Here at Organic Valley, May is soil month. I had the fortune to interview Executive Director Coach Mark Smallwood of the Rodale Institute to talk to us more about soil and Rodale’s current work.
Coach Mark Smallwood is the Executive Director of Rodale Institute. He has been dedicated to environmental sustainability, efficiency, and conservation for decades. Since joining Rodale in December 2010, he has brought heritage livestock back to the institute’s 333-acre farm, expanded and enhanced its research efforts, and launched Your 2 Cents, a national campaign to support and promote new organic farmers.
First off, can you tell the readers more about the Rodale Institute?
Founded in 1947 by J.I. Rodale, we are considered to be the birthplace of the organic movement. No matter where you see the word organic, whether on product, the organic seal or with an organization’s name, those are all children and grandchildren of the Rodale Institute.
At Rodale, we are driven by research, education and outreach. Right now we have 25 different research projects running, all of them focused on soil. Since the 1940s we’ve been studying the link between healthy soil, healthy food and healthy people. Healthy food is an aspect of what we do on a day-to-day basis. Our ultimate goal is to see healthy people across the globe one day – an attempt to work our way out of a job.
What brought you to Rodale?
I was with Whole Foods and through that work and my relationship with Organic Gardening Magazine, I heard that Rodale was searching for a director and I was immediately interested. My personal goal was to get to a place where I could have a greater impact. At Rodale, we have a national and global stage.
Can you explain in more detail the most compelling soil research Rodale is doing right now?
I’ll tell you two things: 1) Our standard Farming Systems Trial (FST)® is the longest running trial of its kind. It is the basis of what we are all about with fixing the food system in the US. In the FST, they grow conventional crops right next to organic, both based on very well-known sciences: chemistry and biology. Biology always works better than chemistry. It’s now been 33 years of this side-by-side research that demonstrates that organic farming is better equipped to feed us now and well into the future.
2) We also just produced a white paper one month ago that’s entitled Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Climate Change: A Down-to-Earth Solution to Global Warming. This is the first of its kind from Rodale where we take a hard stance with sound scientific data proving that we can actually provide a reversal of climate change with organic farming practices. If current cropland switched to the regenerative model proposed in the paper, we could potentially sequester more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions. Our goal is to get back to pre-industrial levels of CO2.
Click here for an overview of Rodale’s research.
Soil is a mystery to most people – or it’s not given much thought at all. How do you recommend we get people to care about something that no one really thinks about in their day-to-day life?
I always like telling people that there are more micro-organisms in a teaspoon of healthy biological soil than there are human beings on the planet. There is this AHA! moment that people have when you put them out on pasture with 65 dairy cows and tell them to be quiet and just listen…You hear the cows chewing on the fibrous grass and they think of the cows and the plants in a way they haven’t before.
And we have the same AHA! moment when we have individuals experience seeing micro-organisms for the first time under a microscope. People don’t view soil in their hands the same way they would seeing the soil microscopically. When they do this, they see the soil teaming with life they hadn’t otherwise thought about. One day we had a veteran looking through a scope at a soil sample and I’ll never forget when he said in his southern accent, “Hey y’all! I think I just saw myself a nematode!” He made the connection that what’s under foot is alive and that’s the most important resource we have. It is the soil that is the stomach/digestive system of the earth.
In Iowa, they are losing two bushels of top soil for every bushel of corn they produce. Soil is a valuable resource because it is the one resource that is going to feed us and it’s not going to last forever unless we make some changes. The easiest way to do that is to transition to organic.
I often get asked about the concept that organic costs more and my response is that organic is the true cost of the food. There are no subsidies. The soil is being washed away in the current agricultural system. Organic farming is the answer because it helps us in every way: environmentally, socially and economically.
Can you share some of your go-to soil facts that you haven’t shared yet?
In terms of soil, these are the facts:
In the organic systems, we outperform conventional in times of drought. The reason for this is there is more organic matter in organic soil, so the matter hangs on to the water like a sponge. It still exists when conventional soil dries up, retaining 15-30% more.
Organic farming uses 45% less energy than conventional.
But perhaps the biggest difference between conventional and organic is that organic growers improve the soil and the soil health. We replace biology, we don’t strip it away
The Rodale Institute’s work is important during these times of climate upheaval and food uncertainty. But we all know that there is a solution.
“We have shown that organic can feed the world. Now it is time to take on the matter of feeding the world well.” – Rodale Institute