Just outside this eastern Pennsylvania town, they're giving new meaning to the role of horse manure as a staple of international diplomacy.

After years of spending its scarce money on imported chemical fertilizers, pesticides and heavy farm equipment -- all symbols of big-time modern western agriculture -- desperately poor Tanzania is going back to farming basics.

And to do that, its government has sent researchers here to study the magic of compost, the fertile brew of manure, rotting leaves and other organic detritus that wise farmers have used for centuries to enrich soil and produce bounteous crops.

Tanzania, a rural east African nation in economic crisis, is attempting to increase food production and at the same time cut its dependence on expensive imports of modern farming chemicals. About 80 percent of the people -- 15 million Tanzanians -- are involved in farming.

Compost, created from farm wastes, may be the easiest, most logical step. Tanzanian farms have tended to be small -- a plus for distributing compost; it can be made simply at little or no cost; there is a large farm animal population to provide the manure that is vital to composting.

There may be no better place in America for the Tanzanians to start learning about compost and other intensive, nonchemical farming techniques. In an unusual mix of diplomacy and agronomy, they have come to the Rodale Research Center, where scientists work to develop a better compost and demonstrate its powers of soil regeneration and fecundity.

This unusual marriage was arranged by Mollie Miller, wife of U.S. Ambassador David Miller, who gave Tanzanian President Julius K. Nyerere a copy of a Rodale publication on composting and suggested it might have answers for his country.

Nyerere responded quickly. He asked Ambassador Miller for help in getting the Rodale experts to Tanzania for more talks. With that came an agreement between Rodale and the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) to assess the situation, stage a composting seminar and then plan a program to teach the techniques to peasant farmers.

"The book touched off in President Nyerere a deep-seated feeling he had for self-reliance for his land," said Rodale research director Richard R. Harwood. "It struck home. And that's why he and Bob Rodale hit it off right away -- they're thinking similarly."

The name Rodale, of course, is synonymous in this country with organic gardening and farming. The research center, an extension of the Rodale publishing empire, is the heart and soul of the organic-farming movement promoted by the late J. I. Rodale and followed by his publisher son, Robert.

In both symbol and substance, this linkup between Tanzania and Rodale may be as important for one as it is for the other.

In a sense, Tanzania is seeking a new approach to self-sufficiency by taking a step away from large-scale farming that has contributed toward heavy debt, diminishing food supplies and soil that is being rapidly depleted by current farming techniques.

Nyerere, speaking in May at the Rodale-organized symposium for officials and educators in Tanzania, was blunt. He acknowledged past mistakes and, while he said that chemical farming will continue for the time being, the country will search for new approaches.

"When our country became independent, our ambition was to "modernize" our economy," he said. "We did not work this out very thoroughly; but it appeared to us that if you wanted a productive agriculture you had a mechanized agriculture, and you used chemical fertilizers, chemical insecticides, and -- to be completely up to date -- even herbicides. That at least was our vision of American and Canadian agriculture -- and we were often told that America is the most productive agricultural country."

Added Harwood: "Today you hear that U.S. agriculture is the wonder -- and it is. These people see U.S. farmers in air-conditioned tractors, with new cars and big houses. That's the model. But the resources are not there for Tanzania. We have to look at efficiencies that can be attained with what they have."

If Tanzania can achieve self-reliance through Rodale-style intensive farming techniques, the implications could be important for money-strapped Third World countries, particularly in Africa.

"The picture there is dreary," said Harwood. "Over the past decade, per capita food production in Africa is way down. And things do not appear to be improving, for a number of reasons. They will have trouble in agriculture, for at least the next 10 to 15 years.

Tanzanian success also would give new oomph to the Rodale philosophy, which, for reasons not entirely apparent, is dismissed by some U.S. agriculturalists as the poppycock of faddism -- little noticing, by the way, that many of the organic techniques Rodale preaches were common before the modern American age of farming with chemicals.

The agronomists who will run the program are cautious, yet optimistic. Dr. J. M. R. Semoka, a U.S.-trained soil scientist who is here with the study team, said, "These are nice ideas and our government has a lot of appreciation for them . . . but being an educator, I know of the problems one encounters in sending this message to farmers.

"Our challenge is to implement the program and make sure we follow it well to make it work," he added. "Of course, the economic side is important, but we are realizing we have resources that can be used to our advantage."

And that's really all the Rodale people have been saying for years.