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Elegy for a Giraffe
Roger Wentling stuck his neck out so farmers could
reap the benefits of rotational grazing.
By Ruth B.
On July 1, 1997, Roger H. Wentling Jr. was pronounced dead
in his Berlin, Pa. home. The story of Roger H. Wentling Jr. is one of dramatic
success in impacting Pennsylvania agriculture, yet it is also a tragic story of
a man destroyed by a bureaucracy that has a mission of supporting agriculture
yet couldn't allow Wentling's brilliance to shine.
Born Oct. 27, 1940
in Pennsburg, Pa., he was the son of Dorothy and Roger H. Wentling Sr. and the
stepson of Esther (Trumbore) Wentling. He was raised primarily by his
grandparents in East Greenville. His mother died when he was 5 and all of his
other immediate family has been dead for many years.
was a 1958 graduate of Upper Perkiomen High School and served 4 years in the
Navy. He graduated from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 1966 and then
entered the U.S. Foreign Service as a cryptographer in Haiti. Later, he joined
the Peace Corps and served as an agricultural extension worker in Paraguay,
South America where, he said, "the farmers taught me more than I taught
them." Upon his return, he worked as a Peace Corps recruiter based in
Atlanta, Ga. Somewhere along the line, he also taught school in Pennsylvania and
Florida and managed a plantation in South Carolina for the Lipton Tea Company.
got a lot of us started|
in grazing. My husband wanted
to prove Roger
wrong but we
probably wouldn't be in farming
today if we hadn't gone
Somerset Co., Pa. dairy farmer
1978, at the age of 38, Wentling returned to his home area to get a degree in
Horticulture from Delaware Valley College. He did this in order to work for the
USDA Soil Conservation Service. He believed that he had profited from his time
and training in the Navy and the Peace Corps, and he wanted to give something
back in return for the tax dollars that had been invested in him.
I had questions about eco-|
agriculture, Roger always had
He was a great
source of information. He was
ahead of his time by 10
years. He had so much to offer.
I don't know who I'll ask now."
Somerset Co., Pa. sheep farmer
It was the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) that proved to be his ruin
-- despite his unparalleled success in promoting soil conservation.
1981, Roger began working full time as an agronomist in Westmoreland County,
Pa. In 1983, he was transferred to Somerset County. Sometime in the early 80's
he began studying the works of Andre Voisin, a French plant scientist who
developed a number of theories about intensive grazing of livestock and forage
plant productivity. Voisin made sense to Roger and he was convinced that
intensive grazing would not only work in Somerset County but would help make
farms profitable. He was right. By 1985, approximately fifty farms had adopted
the practice, largely because of Roger's enthusiasm. Some, like dairyman Larry
Lohr, tried it "to prove it wouldn't work," but soon found out
we were starting out, |
Roger was forbidden to talk
about grazing. He
come up and park the SCS
truck behind the machine
no-one would see it
when he came to our farm in
Rome. If it wasn't for
would have made many, many
more mistakes. ... As young
he was invaluable in
making us able to hold our
heads up this long."
Bradford Co., Pa.
In 1990, in an article slated for The New Farm but
never published, Ward Sinclair wrote, "Somerset County quickly became a
showcase, drawing visitors from all over, and testimonials to the success of
intensive grazing and Wentling's efforts abound. ... Wentling may be a hero to
farmers in Somerset County, but he is in deep trouble with the government agency
that pays him $26,000 per year to be all that he can be, as the Army would put
In the fall of 1987, Wentling was
transferred ("exiled," he used to say) to Bradford County, Pa. The
reasons for this transfer appear to be varied: SCS wanted to take the credit for
Rogers' success in Somerset; a questionable complaint from a local feed mill
that experienced a drop in demand due to farmers use of grazing and local "divisions"
on the concept of grazing.
majority of the ecological|
problems agriculture is faced
from tillage and the
confinement of animals. Inten-
solves both of
these problems, so why the big
fuss? Why persecute a
who is creating real lasting
solutions? The brave people,
Roger, who stick their
necks out to work with us to
lems deserve our utmost
respect, words of support
--H. Allan Nation, Oct. 1989,
Upon arrival in the Towanda, Pa., area,
Wentling's supervisor forbid Roger from even discussing grazing with farmers --
on the job or off. Soon after, he was prohibited from writing a very popular
column he had penned for no pay under a pseudonym for the Stockman Grass
Farmer. In time, he was suspended, reprimanded and harassed in innumerable
ways by the agency charged with saving soils.
The details of Roger's battles with SCS are appalling and tedious. He
could not fathom that there was not a place for him in the agency, and he would
not not be silenced in his promotion of grazing. When he criticized the
government's "golden cow," the Chesapeake Bay Program, for its
promotion of manure storage structures and its use of tax dollars to build them
on farms all over Bradford County and the rest of eastern Pennsylvania, Roger
had gone too far for SCS. Essentially, he was told that if he couldn't spout
the party line, he needed to find other employment.
after he left Somerset County, Roger helped at least 100 more farmers set up
grazing systems and spoke to innumerable gatherings and meetings. Even in
Bradford County, despite the gag order, farmers like Garry & Linda
VanDeWeert, Dean Madigan and many others worked with Wentling and give credit to
him today for their use of grazing. He was a storehouse of information and his
zeal for grazing was infectious.
In 1989, Roger was given a Giraffe Project Award
for "sticking his neck out for the common good." The Giraffe
Foundation recognizes people around the world who have made efforts for the
common good and have been persecuted in one way or another for doing so.
County has proven |
that you don't have to grow
corn on hills to make a
in farming. ... U.S. Soil Conser-
vation worker, Roger Wentling,
one of the most successful
champions of grassland farming,
his job because he was too
successful and refused to knuckle
--Gene Logsdon, writer and
farmer in a 1991 letter
February 1990, Roger Wentling left SCS and went to work as an
agronomist/landscaper at the Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey. Even there, he
continued to do research on his own heirloom seeds and some tomato seeds that
the military had shot into space, in addition to his outside consulting work on
When he took early retirement in 1995, he moved to a small farm in
Somerset County. Soon after his return, he applied for a job with the
conservation district which Bob Russo, a District Director, says was railroaded
away from Roger. Russo is convinced that Roger was the best qualified candidate
but the other directors were afraid to hire him due to the legacy of the SCS
Wentling continued to write, to talk to farmers and to study
the agricultural topics that so fascinated him. His health declined and he
became somewhat reclusive. His dog "Tri" became his closest companion
and was with him when he died. According to the Somerset County Coroner, he died
approximately 12 to 18 hours before he was found by a neighbor.
Pennsylvania should be proud to call Roger Wentling a native son. His
accomplishments in agriculture were enormous at the level it counts most -- on
working farms. Intensive grazing has become the most mainstream of "alternative"
agricultural practices, according to several recent studies.
Roger's life is also a
testament to the reasons we should be leery of bureaucracy - a reminder that
visionaries are often not tolerated yet are sometimes more important to progress
than institutions. His life and work is also a testament to the wisdom of
farmers. Roger looked to working farmers to formulate questions and to test
theories. If grazing were not practical and profitable for farmers, it would
not have spread with the speed it has.
always said |
that his favorite
sound in the world
was the sound of
--Rita Groff, Roger's
first cousin and
Roger Wentling believed
implicitly in nature and the need to work in balance with it. He knew and
communicated an agro-ecology ethic in terms that made sense to farmers. He was
a leader in the development of sustainable agriculture in Pennsylvania and the
memorial fund has been set up to support the agriculture program at Roger's high
school. Donations can be sent to: |
Roger H. Wentling Jr. Scholarship
Upper Perkiomen High School
2 Walt Rd.
Pennsburg, Pa. 18073
in Roger's memory may also be made to:
The Ward Sinclair Memorial
c/o Henry A Wallace Institute for Alternative Agriculture
9200 Edmonston Rd., Suite 117
Greenbelt, MD 20770
Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture office with any questions:
Author Ruth B. Tonachel
email@example.com is editor of Passages,
the newsletter of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture P.O.
Box 419, Milheim, PA 16854; 814/349-9856. This story originally appeared in the
Fall '97 issue of that publication.
©1997 Committee for Sustainable
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