MAXATAWNY, PA. -- A bone-chilling wind blows over the now barren garden that only months ago was full of orange day lilies and black-eyed Susans, red peppers and Emerald City broccoli, purple prairie asters and yellow marigolds, late blooming strawberries and First Lady tomatoes.

It is an unexpected cold blast that jolts a traveler driving across the peaceful farm country in a warm car. The chill seems even deeper in the buildings next to the garden -- old farmhouses and barns that have been renovated to hold the offices of Rodale Research Center. Here the onset of winter is intensified by the recent death of the center's founder and inspirational leader, Robert Rodale.

Rodale, who also served as chairman of Rodale Press Inc., died 2 1/2 months ago in a car crash in Moscow, where the 60-year-old organic gardening guru was on his latest agricultural missionary venture -- creating a Russian magazine, "Novy Fermer" (The New Farmer), to spread his doctrine of chemical-free agriculture to Soviet farmers.

Now, the company -- which has grown from what many viewed as a group of kooky sprout-eating hippies into both a major league publishing house and a respectable player in domestic agricultural policy -- is trying to figure out where to go from here, without its visionary leader.

"We have to be very, very careful in everything we do not to be swallowed up by the establishment," says Charles S. (Skip) Kauffman, director of Rodale's national networks, which conduct research on reducing pesticides on farms across the country. Kauffman sits in a renovated barn whose walls are adorned with mementos of Robert Rodale's many travels to Africa, Mexico and Central America, where he sought to increase farm production the old-fashioned way -- without pesticides and chemicals. Pausing a moment to survey the collected artwork, Kauffman glances down at his feet and quietly sighs.

"These are poignant reminders in the post-Bob era," he says. Without Rodale at the helm, Kauffman says a few moments later, it will be a challenge "to maintain our long-term vision and cutting edge and not just become like everyone else."

However, in many ways, the Rodale empire has already become part of the establishment. In fact, the Rodale Institute will hold a memorial service tomorrow for its leader at the U.S. Department of Agriculture -- an agency Robert Rodale used to repeatedly and vociferously criticize for its failure to promote organic farming. In turn, USDA officials would merely scoff at his back-to-the-earth agricultural ideas.

Given that once antagonistic relationship, holding the service at USDA "is unusual," admits Michael Hoback, executive assistant to USDA's assistant secretary for science and education. But, Hoback adds, times have changed -- and significantly too. "Over the years, there's been a realization on both sides that our goals were similar" -- to help the America farmer become more prosperous. "Both sides of the issue had to moderate a little bit," says Hoback.

"In our more radical era, we ranted," says John Haberen, president of Rodale Institute, which oversees the research center. "But what did we accomplish? It wasn't good enough to preach to 1 to 2 percent of the population; that was like speaking to the choir. But if we can get a whole department like USDA to listen, then we've accomplished something. We're being realistic and logical in our thinking," Haberen adds.

So, instead of arguing for a complete ban on chemicals, Haberen and other Rodale officials now acknowledge that "some farmers need chemical inputs as a helping hand."

As a result, Rodale and USDA have, over the past few years, teamed up to reduce chemicals -- and consequently costs -- on American farms. Not only has USDA stationed a scientist at the Rodale Research Center since 1984 to monitor experiments ("His arrival was shocking, really shocking," Kauffman recalls), but the two organizations also joined together earlier this year to sponsor an international symposium in New Delhi on organic farming, which is now frequently called "sustainable, regenerative agriculture" by Rodale officials.

At the same time, Rodale himself was busy launching dialogues with organizations that he once considered the enemy -- the Fertilizer Institute and Du Pont Co.

"At the time of his death, Rodale was darn near mainstream," says Hoback.

The same can also be said for the publishing side of the Rodale enterprise, which has 1,000 employees and, more significant, expects to have revenues of $250 million this year.

According to officials at Rodale Press (located in Emmaus, Pa., 10 miles from the 305-acre research farm), one in five U.S. households reads a Rodale publication. The company publishes seven magazines (including Organic Gardening, Prevention, American Woodworker, Bicycling and Runner's World), six newsletters (ranging from "Rodale's Food and Nutritional Letter" to "Men's Health Newsletter") and 40 to 50 new books a year.

Nearly 200 Rodale Press books are in print, with titles ranging from "The Healing Foods" and "High-Yield Gardening" to "Build-It-Better-Yourself Country Furniture" and "Running with the Whole Body." There are more than a dozen cookbooks, including "Healthy Microwave Cooking," "The Lose Weight Naturally Cookbook" and "The Natural Healing Cookbook." ("Healing is a good word that works for us," says Debora Tkac, senior managing editor of Rodale's books on health and fitness.)

But beyond these typical Rodale publications are some very atypical ones: two books by humorist Dave Barry ("Babies and Other Hazards of Sex" and "Dave Barry's Guide to Marriage and/or Sex") and James A. Michener's just released "Pilgrimage," which chronicles his 1988 two-week trip to Poland and Rome.

By almost any measure, Rodale Press has become downright respected and respectable -- a vastly different organization than the one photographer Tom Gettings joined 20 years ago. For one thing, Gettings (now director of photography) notes that he now wears jackets and ties to work. "I used to wear jeans, T-shirts, even gym shorts." But more important, he says, are the changes that have taken place outside the company. "In 1972, we surveyed all the publications in the country and found only three references to 'organic gardening' -- and two of those were negative. We were shocked. Today, you can't pick up the newspaper without seeing a reference to 'organic' one way or another."

Still, Gettings adds, the growing acceptance of Rodale now may be the company's greatest challenge. "If you are a missionary publisher and you are a good missionary, you can eliminate yourself," he notes.

That in fact, may be part of the difficulty the 48-year-old Organic Gardening magazine now faces. Despite the success of the organic movement, the magazine has been losing subscribers and advertisers. Its bottom line, company officials reluctantly acknowledge, is in the red. Part of the problem, says Gettings, is that "once it was considered the Bible; now it is just one of many sources" of organic gardening.

Still, Rodale officials have no plans to get rid of the publication. When asked if that is a possibility an adamant "no!" comes from Rodale's widow, Ardath (Ardie), who has assumed the chairmanship of the family-held company. "We'd cry" if the magazine had to be shut, adds Rodale, who with her mother-in-law, four grown children (three of whom work full-time at the company) and seven grandchildren, holds all of the company stock.

The reason for the family's attachment to Organic Gardening is simple: It was the publication that launched the company. First called Organic Farming and Gardening, the magazine was started in 1942 by Robert's father, J.I. Rodale, an accountant who became fascinated with the concept of chemical-free gardening and wanted to promote the idea to anyone who would listen. Eight years later, as the elder Rodale became preoccupied with chemical-free food, health and exercise, Prevention magazine was launched.

Even the company literature acknowledges J.I. Rodale's emphasis on natural food and exercise made him "regarded as a kook and health nut." His views, however, gradually began to gain acceptance shortly before he died of a heart attack at the age of 72 in 1971. (Ironically, it occurred during the taping of "The Dick Cavett Show," just minutes after Rodale predicted that his healthful organic lifestyle would let him live "on and on.")

The image of an on-the-fringe company persisted though, long after the junior Rodale took over. As Kae Tienstra, Rodale's publicity director, remembers: "When I came here in 1979, the company was perceived as a bunch of old hippies who ate brown rice and wore sandals. We were a voice in the wilderness and kind of fringy."

Today, however, with Americans increasingly concerned about healthful food and exercise, the Rodale business and its publications no longer seem so eccentric. In fact, the magazines look more like their mainline competitors than not. Organic Gardening, for instance, has changed from a small magazine, the size of "Reader's Digest," with few color pictures printed primarily on newsprint to a glossy, full-color, 8-by-11 magazine that recently has featured tips on landscaping to make a garden "echo the charms of Europe, the Orient or Mexico" and entertaining from the garden, with well-known chefs suggesting California salad buffets and Southern Sunday lunches. The nitty-gritty stories on growing broccoli, greens and other food have assumed secondary importance (the chief reason behind the magazine's decline, longtime readers say).

Meanwhile, Prevention -- once denounced as quackery by the health establishment, is now full of articles from highly respected doctors and medical foundations and associations. More notable, however, is the change in advertisements. Once full of small black-and-white ads for mail-order vitamins and health supplements, the magazine today is speckled with full color ads for Nike shoes, Purina Puppy and Cat Chow, Aunt Jemima Lite syrup and Hostess Oat Bran Muffins. (Although Prevention still does not accept ads for liquor or cigarettes, it does accept advertisements for products with refined sugar, such as Hostess muffins, even though the magazine still bars the use of refined sugar in any of the recipes it publishes.)

Within the company itself, the most visible sign of change is in the cafeteria, which only a few years ago barred refined sugar, white rice and artificial sweeteners. In baked goods, only whole-wheat flour was used. Today, not only are the once-banned items available, but even chocolate chip cookies can be found (although they are very dry and crumbly). Next to bags of dried apple chunks and rice cakes are commercially made brownies and even potato chips (salt-free, of course). And in the freezer case, Nutty Buddy cones rest next to Yoga Bars.

But the most "major, major change," notes Tom Ney, director of Rodale's food services and food center, was the introduction of Coke and Pepsi only a few months ago. "I never thought that would happen," says Ney, who joined Rodale 10 years ago.

Aside from the introduction of new foods, Ney also points to another major difference between then and now. "Ten years ago, they didn't care very much about the financial bottom line. I didn't have a budget in my department. Today, budgets are important."

So too are marketing studies. "Years ago, we would come out with books and hoped they would sell," recalls Tkac. Now, thanks to sophisticated marketing surveys of Rodale readers, "we pretty much know what will sell and now are only surprised when sales don't exceed the numbers we expect."

In other words, Rodale Press has become "a company of compost and computers," says company President Robert Teufel. In fact, the sophisticated marketing and business skills have become so well honed over the past few years that Robert Rodale left the business side to operate pretty much on its own, preferring instead to grapple with the more complex and unanswerable agricultural issues.

As a result, says Pat Corpora, president of Rodale's book division, "on a day-to-day basis, Bob's absence has not been that tremendous." It is the future, however, that has officials like Corpora concerned. "New things may not happen to come our way as they have in the past," he says, sitting at his desk where a framed photograph of Rodale is prominently displayed. Gone, says Corpora, are Rodale's connections to people all over the world that led to a host of ventures, including the publication of Michener's "Pilgrimage."

"Bob was the philosophical head of the company," says photographer Gettings. "Without him, it's impossible to say with any certainty whether that philosophy will go forward, what direction it will take and who will take it." It's like a giant tree falling down in the the forest, he adds. "There is now a shaft of light to let the saplings grow. Somewhere, someplace, something is growing. It may take years to see, but something will grow."

At the moment, most employees expect that ultimately one of Rodale's children will take the lead. The oldest, Heather Stoneback, 38, works part time doing special projects; currently, she is completing a commemorative booklet on her father. Her husband, Thomas Stoneback, 40, is Rodale's vice president and chief administrative officer. Heidi, 37, is special projects editor; Maria, 28, is assistant circulation manager of "Backpacker" magazine, and Anthony, 25, is a staff photographer. Another son, David, died of AIDS at the age of 30 five years ago -- an event that his mother has openly and movingly written about in a Rodale book, "Climbing Toward the Light."

"As we're coming to grips with {Robert's} absence, we're waiting to see what new directions will be charted by his heirs," says Tienstra.

For now, however, the future rests in the hands of 62-year-old Ardie Rodale, who for more than 30 years has served as the company's director of environmental resources, overseeing the management and renovation of the company's growing number of local buildings.

"There is no reason why we can't carry on the dreams Bob had and even enlarge them," she says. "We have a tremendous responsibility to save this world."