For every idolator, and they were legion, there was someone else who thought the old man, J. I. Rodale, was slightly daft for his obsession about eating pure-grown food and avoiding salt, hypertension and doctors.

J. I. Rodale died of a heart attack in 1971, at the age of 72, but his son, Robert, inherited his father's obsessions--only with a difference.

Old J. I. Rodale saw the future as tomorrow. Bob Rodale, seeing the future as today, is trying to drag millions of Americans into it.

The future, in fact, is happening now in the money-paved corners of the Rodale empire here in the Lehigh Valley of eastern Pennsylvania. In and around Emmaus, one finds:

* A large-scale commercial farm owned by Rodale operates profitably without chemicals and gets crop yields better than the state and county averages. Meanwhile, Rodale tests are showing how farmers can wean themselves off chemical fertilizers and herbicides.

* At the neighboring organic gardening and farm research center, dramatic work involves new cropping techniques; new vegetables and perennial grains that don't require planting every year; Far Eastern greens that will grow in cold U.S. weather. They are finding ways to use herbs (catnip and tansy, for example) to expel insects from potato and pepper fields.

* Backyard fish-farming has been developed, demonstrating that high-protein, organically grown fish can be raised easily at less cost than commercially sold products.

* Rodale's nutrition laboratory and test kitchen staffs are studying how to get the most benefit from different foods and developing recipes that use whole foods and grains and natural ingredients in new ways.

* Demonstrations of solar-powered greenhouses and growing boxes that can be built by the homeowner to assure year-around supplies of fresh vegetables and salad greens.

All these ventures are spinoffs from the core of the empire, the Rodale Press, which grossed more than $100 million last year. Its books, magazines and newsletters take Rodale's message to some 10 million readers annually.

Rodale pumps much of his profit back into his schemes to encourage American food self-sufficiency and soil and energy conservation.

If Rodale didn't do it on such a scale, few others apparently would. Federally funded research bows only perfunctorily to the non-chemical farming that Rodale promotes. A House Agriculture subcommittee, however, plans hearings next week on a bill by Rep. Jim Weaver (D-Ore.), calling for creation of a federal organic-farming research program in regional centers.

But in much of mainstream American agriculture, the Rodale name has conjured visions of kooks eating bean sprouts, quaffing carrot juice and peddling cockamamy notions about farming without the chemical fertilizers and pesticides so basic in U.S. farming today.

The image doesn't much bother Rodale, a lean, ascetic man of 52 who works in a spartan office painted bright green, drives a Honda and lives in a modest home in Emmaus (pronounced em-MAY-us).

"I've seen industry and business coming in our direction in the last 10 years. I'd just like to help them get there quicker," he said recently.

"We feel the average person has a really enormous reservoir of potential for self-reliance. They need to be convinced of it and they need information about it. That is our mission," Rodale said. "A lot of the thrust of conventional business is to create dependence."

"This is a momentous time. Much greater change is going on than most people suspect. People feel the ground is slipping from their feet .... High interest rates are blamed for so many of our economic problems--in autos, housing, agriculture. But what's really happening is correction of a condition called 'overshoot'."

What that means, essentially, is that technology has come to dominate the modern John Q., draining and depleting natural resources while it restricts his independence and forces him to rely on someone else to provide his food and shelter.

"I'm interested in helping people see their ability to achieve self-reliance....People say we are not practical, but this organization is a breeding ground for ideas.

"We've done pretty well at finding the groups that can use our information," he said.

The spectacular success of Rodale Press suggests that Rodale knows something other publishers are still looking for. Virtually every publication he comes up with produces instant gold.

The leader is Prevention magazine, started by his father in 1950 to promote health ideas, gleaned mostly from professional journals and recycled into popular style. Although often controversial, it has 2.4 million subscribers, with editions in France, England and Australia.

No. 2 is Organic Gardening, the oldest of the firm's magazines, born in 1942. J. I. Rodale, now regarded as the father of organics, tried to sell his ideas to farmers even earlier, in the 1930s. He sent out 10,000 fliers and only 10 came back with subscriptions to his publication. Organic Gardening now reaches 1.4 million readers a month.

Others are New Shelter, a home-efficiency journal started in 1980 and already hitting 625,000 readers a month; Bicycling, with 300,000 a month; Spring, a women's magazine started this year with a 350,000-copy first run, and The New Farm, a farmers' how-to counterpart of Organic Gardening begun in 1979 and now selling 75,000 copies monthly.

More income comes from two health newsletters and three book clubs that help sell the 35 to 50 new titles from Rodale Press every year. The books deal with subjects from natural healing and home canning to draft-horse breeding and root-cellaring. Rodale's brain-trust now is developing programs for cable television.

"We're what we call an organic communications company, but we've gone beyond organic--or natural--into broader things," Rodale said. "We feel we need to make a transition to life based on renewable resources, regenerative resources. America is hungry for solutions of this type."

Rodale sees the country's traditional food-supply and health-care systems creaking toward collapse from inefficiency and expense.

On the food front, he created a Cornucopia Project and put a team of researchers to work on a state-by-state study of supply problems.

A similar team will soon go after the health care system. Another project will be devoted to reducing dietary salt content. Still another is aimed at stimulating bicycle travel and technology.

"Cornucopia and the attention it got is helping us make the transition from being seen as an isolated, extreme organization to an organization on the cutting edge of change," Rodale said.

These ideas and projects keep rolling out of Emmaus, bringing new attention to Rodale and his work. But the crown jewel is the research farm that he set up in 1974 and staffed with some of the best young brains he could find.

The center's directors, Richard Harwood and William C. Liebhardt, both former mainstream agricultural researchers, see mounting economic problems pushing farmers rapidly toward the natural-growing techniques being tried here.

"I look where American agriculture is heading and I think regenerative agriculture organics, that is will come whether there's a Rodale Press or not," said Liebhardt.

"Today's economic problems are terrific...and every week we're getting letters from farmers who tell us they want to do things differently."