Maria Rodale rallies the faithful with 'Organic Manifesto'
Publishing house CEO carries on family tradition of helping people and the planet.
Mon, Aug 30, 2010 at 10:12 AM
Conventional wisdom suggests that people who write manifestos are usually either radical militants or dangerously deluded — or both. Karl Marx and Ted Kaczynski (a.k.a. the Unabomber) come to mind. Not so Maria Rodale, author of the newly published "Organic Manifesto: How Organic Farming Can Heal Our Planet, Feed the World, and Keep Us Safe."
As I enter her homey office in Rodale Inc.’s headquarters in Emmaus, Pa., I’m immediately put at ease by her easy laughter, folksy honesty, casual hair and clothes, and comfy couches; it’s almost like talking to a friend. (And, for the record: No, I never expected to find a pile of letter bombs in the corner. And, yes, some manifestos have clearly changed civilization for the better — e.g.: Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.)
Rodale undoubtedly hopes her manifesto lands in the latter category. She is, after all, part of the legendary Rodale publishing empire, known for its magazines, books and websites devoted to benefiting people and the planet alike. Her iconoclastic grandfather, J.I. Rodale, founded the company and was instrumental in launching the American organic food movement. Her father, Robert Rodale, took the company’s then-offbeat ideas mainstream and built Rodale into an international publishing powerhouse.
Maria Rodale, now CEO, credits her father (who died in a 1990 car accident) with inspiring her deep passion and commitment to the organic movement. Her mission, she says, is to build on his vision (and her grandfather’s) with her own twist — namely to amplify the link between health and the environment. “It’s like the environmental movement has focused on energy, solar and turning out the lights, and the health movement has focused on eating your fruits and vegetables and stopping smoking,” she says. “Well, they’re really one and the same — we have to heal both [our bodies and the Earth] to be healthy.”
Rodale wrote "Organic Manifesto" to lay out the mounting evidence that organic agriculture offers both health and eco-benefits and to chart a plan for switching from chemical farming. She also wrote the book, well, because she loves to write. “It’s my real joy,” she admits. Indeed, Rodale’s plainspokenness and love of words comes through clearly (the same down-home, tell-it-like-it-is style she employs on her blog, Maria’s Farm Country Kitchen.
Not that her tone isn’t occasionally manifesto-ish. The book is peppered with strong entreaties for action and a certain impatience that incremental change won’t be fast enough. (“We need an organic revolution … Fight for your freedom … Demand that chemical companies stop intimidating and controlling your life!”) She also calls on President Barack Obama to overhaul the food monitoring system by combining the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and she urges all farmers to go organic now.
“I mean somebody’s got to make the bold statements,” she says, laughing, while also conceding that transformation is rarely sudden and that it’s darn near impossible to walk her talk 24/7. “Okay, we built an eco-house — I’m all covered there,” she jokes. “I drive a Prius. I eat organic food. But I’m not perfect. I’ve got three kids. I’m running a company. I’ve got a book out. There’s a lot going on.” Rodale readily admits to some non-organic snacking and occasional quickie fast-food dinners. She even sees a place for Cheetos (though organic, please). “Everybody deserves the right to have clean food whether it’s junky clean food or healthy clean food,” she insists. “Sometimes, you know, you need Cheetos.”
Part-rebel, part-pragmatist, Rodale also has a deeper spiritual bent. Her language gives way occasionally to a sort of mysticism (“We’re all one tribe … It’s all about love”), though she acknowledges never settling on a spiritual tradition. “I joke that I’m a pagan because I believe understanding nature is as close to understanding God as you can get,” she says. An insight perhaps into her love for landscaping, farmers (“There’s something about their ruddy faces, rough hands, and unpretentious, stubborn natures that makes me happy”), and, yes, maybe even country music.
Not surprisingly, "Organic Manifesto" also sports some pagan roots of its own. As Rodale tells it, she was sitting in her favorite spot in the woods near her home. Afterward, the book’s concept came in a revelatory flash — its title, outline, everything. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the idea for this book came to me on [my father’s] birthday,” she notes in the acknowledgments. And so the unique Rodale collaboration continues.