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Rodale Institute to begin unique organic agriculture training program in Berks

The Rodale Institute in Maxatawny Township is beginning Pennsylvania’s first-ever apprentice program to train organic farming compliance specialists through a $350,000 state grant.

During a press conference at the 386-acre nonprofit campus Tuesday state officials spoke of how the program will help fill a labor shortage in the organic farming industry and help ensure food labeled as organic has rightly earned that distinction.

Rodale, which describes itself as a living laboratory dedicated to regenerative organic agriculture research, education and consultation, was the right place to begin the unique program because of its 75-year commitment to the cause, said state Department of Labor and Industry Secretary Nancy A. Walker and state Department of Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding.

Rodale group in barn (MIKE URBAN - READING EAGLE)
Speaking Tuesday at Rodale Institute in Maxatawny Township about the nonprofit’s unique new apprentice program were, left to right, Rodale CEO Jeff Tkach, state Secretary of Labor and Industry Nancy A. Walker, Rodale Dean of Education Renee Baran, Exeter Township farmer and Rodale fellow Gigi Copeland and state Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding. (MIKE URBAN – READING EAGLE)

Rodale is still developing the two-year earn-as-you-learn registered apprenticeship program, which will begin in 2024 or 2025 with a class of four students and continue afterward with future classes, said Renee Baran, Rodale’s dean of education.

Those who graduate from it will be able to work in government or private industry as compliance officers or inspectors, she said.

It is one of several agriculture apprenticeship and training programs recently developed in Pennsylvania, and is important in part because consumers need to know that the USDA’s organic label is legitimate when it is placed on food items, Redding said.

Pennsylvania’s focus on organic farming is boosting the state’s economy and improving its health, and those graduating from the new apprenticeship program will help ensure the industry’s integrity, Redding said.

“People want to know that the organic label means something,” he said.

Walker spoke about the growth of organic farming in Pennsylvania and how Rodale is serving as a pipeline for those entering the field.

Rodale CEO Jeff Tkach agreed that Pennsylvania’s organic farming industry is booming in part because in recent years the state has taken the nation’s lead in developing innovative programs like the one announced Tuesday.

Guy in field at Rodale (MIKE URBAN - READING EAGLE)
Jeff Tkach, CEO of Rodale Institute, says Rodale is ready to help fill a gap in the organic farming workforce by training the next generation of farmers. (MIKE URBAN – READING EAGLE)

But Tkach also foresees a massive gap is coming in the organic farming workforce, and said Rodale is ready to help fill that shortage by training the next generation of farmers.

The coming apprenticeship program is another big step in that direction, he said.

Another part of that effort is Rodale’s farmer training program, and during a tour of the property state officials were introduced to about 15 of its students, all working to become first-generation farmers.

Coming from as far as Texas and California, they will graduate this year with not just more knowledge and experience with the type of organic farming they’ll specialize in but also a vetted business plan so they’re ready to get started, said master trainer Dan Kemper.

Among them were Gigi Copeland, 63, a fellow in the program who runs Boo Cat Farm on 6 1/2 acres in Exeter Township. There she sells honey, eggs, cut flowers and herbs from a roadside stand, but plans to keep expanding her production, get her products into farm markets and maybe open a farm store on her property this year.

She credits Rodale for teaching her so much, she said.

Copeland’s fondest memories are of being a young girl on her grandpa Joe’s farm in New Jersey, where he helped teach her about what to cut and what not to cut when weeding.

At Rodale she’s learned more advanced lessons, and each night can’t wait to go home and try those techniques on her own land, she said.

As an adult she has worked in fields ranging from health care to the food and beverage industry, but is thankful to have finally landed in a career she’s so proud to tell people about.

“I’m a farmer,” she said. “That gives me a lot of joy.”

Source: Berkshire mont

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