we dive headfirst into another conference season, it seems
fitting to look back across the decades to the humble beginnings
of the sustainable agriculture movement. So let’s jump
back in time to the 1974 World’s Fair, where poet, author,
and farmer Wendell Berry is speaking from a panel at an “Agriculture
for a Small Planet” symposium in Spokane, Washington,
about the way it was in his youth:
ERA 1: Beginnings
Berry speaks at “Agriculture for a Small
Planet” symposium at the Spokane World’s
Fair. Following the conference, on July 4, Berry
charts a Declaration of Independence from conventional
agriculture in a letter to panel organizers challenging
them to organize.
than 800 people representing the “various
branches of agricultural dissidence and heresy”
from across the country come together in Ellensburg,
Washington for the Northwest Conference on Alternative
Northwest Organic Food Producers Association is
created to coordinate growers and to administer
the organic certification process. Tilth Producers
Co-op develops rudimentary certification system.
Food Resource Directory is published, with 79
listing in four states (Washington, Oregon, Idaho
and Montana), including 38 food co-ops. Later
that year a more comprehensive Northwest Trade
Directory in published “in the hope that
[the] directory can serve as a model for local
groups seeking local food self reliance.”
incorporates in Washington state.
The movement spreads
organic farmers across Washington state hold a
series of meetings that lead to the formation
of Tilth Producers Cooperative.
movement spreads to Oregon. Over the next few
years chapters will also form in communities in
California and Idaho.
Certification Program starts in Oregon with seven
ERA 3: Regional
struggle with managing such a large, diverse organization
and with carrying out various publishing projects
and organizing conferences while meeting the needs
of their own farms.
Tenth Anniversary Jamboree near Cle Elum, Washington,
includes a Barter Faire, music, workshops, networking
and an inspirational talk by poet Gary Snyder.
More than 500 people attend.
Board of Directors makes the painful decision
to disband regional organizations and cease publication
of Tilth Magazine.
Era 4a: State organizations—the
Tilth publishes its first set of standards, categorizing
both materials and practices into “encouraged”,
“discouraged”, and “not allowed.”
Alliance of Organic Certifiers (WACA) begins,
as Oregon Tilth, the Washington State Department
of Agriculture (WSDA) Organic Advisory Board,
and California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF)
agree to work toward shared goals and standards.
Organic Food Production Act drafted. Oregon Tilth
members provide leadership in Organic Farmers
Associations Council (OFAC).
Tilth and CCOF agree to joint Materials Evaluation
invites back Wendell Berry for its 20th Anniversary
(Organic Materials Review Institute) begins. USDA
publishes first proposed Organic Rule allowing
GMOs, sewage sludge, and food irradiation. Organic
industry mobilizes 278,000 citizens to voice their
Era 4b: State organizations—the
Producers Cooperative begins work with legislators
to craft Organic Labeling Law.
Labeling Law passes.
State Organic Food Program established with several
members of Tilth Producers sitting on its organic
Producers Cooperative founding and active members
selected for first National Organic Standards
Board (NOSB). Other members are active in proposing
and developing federal organic livestock standards.
a rant in the Tilth Producers Journal criticizing
the state land-grant university’s embracing
of genetic engineering and eschewing of organic
agriculture, Tilth Producers begins to build bridges
with Washington State University.
agreement made between Tilth, WSFFN, and the WSU
College of Agriculture. Small farm program brought
to WSU, regional public dialog forms around GMO
issue, and more opportunities open up to promote
and study organic and biological agriculture.
(WSU recently began offering a Major in Organic
members work on planning committee to bring the
National Agriculture Biotechnology Council to
Seattle for its annual conference. The theme is
“Science and Society at the Crossroads,”
and Tilth organizers work diligently to bring
the concerns of organic farmers to these scientists.
ERA 5: Onward and
“Over the decades, Tilth
has grown into a lively network of local organizations,”
writes former Oregon Tilth officer, policy wonk
and organic consultant Lynn Coody. “One
thing that makes Tilth unique is equal emphasis
on both rural and urban Agriculture. Taken as
a whole, Tilth chapters have created models of
organic and sustainable practices, research, certification,
composting, gardening, farmers markets, biodiversity,
and education, which have given Tilth a national
and international reputation.”
Adapted from Lynn Coody’s timeline
“Seeds of a Great Idea—The History
of Tilth in Oregon and Washington Tilth Producers.”
Coody, former Agricultural Policy Director for
Oregon Tilth, edited the group’s first organic
standards and lobbied diligently in Washington,
D.C. (and wherever the good fight took her) for
federal organic standards that remained true to
Tilth’s original mission.
“The farms were generally small. They were farmed by
families who lived not only upon them, but within and from
them. These families grew gardens. They produced their own
meat, milk, and eggs. They were highly diversified.”
Berry explained how one of the key components of this system
for these tobacco farming families was the existence of markets
for these “minor products.”
But changes in American values hand-in-hand with the industrialization
of our food system upset all that, he said.
“…Nowhere that I know is there a market for a
hen or a bucket of cream or a few dozen eggs,” he said
back in his 1974 address. “Those markets were done away
with in the name of sanitation—but to the enormous enrichment
of the large producers…It is, of course, one of the
miracles of science that the germs that used to be in our
food have been replaced by poisons.”
Berry went on to chronicle some of the other casualties of
industrial agriculture, from the loss of farming communities
and the culture and values that went with them to the destruction
of fertility and tremendous waste of energy engendered by
such a behemoth, impersonal system.
Berry’s basic message: We’re all in real trouble
if we don’t fix our food system and rediscover the intrinsic
value of a healthy and committed relationship with the land.
(read his full presentation and the conversation that followed
By his own admission in a follow-up letter sent to symposium
organizers Gigi Coe and Bob Stilger, Berry hadn’t expected
much when he made the trip from Henry County, Kentucky to
eastern Washington to be part of the program meant to draw
a broad spectrum of opinion about the future of agriculture
(read the entire letter at www.tilthproducers.org/berry1974-2.htm).
In one way, those limited expectations were met. “…The
overwhelming message that came out of the symposium is that
the agricultural establishment is going to go right on trusting
‘American ingenuity’ and reciting specialists’
statistics until the case against it is proven by its failure—which
will be the failure of much else that is more worthy,”
But he also reflected on a pleasant—and inspirational—surprise
in meeting the likes of Gigi, Bob and others who shared a
different vision for the future of American Agriculture.
“…Your symposium, as well as a lot of other meetings
I’ve been to in other parts of the country, proves the
existence of a thoughtful and even knowledgeable constituency
for a better kind of agriculture. And this constituency is
yet powerless because it has no programs. It has no coherent
vision of what is possible. It is without the arguments and
proofs—the language that will make it coherent.”
Thirty years ago—the same year that his classic agrarian
novel “The Memory of Old Jack” was published—Berry,
in the simple and eloquent manner that characterizes his prose,
defined the problem and then articulated a solution.
“…The crisis is not in land use,” he writes.
“It’s in the lives and minds of land users. That’s
why I don’t believe it can be helped very much by any
kind of official policy. Good land use is going to come about
either by hard necessity or by some kind of teaching.”
“…Can you see any possibility of another kind
of agricultural symposium—not, this time, that would
represent a broad spectrum of opinion, but rather one that
would try to bring together the various branches of agricultural
dissidence and heresy?”
This gathering together for change, Berry suggested, might
include “representatives of farm workers’ unions,
NFO [National Farmers Organization] and any other such groups,
family farmers, urban consumer cooperatives, small farm co-ops,
organic farming and gardening co-ops and organizations, the
publications of dissident agriculture, and the conservation
organizations, wilderness societies, etc.”
“Could such a meeting be made to happen?” Berry
asked. “And if it could happen, don’t you think
it would be directly useful? I’m not sure what unanimity
might by made, but I am sure that it would be the start of
something or other that would be useful.”
Rising to that challenge, Gigi Coe shared the letter with
her friends Mark Musick, Woody and Becky Derryckx, and Michael
Pilarski and the Tilth movement was born (Becky Derryckx is
credited with coining the name the reflects a careful cultivation
of both the land and spirit). The first Tilth conference—the
Northwest Conference on Alternative Agriculture—took
place November 21-23 in Ellensburg, Washington, with more
than 800 people in attendance from as far away as Arizona,
South Dakota, Ohio, and North Carolina.
Tilth’s 30th anniversary Northwest Regional Conference
in Portland this past November—bearing, fittingly, the
theme “Transforming the World One Fork at a Time”
— offered a testament to just how far we’ve all
come together…and how far there is yet to go. Keynote
speaker, scientist/activist Vandana Shiva, reminded us all
that industrial agriculture and its minions represent a global
problem. Populist agitator Jim Hightower—who, as Texas
Secretary of Agriculture, took his cues from Tilth founders
when implementing the state’s pioneering organic program—reflected
on how to create change in the wake of a national election
many in the audience found disappointing (continued grass-roots
action). And Woody Deryckx and other Tilth founders ruminated
on where the movement has been and it’s potential for
the future (as ever, the growing number of young people in
attendance offered the ‘old-timers’ encouragement).
Today, Tilth stands as a beacon and is but one in a host
of organizations and conferences across the country advocating
for a new agriculture that respects the land and the communities
that live it, celebrating the diversity and interconnectivity
of us all from farm to city. As you attend your various meetings
this conference season—whether its Eco-Farm in California
(celebrating its 25th anniversary this year), MOSES in Wisconsin
(turning 16 this year), or Southern SAWG in New Orleans (turning
14)—consider the roots of this movement, the dire need
for the work at hand, and the poignant words of Wendell Berry
at the World’s Fair 30 years ago:
“…Food is a cultural, not a technological, product.
A culture is not a collection of relics and ornaments, but
a practical necessity, and its destruction invokes calamity.”
Dan Sullivan is senior editor at The New Farm.