Tribute to an organic pioneer – J.I. Rodale
With reference to the philosophical and practical concerns of its founders, the organic movement of today has been thoroughly transformed. This becomes quite evident when we respectfully investigate the pioneering efforts of influential figures like J.I. Rodale. Born in 1898, Jerome Irving Cohen (Rodale) was raised in New York City. He expressed an early interest in the physical training, health and dietary philosophies of Bernarr McFadden but initially pursued an accounting career which helped him become a federal income tax auditor. During the Depression, he started an electrical manufacturing business in collaboration with his brother. During this time, J.I. Rodale experimented with writing and publishing enterprises but encountered very limited success across a range of subject areas.
One of the first Americans to appreciate the significance of Sir Albert Howard’s analyses, J.I. Rodale purchased a farm to practice the organic principles outlined in Howard’s 1940 publication An Agricultural Testament. In 1942, Rodale started a periodic magazine called Organic Farming and Gardening. Despite enlisting the authority of Howard as associate editor, the magazine was extremely unpopular with farmers. Astute to alternative marketing options, Rodale changed the name to Organic Gardening, and concentrated on articles suitable to the less restrained opinions of hobby and lifestyle gardeners. The magazine continued to struggle financially and was not profitable for many years.
One of J.I. Rodale’s greatest attributes was his ability to capture the public attention with interesting announcements concerning human health and plant nutrition. Some critics accused him of distorting scientific evidence and exaggerating the findings which suited his own arguments. It is interesting to note that his territory of investigation remains controversial to the present moment. For example, we continue to debate the possibility that organically grown vegetables contain more essential vitamins and nutrients compared to those raised with chemical fertilizer and sprays.
Despite the slow start, Rodale Press grew steadily in popularity during the 1950’s and the subsequent decade of counterculture movements. Under J.I.’s guidance, the management of Rodale Press negotiated a range of popular titles which coincided with the spirit of the counterculture. There was a small yet steady drift of individuals turning away from the industrialised cities to take up new lifestyles in the rural countryside. Many of these individuals were experimenting with alternative ideals like the rejection of industrial agricultural technology, chemicals, and other inputs perceived to compromise the integrity of the environment.
During this time of social upheaval, Organic Gardening was recognised as a major source of information and a communication forum for those interested in alternatives to conventional agriculture and food production techniques. Rodale himself used the magazine to reinforce his personal belief that organically grown food was infinitely healthier than the alternative. He praised the virtues of simple, unprocessed foods which arise from healthy, productive soils combined with a clean atmosphere and water supply.