Time for change
The story of Tilth’s remarkable birth also charts the beginnings of the sustainable agriculture movement

By Dan Sullivan
January 27, 2005

As 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:

Tilth milestones

ERA 1: Beginnings
July 1974—Wendell 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.

November 1974—More 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 Agriculture.

Mid ’70s—The 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.

January 1976—Northwest 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.”

December 1977—Tilth incorporates in Washington state.

ERA 2: The movement spreads
August 1977—Commercial organic farmers across Washington state hold a series of meetings that lead to the formation of Tilth Producers Cooperative.

1979—Tilth movement spreads to Oregon. Over the next few years chapters will also form in communities in California and Idaho.

1981—Tilth-Provender Certification Program starts in Oregon with seven growers.

ERA 3: Regional organization disbands
Early ’80s—Founding members 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.

September 1984—Tilth 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.

Fall 1984—Tilth’s Board of Directors makes the painful decision to disband regional organizations and cease publication of Tilth Magazine.

Era 4a: State organizations—the Oregon story

1987—Oregon Tilth publishes its first set of standards, categorizing both materials and practices into “encouraged”, “discouraged”, and “not allowed.”

1989-1992—Western 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.

1989—Federal Organic Food Production Act drafted. Oregon Tilth members provide leadership in Organic Farmers Associations Council (OFAC).

1992—Oregon Tilth and CCOF agree to joint Materials Evaluation Program.

1994—Tilth invites back Wendell Berry for its 20th Anniversary celebration.

1997—OMRI (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 objections.

Era 4b: State organizations—the Washington story
1984—Tilth Producers Cooperative begins work with legislators to craft Organic Labeling Law.

1986—Organic Labeling Law passes.

1987—Washington State Organic Food Program established with several members of Tilth Producers sitting on its organic advisory board.

1991—Tilth 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.

1997—Following 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.

1998—Historic 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 Agriculture.)

2003—Tilth 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 upward
“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 at: www.tilthproducers.org/berry1974.htm).

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,” Berry wrote.

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.”

But how?

“…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.
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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.