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 Agriculture.
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
movement spreads to Oregon. Over the next few years
chapters will also form in communities in California
Certification Program starts in Oregon with seven growers.
ERA 3: Regional organization
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.
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
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
Organic Food Production Act drafted. Oregon Tilth members
provide leadership in Organic Farmers Associations Council
Tilth and CCOF agree to joint Materials Evaluation Program.
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 objections.
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 advisory
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
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
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.”
“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
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
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.
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. 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.”
“…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,
“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’
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.