organic corn and expect to get great yields. Organic is all about your soil health, you have to put in our crop rotation, you have to cover crop, you have to use compost. And when you're doing these really planned transitions to organic, the yields are the same and where we're seeing the difference is in years of extreme weather. So, when we have drought and we have flooding, the organic system has up to 40% higher yields. And I think that's a really, really important takeaway because what we found is if organic can't feed the world, then who can, this is what farmers are dealing with. Extreme weather is the new norm so we need resilient agriculture that can actually continue to feed the world as we get in harsher, harsher, environmental consequences of climate change.
Diana Martin: And the reason that the organic, get the higher yields, it comes down to soil health. So, a lot of people think of soil as just dirt, but the soil is alive. So, there's more living things in one teaspoon of healthy soil than there are people on the planet.
Daniel Hartz: Wow!
Diana Martin: So, I don't think everyone realizes, but in that soil, there's this whole microbiome of bacteria and fungi. And one of the byproducts, unfortunately of conventional agriculture, when we're spraying herbicides and pesticides, we're not just killing weeds and bugs we're killing all that life in the soil. So, you're basically left with a soil that can't support the crop and that's why you have to put on inputs like fertilizers. What we're seeing in the organic system when we have this healthy soil, you have higher soil organic matter, and that, that does a couple of things one thing, it actually allows better water infiltration rates. So, when it does rain, the water's not just hitting the fields and then running off and eroding the soil and taking it with it. In the organic system with the healthy soil, with this living microbiome, with this bacteria and fungi when it rains we're able to absorb the water and store it in the soils, fill the aquifer so that when we have drought later, when we had these inconsistent weather patterns, the crops are still able to thrive.
Daniel Hartz: And that also sounds like it actually can prevent flooding to a certain degree.
Diana Martin: That's one of the solutions we need right now to prevent flooding, to refill our aquifer to stop losing topsoil. Right now, with the US, we're losing topsoil 10 times faster than we're replenishing it.
Daniel Hartz: Oh man.
Diana Martin: And a lot of that has to do with erosion due to our farming practices. So that's kind of like a little bit of a high level of why we see that the organic systems perform better in extreme weather. And to answer your other question about the profitability, I think that's such a good point to raise because a lot of times I ask myself, who wins with this current system? So right now, only 1% of farmland in the US is organic. So, the majority of our farmland is conventional. We know that the conventional ag is degrading our soils, it's really poisoning our water our air. We know that it's producing a product that's not healthy. And one of the saddest parts to me is it's not benefiting the farmer. Farmers are really, really struggling in the U S. Farmer suicide is back at an all-time high right now and people who come from farming communities it's tangible. And I think part of it is this issue of where are the margins in farming.
Diana Martin: In conventional agriculture, you're spending so much money on inputs like GMO seeds, on fertilizers, on pesticides, and then you're selling your crop at just enough to barely break even. A lot of conventional farmers rely on crop subsidies just so that they don't lose money. So, if you can imagine that these are farmers, you're working 365 days a year to lose money. So, it's a system that just isn't working anymore for conventional farmers. I mean the bright spot is we're seeing a totally different picture in organic it's not as costly for the inputs. Inorganic where we spend most of our costs is actually on labor. So, we have higher labor, which from a lot of perspectives is good because that's helping to employ people in rural communities. Conventional ag has been so much about, get bigger or get out that you're absorbing your neighbor's farms. Where in organic, we can see four farm families can be supported on the same amount of land and there's a big price premium in organics. So, at the end of the day, when we're talking about organic grains, we're seeing right now six to nine times the price for organic grains that conventional farmers are seeing. So, at the end of the day, it allows you to be profitable. Especially family farms who are still trying to farm at...like where I live, we call them the postage stamp farm. Where I live in my community, we still have small family farms and they need to find a way to be profitable.
Daniel Hartz: Some fantastic insight. It's, yeah, incredible to hear six to nine times the price for grain, that's a big difference I would say. You mentioned something towards the beginning of answering that question about that organic creates a nutrient-dense food. And I'd love to dig into that a bit more because food in the US is now less nutritious than ever before and that can result in something called hidden hunger, which is basically where you eat enough calories but you basically don't get enough vitamins and minerals. So, you're overeating essentially because you're not getting all the nutrients that you need. The Rodale Institute recently started vegetable systems trials as another test where you're essentially looking at the amount of nutrients in conventionally grown vegetables versus vegetables that are grown organically. According to your website, about 75% of the United States, $3 trillion in annual healthcare expenditure is related to preventable lifestyle diseases, so that's like heart disease, type two diabetes. I'm guessing everyone knows that the food we eat can affect our health, but do you think, and does the Rodale Institute believe that organic food could actually help save people money in healthcare costs?
Diana Martin: Yeah, there's so many awesome things to unpack there like I said, our motto is 'healthy soil equals healthy food equals healthy people". So, I think that for consumers for so long, all we've thought about the price of food is what it costs at the checkout line. And I think, you know, that's definitely one of the biggest pushbacks that organic is too expensive. We feel that organic is the true cost of food the conventional food you buy is artificially cheap because you're paying for it in so many other ways. We're paying for it in our tax dollars, in subsidies that go to conventional farmers, we're paying for it in so many environmental costs. I mean just the fact that we have so much soil erosion in the Midwest that we're dredging the Mississippi every year these are real costs that you're paying for in other ways.
Diana Martin: And then there's the issue of healthcare today in the United States, we're paying the least amount for food than we ever have and we're paying the most amount for health care and those things are directly related. So, I think for us there's so much more of thinking about what is an investment in our food system looks like? What should it look like, what can it look like? And I think sometimes, you know, the only thing we've really ever asked farmers to do is grow the cheapest food possible. We don't ever ask farmers to grow food that's healthy, to grow food that even tastes good. So, it's kind of been a race to the bottom because farmers are businesses, they're a business, they are going to grow what people are demanding. And that's one of the reasons that our food is less nutrient-dense than it ever has been before. So, you mentioned that point earlier.
Diana Martin: I don't think a lot of people know this, that over the last 50 to 70 years we've had a pretty drastic decline in the nutritional density of our food. So basically, that means a tomato that you eat today isn't the same as a tomato you would have eaten 50 years ago it doesn't have the same amount of vitamins and nutrients. And there's a couple of reasons why; one of the reasons is because we've always been focused on agriculture, on yields. How much of something can we produce? So, we focused on things that are big crops that grow fast, which absorb a lot of water, that takes up cut carbohydrates. It because we've been killing this microbiome in our soil that is the same microbiome that it's in our gut. So, if it's that, if we don't have this great microbiome in the soil, it's not in the food, it's not in our gut.
Diana Martin: There's so many kinds of long-term consequences for this race to just produce the most yields at the cheapest cost without really thinking about something like feeding the world. What does that really mean? Is it about having the most amount of food or food that actually meets people's nutritional needs? So, you mentioned our study that we're doing, it's called the vegetable systems trial and we're really starting to examine this. Right now, the number one reason people buy organic food is for their health you see that in the numbers, 5% of the food that we eat in the US today is organic, 14% of the products that we eat are organic.
Daniel Hartz: Okay.
Diana Martin: So organic produce is sort of like the gateway to organic and another interesting fact, I know I'm throwing a lot of facts that, you--.
Daniel Hartz: No, it's great.
Diana Martin: Another interesting fact is the thing that gets people to buy organic for the first time is when they're pregnant with their first child.
Daniel Hartz: Oh ok.
Diana Martin: So, yeah, over millennials are the biggest consumer group of organic food in the US and particularly millennial parents and young with young families. So, we know that health is the reason why people are buying organic. But we actually, we have a lot of unanswered questions. There's not a lot of great data right now on comparing, we know that organic food has less pesticide residues. We know it doesn't have GMOs, but we don't have a lot of good side-by-side research comparing the actual phytonutrients of conventional versus organic food. A lot of the research that's been done has been taking things off of grocery store shelves. So, it hasn't been side by side that they were the same variety has grown in the same climate, the same soil, picked the same day. So, we're doing that research now, we're still in the early phases of it, but we are seeing results.
Diana Martin: One of the things we've seen in organic oats is that they had higher protein than the conventional oats, all the way down to phytonutrients. One of the nutrients we're looking at is called ergothioneine. I had never heard of it before I don't know if any, ... I don't know if there's anyone out there who knows what ergothioneine is bless your heart, but that's one of the things we're looking at and it's only found in healthy soil and this is a phytonutrient that can help protect you from, cancer and help mitigate and reverse your chance of getting cancer.
Daniel Hartz: Oh Wow!
Diana Martin: Yeah, we're just starting to do this research with our colleagues over at Penn State, Hershey College of medicine, and starting to look at our people getting less ergothioneine, in their diet now because of the way that we treat the soil in industrial ag and what does that have to do with the cancer rates that we're seeing? So, I think there are so many big-picture connections between us really examining what we're eating and how it's impacting our health.
Daniel Hartz: I think from a high level that's fascinating and can't wait to hear what the actual, what the results are from, from the test I'm sure it'll, it'll take a while. But you mentioned something towards the beginning again, about dredging the Mississippi river from all the runoff and really the environmental costs of conventional farming. So, if we're looking at the environmental impacts or hopefully lack thereof, of organic farming, there's some really interesting data that the Institute published about, how farms and pastures around the world could potentially sequester more than a hundred percent of the current global annual carbon dioxide emissions. If all of these farms and pastures moved over to or switched over to organic practices, so that means that not only do organic farms actually create less greenhouse gas, but also this type of farming can maximize the amount of carbon that's pulled out of the atmosphere and also simultaneously ensure that that carbon stays in the soil. So long story short, this process could actually reverse the greenhouse effect, which I think is massive. But my question is why don't conventional farming practices sequester carbon and why do regenerative or organic farming practices do sequester carbon?
Diana Martin: Yeah, that's a great question so, as I sort of look at this relationship, what relationship does agriculture have to climate change? Right now, agriculture is a contributor to climate change as a whole. There are some statistics that say agriculture represents anywhere from 10 to 13% of our carbon emissions globally. But as much as agriculture is a huge part of the problem, it could be a part of the solution and that's one of the topics that play into that is what you're talking about with carbon sequestration or this idea of carbon farming; some people are calling it.
Daniel Hartz: Oh cool.
Diana Martin: So maybe I'll just like stop and just give a quick synopsis to anyone who's listening who hasn't heard about carbon farming of what is carbon farming? What is carbon sequestration?
Daniel Hartz: Yeah, that'd be great.
Diana Martin: Yeah. This is definitely a new topic for left people, but it's the idea that we can take carbon out of the atmosphere. So, carbon is a greenhouse gas emission and stores it back in our soil where it belongs. Our soils are very carbon depleted. And the way we do that, I had to think back to my early days, I think I was thinking back to my elementary school science class of how photosynthesis works. But think about how a plant works. So, plants can actually take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and we know that they release oxygen. So that's what trees do that's what plants do. So, what do they do with the carbon that enables them to release the oxygen? So, they actually convert the carbon into sugars, and they exude the sugars out through their roots. And the reason that they're doing that is because plants have a symbiotic relationship with this microbiome in the soil. So symbiotic means that they work together, and they rely on each other.
Diana Martin: So, the plant takes this carbon and turns it into these sugars and exudes it out through its roots to feed the microbiome in the soil. So that's what those fungi, that bacteria I've been talking about, that's what they eat. The plant feeds the microbiome because then the microbiome helps support the plant. So that microbiome helps it prevent disease, helps it store water, all these things to be successful, that those things that I said earlier, make organic more resilient in times of flooding or drought.
Daniel Hartz: Yeah.
Diana Martin: So, the carbon is actually the exchange that allows the soil and the plant to work together. So, when you have regenerative, organic agriculture, you have better soil health, a thriving microbiome, you can store a lot more of this carbon in the soil. But you can see without that, if you're spraying herbicides and pesticides and you're killing that microbiome, you're missing a key part of that exchange. And it's missing the opportunity to lock that carbon underground. So, that's kind of hopefully a way people can think about it.
Diana Martin: The other side of that is tillage, so right now we're tilling, which is basically plowing our soils way too much globally. And every time we till, we're not only breaking up that microbiome, this beautiful network under the soil where, we're driving steel right through it, but we're all releasing that carbon out of the soils back up into the atmosphere. So that's one of the reasons why deforestation is a huge contributor to climate change. because when you uprooted all those trees, you released that carbon that had been captured. So, in regenerative organic, we're not just, you know, I think people think of organic as, oh you don't use GMOs and pesticides, but we're actually trying to do so much more. We have a crop rotation, recover cropping, we're using compost, we're reducing our tillage. These are all practices that go into regenerative, organic agriculture and allow us to sequester more carbon, which is helping to mitigate climate change.
Daniel Hartz: Yeah, that's fantastic. I think it's so important for people to understand, how much of an impact these kinds of practices can have, and it really could make a big difference in the climate. You know, if we're going to do all of this by 2030 or 20, 35, I think going and focusing on the organic type of farming could, as you said earlier, could really make a big difference. And another important role that the Rodale Institute plays, and you mentioned earlier when you introduce the Rodale Institute is helping farmers get organic certified. And I think that's absolutely crucial because while organic farming has so many benefits that we've just been discussing not only for the farmers but really for people eating the food and for the environment. As you, as you mentioned, only 1% of US farms or organic, which I find actually really mind-boggling because as you said, it's more profitable. It's healthier I'm guessing not being around all those toxic sprays is probably a good thing. I certainly wouldn't want to be around that on a day to day basis. So, if only 1% of US farms are organic and there are so many clear benefits, why aren't we seeing more organic farms? Why is it only 1%?
Diana Martin: That's a really great question, so I think...it's kind of a multifaceted answer. One part of it is definitely the three-year transition period. So, it takes three years to become certified organic. So, that means you actually have to be farming organically with no prohibited inputs for three years before you'll see that price premium. That's a real struggle for farmers who, you know, they might need to get new equipment or have more labor costs and they have to juggle that for three years until they can really see that price premium that makes it worth it. And you know, so many farmers are really just living season to season. Being able to plan and take that risk of three years out is just really prohibitive. And I would say there's, there's maybe two other parts to it besides the transition period.
Diana Martin: One is most of the kind of beast that firm’s industrial agriculture, it's not really set up for organic farmers. Organic farmers, they're not getting crop subsidies, they're not getting crop insurance. They struggle to get loans from banks it's seen as kind of this still fringe system. So, a lot of the programs that farmers rely on organic farmers just aren't able to take advantage of them. But there's one last piece of that I think that's maybe hopeful, I think one of the reasons that organic is still so low in the United States is because we have a really aging farming population. So, the average age of the farmer of a farmer in the US is now over 60. It's hard for people who are in their sixties, seventies, even eighties to think about making this huge switch to organic agriculture. They have to learn a totally new way of farming you know; it takes three years to transition. So right now, we have six times as many farmers over the age of 65 as under the age of 35.
Daniel Hartz: Wow
Diana Martin: There's this huge discrepancy I don't think people realize this crisis in our farming community that our farmers are aging so rapidly. But I would say maybe the hopeful side of that is that younger farmers are much more interested in organic. So, as we see this farm lane starting to transition to younger farmers, farmers under the age of 40 or now 14% of them are certified organic, but the rates that one is interested in sustainable agriculture on interested in organic are 60% 80%. So, I think that's maybe a hopeful part is, it's challenging to get some of these really aging farmers to want to switch. But I think the next generation is really interested in these methods.
Daniel Hartz: Yeah, that's really cool I guess the real challenge is making sure that we have enough new farmers and young farmers coming in and taking the torch from the aging farmer population. One thing that the Rodale Institute really focuses on is helping farmers make the transition. So, I'm assuming there are farmers who are interested in actually letting go of the conventional ways and moving over to organic. So how exactly does the Rodale Institute do that? Is it financial? Is it through courses, what's the support that you provide?
Diana Martin: Absolutely, so we offer a number of workshops, webinars training programs through the Rodale Institute. But our most exciting recent news is we actually just launched our own consulting arm because we realized that, yeah, farmers really want that on the ground support with, peer to peer mentors. A lot of farmers want someone to actually come out to their farm, deal with their one on one on one issue if it's pest or disease or weeds or they want someone to fill out the paperwork for them. So, we just started a consulting arm that's able to work with farmers one-on-one. And something that's been really exciting about that is we've gotten a lot of support from the state of Pennsylvania where we're based. So, Pennsylvania just launched its own state farm bill this year and one of the six tenants in the state farm bill is organic agriculture. So, I think Pennsylvania has been really great and progressive. Pennsylvania is now number two in organic sales right after California.
Daniel Hartz: Oh Wow!
Diana Martin: And our governor, Governor Wolf has been a big proponent of organic agriculture and actually has given us funding from the state so that we can work one on one with any farmer who wants to transition to organic in our state at absolutely no fee to the farmer.
Daniel Hartz: Fantastic.
Diana Martin: It's such a great program we're able to work one online with farmers in Pennsylvania at no cost to them to help them transition to organic.
Daniel Hartz: Super cool and so in terms of that three-year transition period, from a financial standpoint, is there any help that farmers can get if they need some kind of money to help them kind of bridge that gap? Because if the banks aren't giving them money, how can they get financial support if they need it?
Diana Martin: Well, I think one of the things that's been really lacking for farmers is long term contracts. So if a farmer knows that, you know, it's not, it's riskier if you're going to transition your land, take three years and then you say who's going to be there to buy this product at the end of the, at the end of this transition. So, something that the state has been really amazing here in Pennsylvania is when we launched this new kind of organic plan for the state, they really brought in public-private partnerships. So, one of the companies that stepped up was a Scott Sackler who works at Belon oven poultry here in Pennsylvania. He's willing to give contracts to any Pennsylvania farmer who's willing, who's gonna transition to organic grains. Because right now they're importing all of their organic grains from abroad and they'd rather be sourcing it here in Pennsylvania. I think that's a really powerful model that we're doing in our state. Farmers will grow it if they have a buyer if they have a contract, they can take to a bank that shows how the business model is going to work and they have that guarantee. So that's been something I think is a really key aspect of these partnerships.
Daniel Hartz: Makes sense, yeah. So, they really need to see some light at the end of the tunnel that someone will actually buy this and that they're not just doing it because hopefully, it's better.
Diana Martin: Yeah.
Daniel Hartz: Makes sense. And so, do you think that if, you know, in an ideal world all farmers went organic, would organic food be less expensive or the current price of organic is, as you said, it's the true price of food. So, would we not see any fluctuations?
Diana Martin: Well, definitely see as organic kind of reaches scale we'll see those prices drive down. Right now, the demand is really outpacing the supply. Like I said, 5% of the food we eat is organic, 14% of the produce, but only 1% of our farmland is organic. So we are importing a lot of our organic food, which I think is just as such a missed opportunity domestically that our agriculture system is just the way that it's set up that we aren't seeing more organic farmers because the people that consumers in the US are really the ones demanding organic.
Daniel Hartz: It's crazy that we're importing, and farmers are scared to make the transition when we're importing so much of it and there's clearly such a big demand,
Diana Martin: Especially with all the challenges we're having right now with farmers being able to export their product. You know, knowing that there's a demand for this product domestically and our own farmers could be answering that demand instead of us importing this product I think that's just an opportunity that hopefully, the market will start to correct itself. But as organic goes at scale, the prices will definitely drive down for consumers I don't think people realize that to be certified organic, it's not just what happens on the farm. So, the farm has to be certified organic, but it has to be certified organic every step of the way until it gets to be the product that you buy off the grocery store shelf. So, a farmer has to only send it in a truck with other organic foods. It can only go to an organic grain processing facility that certified organic. It can only go to be handled by a certified organic handler. So, there's all these things around throughout the whole supply chain that if you're closest organic grain mill is 600 miles away, that's going to drive up the cost of the product. So, as we build more infrastructure for organic, we'll see that those prices start to come down for the consumer.
Daniel Hartz: Yeah, interesting. Yeah, I never actually considered the organic supply chain is such an important part of pricing because yeah if you have to drive your organic grain six hours or more before it gets processed, then that's a lot of costs there. If people do want to help farmers go organic or the farmers who are currently practicing organic, what can people listening to this podcast do to help farmers either locally or even around the world, start practicing regenerative organic farming?
Diana Martin: I think the number one thing people can do is demand organic. That people actually purchase organic, eat organic. I mean, if the consumer demand is there, that's what we're really seeing as driving the industry. Farmers who are transitioning. It's because of the consumer, because of the market demand. So, I think increasing that, I would love to see more people pushing for organic food, even in our institutions like schools. I think that there's so much we could be doing there to better support the health of our kids in school and the environment and support the farmer. So, I think that's the number one thing I think if you are, you know, able to shop at a farmer's market or something where you talked to a farmer talks to them about their growing practices. I think there's also a lot on the policy side.
Diana Martin: We have a policy called organic farmers association you can sign up as a supporter or a member. And that's a great way to get involved with what do we need to be asking of our Congress people - the people representing us on the government - to start doing some major policy shifts that impact agriculture. So, I think that's two ways you can support farmers. And I would say also there's a lot you can do at home stop using Roundup and glyphosate. I don't think people realize how much impact it's not just farmers who are using Roundup and glyphosate, there's so many homeowners using these fertilizers on their lawn and using these weed killers in their gardens and it's having a huge effect on people's own health; but also things like pollinators. So, I think there's a disconnect I think there's people who purchase healthy food and then use these products on their own at their own house. So, you know, plant for pollinators, compost at home, making all these really smart sustainability choices have, have a huge impact.
Daniel Hartz: Absolutely. I think that's really well said and yeah, it's interesting because I was speaking to, in a previous episode, I was speaking to an urban beekeeper who's based in London. And she said one of the most important things that people can do on a day to day basis really to, help bees and the pollinators and really, you know, reverse as much as possible, the decline in pollinators is to just stop spraying in their garden because bee from a beehive can travel up to three miles to find flowers and to find pollen. And so, you have no idea how spraying some Roundup in your garden that could be affecting something that's almost a neighboring town potentially as far as bees are concerned. So, I think that's a really important piece of advice there.
Diana Martin: Yeah, homeowners use these products at much higher rates than farmers do. You know, farmers are watching their bottom line, so they're very careful about, their pesticide or herbicide applications. But it's not uncommon for a homeowner to spray half a bottle of Roundup in an afternoon and it's just crazy. If you have weeds, just bend over and pick the weed, I urge you.
Daniel Hartz: Yeah, I think that's really important and some great insight and I think yeah, it might not be as obvious as it seems when you're dealing or working with organic and looking at research all day long. So yeah, thanks, for reminding us. As we start to wrap up, I'd love to know if you have any book recommendations for people who are interested in organic farming or in what the Rodale Institute does or just anything around perhaps the food systems, any books that we could read about this stuff?
Diana Martin: Yeah, there's a really good book called 'The Soil Will Save Us'. That's a great way to learn more about what we are talking about with carbon sequestration. So how is soil an answer to climate change? So that's when I would definitely check out. There's an awesome organization out in California called 'Kiss the Ground', they just put out their own book recently. That's definitely one I would recommend that is really rooted in great research and science, but still an interesting read. And I also would recommend Maria Rodale's book 'Organic Manifesto'. That's a great just primer on what's organic and why should care. So those are a couple that maybe I would check out.
Daniel Hartz: Oh, that's awesome. Yeah, thanks very much for that. I look forward to reading those. I've heard of 'Kiss the Ground' and I believe they're like an organization that really focuses on soil health.
Diana Martin: Yeah, yeah, they're great they do a lot with this idea of carbon sequestration and soil health as a solution to climate change. So, it's exciting to see more organizations kind of bringing that message to the masses.
Daniel Hartz: Fantastic. Cool. Well, thank you so much. And where can people learn more about the Rodale Institute and all the great work you're doing?
Diana Martin: Visit us online on our website @rodaleinstitute.org definitely would urge you to sign up for our email list or follow us on social media. We have a really great campaign going on right now on our social channels called 'The Truth About Organic', where we're unpacking some of these issues where people say, organic can't feed the world, or I heard organic farmers use pesticides. So, we're tackling some of these myths and kind of giving you really well informed well-researched articles so that you can learn more about these topics.
Daniel Hartz: Awesome. I personally have signed up for those and I do really recommend them. They're very interesting and what I like about them is they're really to the point, they're not too long. So even if you don't have very much time but you're really interested in it, you can definitely read them. They're very bite-size and digestible, which is great. And yeah Diana, thank you so much I think we've come to our time, so I really appreciate taking the time with me today and going through all of these questions. It's been really enlightening very interesting. I cannot wait to see what the Rodale Institute puts out next as far as research.
Diana Martin: Absolutely. Well, thank you so much for having us on and for your interest in regenerative organic. And we kind of say we need to farm as the world depends on it because it does. So, I'm really glad that we're having this conversation today.
Thank you for listening to episode six of sustainability matters today. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe to the podcast to be the first to know about new episodes. We're on Spotify, the Apple podcast app, Stitcher, and anywhere else where you can listen to podcasts. If you know anyone who's interested in sustainability and would enjoy listening to this episode or any of the other episodes, let them know. Send them the URL. Sustainabilitymatters dot today. If you want to chat, tag us on Instagram @sustainabilitymatterstoday and @Rodale Institute, we'd love to hear from you. You can see all the other episodes on the website. Sustainabilitymatters dot today and this is the end of season one. It's been a lot of fun and we'll be coming back with season two in August. I'm really looking forward to it. Stay tuned and talk to you soon.