“Every idea and opinion can be a seed for a movement, and momentum can begin as soon as individuals start to share ideas and band together. To move forward together we have to understand each other, respect each other and get to know one another on a personal level. That begins by listening with open ears, minds and hearts. Being rigid in our own beliefs makes that hard. Soften your heart a bit. Get outside of your own tribe and move around. It’s amazing what gifts that each and every person brings to the universe. And one of the greatest things that can unite us is food…”
– Maria Rodale
Maria Rodale currently serves as CEO and chairman of Rodale Inc., the world’s largest independent publisher of health and wellness content, and the largest independent book publisher in the United States. She is the third generation of the storied Rodale family to lead the company. A lifelong advocate of organic farming and gardening, she is the author of five books, including Organic Manifesto: How Organic Farming Can Heal Our Planet, Feed the World, and Keep Us Safe. She blogs regularly about healthy living at Maria’s Farm Country Kitchen and is working on her next book.
The UC Food Observer recently caught up with Maria for a Q&A.
Q: The work of your family has a remarkable trajectory that is both grounded in a specific place, but also transcendent beyond that place in terms of framing the larger organic movement. What lessons from the past are influencing your work right now? In what ways does the very special place that your family comes from continue to influence your life and your work?
Maria Rodale: I have been blessed to come from a wonderful, entrepreneurial family with a tradition of questioning everything, fearlessly searching for the truth and then communicating the most important findings. That has been true for the work my grandfather J.I. Rodale started, and we’ve continued, with the organic movement, as well as with the health and fitness movements. This tradition of questioning, seeking the root of a problem and finding solutions that can be communicated to large audiences can be applied to any category. Because Rodale Inc. is a mission-based company, with the aim to inspire and enable people to improve their lives and the world around them, we have a framework that helps guide where we focus. Right now I am focused on what it means to pursue and experience healing and happiness – both personally, and as a way to drive a healthy business. I am also focused on gathering great products to help people live happier and healthier at my online shopping destination Rodale’s.
And yes, Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley continues to be home to Rodale, both to Rodale Inc. in Emmaus, and to Rodale Institute in Kutztown, our 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to pioneering organic farming through research and outreach. With brands that are rooted in healthy active living, to appreciating the outdoors, to growing and cooking techniques…the land and surroundings continue to inspire our publishing and lifestyle businesses as well as the work and research of the team of scientists and farmers at Rodale Institute.
Q: What are the challenges and gifts of legacy?
Maria Rodale: The gifts are many! A solid foundation (healthy soil, if you will) to plant ideas into, heaps of institutional knowledge gained over decades of work, social and family time, and a broad network of friends and colleagues. And Rodale is deeply rooted in the health and wellness space, in themes that evolve but constantly stay relevant.
The challenges are all about keeping the legacy relevant and fresh for each new moment and phase – being disruptive and surviving disruption. In short, being resilient.
Q: Your publishing enterprise is one of the most influential in the world. What adjustments have you made in light of increased internet use and evolving social technologies?
Maria Rodale: The evolving landscape has necessitated constant transformation for both our print and our digital products as the new tools have meant vast changes to the ways our audiences consume and engage with our content and services. It is vital that we really understand all the different technologies not just from the business and implementation side, but as the user. When we know firsthand what a given platform or social channel can do, we can better design content around it to enhance the experience for our audiences. So it’s about our teams trying new things and our operations being agile and quick to adapt, while striving to ensure that we continue to serve and anticipate the needs and desires of our customers.
Digital and social technologies impact all aspects of the interactions we have with our audiences. They mean a change of voice when it comes to online communities. They mean a change in how we deliver service when it comes to print vs. digital. And they underscore the need to diversify our business model so we are not as reliant on advertising – which is what we are doing with the expansion of our e-commerce, online learning (RodaleU) and events businesses.
Q: As a business enterprise that has a strongly ethical aspect to it, are there unique challenges you face in a free market?
Maria Rodale: We are a private, independent and 100 percent family-owned company. That enables us to look at our business in a long term, strategic manner. I consider what we do to be the ultimate in free market capitalism. We are free from the short-term fluctuations and demands of Wall Street. We are free from government subsidies. And finally, we are free from investor demands that may not be aligned with the views and philosophies that have become core tenets of our business. That makes it much easier to be ethical and stay true to what we as a family value.
Q: You’ve suggested that if people can make just one change, to go organic. With a proliferation of labels, many consumers are confused. What advice would you give to someone beginning a practice of ethical, intentional and environmentally aware eating?
Maria Rodale: It’s still the same! Look for the USDA certified organic label. Eat and buy organic. Start with what you eat the most of and work outward from there. Support your local organic farmers and markets and focus on “real food” that you cook at home rather than processed foods. And keep it simple – cooking at home with fresh ingredients (as opposed to prepared/processed foods) makes you more aware of what you are eating, but you don’t have to make it complicated. Choose recipes that don’t require a ton of ingredients – and try to have fun in the process. The next time you are in the grocery store, try to be more thoughtful and aware.
Another resource is Rodale Inc.’s new site EatClean.com: a gathering place for clean-food insiders and experimenters, uncovering the latest trends, innovations, opinions, products, and recipes. The daily stream of articles and blog posts explore what’s in both packaged and fresh food, how sustainably it was grown or raised, how it gets to your store or table, how good (or bad) it tastes, and whether it’s worth celebrating or is (alas) over-hyped.
Q: What’s your take on the business of organics today? What policies do you feel would help this sector? Are there policies in the U.S. that are hurting organics?
Maria Rodale: I think one of the biggest issues is the infighting in the organic community (arguing over vegan vs. vegetarian vs. meat eaters vs. local vs. whatever). The demand for organic is HUGE right now, and in many cases the supply is not able to keep up. We need as many people as possible to start farming (certified) organically to support that demand, which will help both business and the health of humans and the environment. The more support for organic farmers and new organic farmers the better off we all will be – whether they are growing vegetables or raising cattle or both.
Q: Your most recent book, Organic Manifesto, was incredibly influential. Are there things you’d add to the book’s valuable messages? Are you working on another book?
I am actually in the midst of working on a cookbook. For the past six years, I’ve been chronicling my cooking adventures and sharing recipes on my blog, Maria’s Farm Country Kitchen. The recipes are super easy, totally yummy, “fad free” and made from scratch so that anyone, anywhere, can learn to make their favorite foods organically- now I want to create a compilation of the best. I think if people gain confidence in cooking things that they and their family love we all will be healthier and happier.
Q: The California drought impacts the nation and the world. What changes might it bring about in the nation in terms of thinking about where and what we produce? What might the future hold for California and agricultural production in the state?
Maria Rodale: We know that California produces a ton of food for the country, and for the world – and that vast quantities of the water used in California go to agriculture. The drought has created a pressure-cooker situation for the state that necessitates new conversations around water conservation and a re-examination of California’s water use rights system – it is an incredibly complex issue! But we also know that chemical agriculture is exacerbating the problem by destroying the soil. Organic agriculture has been proven again and again to be more productive and resilient during drought or flood because the living organisms in the soil retain the moisture. Added bonus? Fewer toxic chemicals being spread on the fields means fewer chemicals leaching into whatever water is left.
The drought is also a powerful call to action and incentive for other states to increase their local organic food production since so much of our food right now comes from California.
Q: What keeps you up at night?
Maria Rodale: Sometimes the foxes outside my house make weird screaming noises. But other than that, I’m a great sleeper! And I’m incredibly optimistic about the future, which helps. The recent announcement by Elon Musk about the solar battery is just one example of how innovation always has the potential to change the equation in an instant. We need more thinking like that!
Q: What might it take to get the next generation inspired to be concerned about food policy?
Maria Rodale: As I am part of a family business that is working with our next generation (the fourth) to get them inspired I have a direct idea on how to do this: Share delicious amazing food together! Have fun cooking together! Visit farms together. Garden together. Travel together to see how it’s done in other places. It’s all great. They are already super inspired. We might just have to get out of their way at some point.
Q: What must institutions do to effect change in the food system?
Maria Rodale: All it takes are a few motivated and inspired people to make a huge difference. I always say start where you are. Make the changes closest to you that you can control and then share that success and joy with others. And don’t be afraid to “reach across the aisles” and make friends! I had a Republican congressman to my office for lunch. We served an all organic meal and he ate every bite and we laughed together. There is no substitute for human connection and relationships. And ultimately all institutions are made of humans.
Q: We’re faced with challenges on a variety of fronts that have strongly ethical aspects to them, such as climate change, environmental constraints, income inequality, and food access. How do we get groups to move forward together? And is this a movement?
Maria Rodale: Every idea and opinion can be a seed for a movement, and momentum can begin as soon as individuals start to share ideas and band together. To move forward together we have to understand each other, respect each other and get to know one another on a personal level. That begins by listening with open ears, minds and hearts. Being rigid in our own beliefs makes that hard. Soften your heart a bit. Get outside of your own tribe and move around. It’s amazing what gifts that each and every person brings to the universe. And one of the greatest things that can unite us is food. Potlucks for everyone!
Q: I’m giving you a super power. You can change one thing about the food system with that super power. What change would you make?
Maria Rodale: Of course, I would be a super-organic love fairy! With my magic wand I would sprinkle organic love dust over everyone and farms and farmers would magically have the urgent desire to transition to organic. Vegetarians and meat eaters would start to really love, respect and enjoy each other and people everywhere would have access to organic food at a reasonable price that truly supports the farmers that grow our food.