WA Tilth Association History

A Brief History of Tilth
By Mark Musick

To me the word "Tilth" is a one-word haiku. 

It's said that every word carries with it all of its meanings. Tilth is an Old English word that comes from the same root as the verb "to till." In the dictionary it is defined as "the structure and quality of cultivated soil." In an older meaning the word "tilth" was used to describe the cultivation of wisdom and the spirit.

A soil—or a person—in good tilth was said to be "in good heart."

In 1974, the word "Tilth" was adopted as the name for a regional network of organic farmers and gardeners in the Pacific Northwest. Over the years Tilth has grown into a diverse and dynamic sustainable agricultural movement. Below are a brief review of the organization's history and an outline of current Tilth activities.

The people who started the Tilth Association first met on July 1st, 1974, at a symposium in Spokane entitled "Agriculture for a Small Planet." One of the featured panelists was Kentucky farmer, poet and writer Wendell Berry, who spoke forcefully about the culture of agriculture. 

In his speech Berry described the loss of the traditional farm economy and the destruction of rural communities. He was blunt in detailing the impending collapse of rural America, and he linked the "drastic decline in the farm population" with "the growth of a vast, uprooted, dependent and unhappy urban population."

"Our urban and rural problems have largely caused each other," he said. "My point is that food is a cultural, not a technological product. A culture is not a collection of relics or ornaments, but a practical necessity, and its destruction invites calamity."

"If we allow another generation to pass without doing what is necessary to enhance and embolden the possibility of strong agricultural communities, we will lose it altogether. And then" he concluded, "we will not only invoke calamity, we will deserve it."

These words had a profound impact on several of us attending symposium. A few days later, after returning to his home in Kentucky, Berry wrote a letter back to the new friends he met in Spokane. In it he said, "Your symposium… proves the existence of a thoughtful and even knowledgeable constituency for a better kind of agriculture....This constituency is as yet powerless," he added, "because it has no program. It has no coherent vision for what is possible." 

"The crisis," Berry said, "is not in land use. 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 official policy. Good land use is going to come either by hard necessity or by some kind of teaching....And so I'm asking you, from where you are, can you see any possibility of another kind of agricultural symposium...one that would try to bring together the various branches of agricultural dissidence and heresy?"

Berry went on to describe his vision for a conference that would bring together individuals and organizations concerned with creating a better kind of agriculture—family farmers, urban consumers, food coops, university researchers, farm workers, land reform advocates, organic gardeners, and conservation organizations. "Could such a meeting be made to happen?" he asked. "And if it could happen, don't you think it would be directly useful? I'm not sure what unanimity might be made," he added, "but I am sure that it would be the start of something or other that would be useful."

Wendell Berry's letter, written on July 4, 1974, was like a match thrown on dry tinder. Gigi Coe, to whom the letter was addressed, shared the letter with me and we mailed a copy to Woody and Becky Deryckx, who were homesteading at Poplar Hills, near the town of Palouse, Washington. The timing was perfect. Woody had been brainstorming about the idea of an alternative agriculture conference with his friend Michael Pilarski. 

Gigi and I met with Woody and Becky at Poplar Hills in early August and we began plans for a major regional conference in November. When the time came to name the organization we would form to host the conference, Becky suggested the name "Tilth." A quick check of the dictionary told us this was the word we were looking for to express our connection with the soil and the roots of traditional agriculture.

The Ellensburg Conference
More than 800 people representing "the various branches of agricultural dissidence and heresy" gathered in Ellensburg, Washington November 21-23, 1974, for what we called the Northwest Conference on Alternative Agriculture. It was a seminal event. People from across the region and as far away as California, Arizona, South Dakota, Ohio, and North Carolina came together to begin the process of building a new agriculture. Many of the people who first met in Ellensburg went on to play vital roles in our region's ecological agriculture movement.

Among those present were Chris Feise (Former Director of the WSU Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources), David Granatstein (WSU CSANR Sustainable Ag Systems Coordinator), David Holland (WSU Dept of Agricultural & Resource Economics), Darlyn Del Boca (organizer of Seattle's first P-Patch), John Luna (Oregon State University), Norma Davidson (RoseWind Cohousing), Forest Roth Shomer (Inside Passage Seeds), Carla Emery (Encyclopedia of Country Living), Sam Benowitz (Raintree Nursery), Lon Johnson (Trout Lake Farm), Munk Bergin (IPM Consultant), Piper Williams (Earth Cyclers), Gene Kahn (Cascadian Farm), Roger Wechsler (CF Fresh), Arran Stephens (Nature's Path Foods), and Walter Goldstein (Director of Research, Michael Fields Agricultural Institute).

The Ellensburg conference struck a deep chord and its impact reverberated throughout the Pacific Northwest. In February 1975, to continue the exchange of ideas and information, Woody Deryckx wrote and distributed the first issue of the Tilth Newsletter. Over the next few years people in the region hosted ten follow-up conferences, including The Politics of Food & Land, The Nooksack River Encampment, Living the Revolution, Natural Living & Agriculture, and The Leap Year Conference on Regional Federation. 

The Tilth Association
Following the Ellensburg conference, Tilth remained a small, informal group for two and a half years. Our primary focus was on publishing an occasional newsletter and in June 1976, we established a regional office at Pragtree Farm near Arlington, Washington. It was a challenging time, with just a few people attempting to maintain the momentum. In the spring of 1977, Elaine Stannard, who had recently attended a meeting in Europe of the recently formed International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), suggested we establish Tilth as a regional membership organization. 

Following Elaine's advice, on August 27, 1977, we had a special planning meeting at Pragtree Farm. On that rainy summer day more than 70 people gathered at the farm to discuss ideas for strengthening the organization, and in December of that year the Tilth Association was formally incorporated "to support and promote biologically sound and socially equitable agriculture in the Pacific Northwest."

Our goal for the Tilth Association was to bring together organic gardeners, rural homesteaders, consumers, and environmentalists—that broad "constituency for a better kind of agriculture" described by Wendell Berry—into a new, agrarian coalition. Also in 1977, commercial organic farmers across Washington State held a series of meetings that led to formation of the Tilth Producers' Cooperative. 

One of the Tilth Association's first projects was publication of Binda Colebrook's Winter Gardening in the Maritime Northwest, which has had a significant impact on local farmers and gardeners, greatly expanding the range of herbs and vegetables now grown year-round in our region. It also inspired Steve Solomon to start the Territorial Seed Company to make available the many Asian and European varieties described in Binda's book.

The Pragtree Farm meeting also laid the foundation for organizing local Tilth chapters. In February 1978, Mike Maki organized our first local chapter, Southwest Washington Tilth. That same month Carl Woestwin spearheaded formation of Seattle Tilth and their Urban Agriculture Center. 

The following year the Tilth movement spread to Oregon. Bob Cooperrider and Keith Walton started Willamette Valley Tilth, while Judy Weiner and Peter Liebes helped form Rogue Tilth.

Other local chapters were formed over the next few years in Humboldt County, California, the Methow Valley, Northeast Washington, Spokane, Palouse, Wenatchee, Nooksack, Cowlitz Valley, and South Whidbey Island, Washington, plus two chapters in Northern Idaho. By the early 1980s there were a total of 15 local Tilth chapters in California, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. 

In that period we also sponsored the all-women's Demeter Conference and two major permaculture conferences—one in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, and the other along the Columbia River east of Portland. And in 1982, we published The Future Is Abundant, a sourcebook for sustainable agriculture in the Pacific Northwest.
At that point things began to get shaky. By then the first wave of the "back to the land" movement had peaked and we found it increasingly challenging to manage such a large, diverse organization, publish books and a quarterly journal, organize conferences, and manage a commercial organic farm all at the same time. In the fall of 1982, the regional Tilth office moved briefly to Portland, Oregon, and then it was moved back to Seattle as a succession of people attempted to keep the regional Tilth journal going.

The high point of that period was Tilth's Tenth Anniversary Jamboree near Cle Elum, Washington, in September 1984. Organized by Michael Pilarski and friends from the Okanogan, the Tilth Jamboree was a memorable, magical event. The highlight for me was a reading and discussion of the bioregional movement with the poet, Gary Snyder. One of his comments was especially poignant. "The first truth," he said, "is it's all connected. The second truth," he added, "is it's all impermanent."

The reality of impermanence was already hitting home for the Tilth movement. By that time several of the smaller local chapters had faded away and a few weeks after the Jamboree the Tilth Board of Directors made the extremely painful decision to disband the regional organization. The explosion of activity that began in Ellensburg had run out of steam, and the following year the regional network divided into separate Tilth organizations in Oregon and Washington. 

Digging Deep, Branching Out
The Tilth Association was designed on an ecological model. Autonomous local chapters were encouraged to establish their own priorities and design their own programs. This ability to adapt and change definitely contributed to the survival and growth of the Tilth movement. 

Following the dissolution of the regional organization in 1984, Oregon Tilth formed its own nonprofit corporation and initiated one of the nation's first organic certification services. Over the next decade Yvonne Frost and Lynn Coody built Oregon Tilth Certified Organic (OTCO) into one of the nation's most respected programs. Oregon Tilth also formed local chapters in Corvallis and Portland, and maintains urban agriculture education centers at Luscher Farm in Lake Oswego and Jean’s Farm in Portland.

In 2007, Oregon Tilth certified about 600 farms. Because of their reputation for integrity, Oregon Tilth certifies not only farms throughout the US, but in Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, Paraguay, Chile, Uruguay, Guatemala, Argentina, Honduras, and Russia.

Oregon Tilth also certifies nearly 600 organic food processors, an all-organic restaurant in Washington, DC, and the new Tilth Restaurant in Seattle. The Oregon Tilth Certified Organic label is now on products ranging from Cascadian Farm frozen foods and Newman's Own Organics, to General Mills' "Sunrise Corn & Whole Wheat Cereal," the first breakfast cereal to be certified organic by a major manufacturer. Other national processors certified by Oregon Tilth include Frito-Lay, Brown Cow Yogurt, Celestial Seasonings Teas, Seeds of Change, and Gerber "Tender Harvest" Baby Foods. 

There are now six Tilth chapters active in Washington: Vashon Island, Seattle, South Whidbey, Snoqualmie Valley, Spokane, and Tilth Producers (formerly the Tilth Producers Cooperative).*

Seattle Tilth's Urban Agriculture Center, located at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford, is an organic oasis in the heart of the city. Known nation-wide for starting the Master Composter program, Seattle Tilth helps educate urban gardeners both young and old. The Tilth Demonstration Gardens provide year-round models for intensive vegetable and fruit production. Seattle Tilth's "city chicken" tours have become popular social events. The Children's Garden introduces hundreds of youngsters each year to the wonder of plants and the natural world. And each September the Tilth Organic Harvest Fair reunites country and city cousins for a joyous celebration of Washington food and agriculture. 

The Tilth chapters on Vashon and Whidbey Islands each sponsor farmers markets in their local communities. The Vashon chapter, known as the Vashon Island Growers Association, recently provided a dramatic example of Tilth's coming of age. In the spring of 1999, they were informed that the owners of the property where they'd been hosting their market for many years had decided to sell. This news prompted an island-wide fundraising campaign and in just 90 days the Tilth chapter raised $250,000, all from personal contributions, to purchase the property and preserve it for the community's use for the local farmers market in perpetuity. 

The Tilth Producers' Cooperative (now Tilth Producers of Washington) initiated a wide range of programs to support and promote the organic farming industry. They worked with the Washington State Department of Agriculture to establish the first state-managed organic certification program in 1988.  

At the time of the Ellensburg Conference there were perhaps 20 commercial organic farms in Washington State. In 2007, the Washington Dept of Agriculture Organic Food Program certified over 700 organic farms, plus 285 organic processors. Washington's acreage certified organic grew from 6,200 acres in 1993 to approximately 78,000 acres in 2007, and sales for the state's organic farmers jumped from $175 million in 2002 to over $246 million in 2007.

Each fall Tilth Producers of Washington hosts a major conference for commercial organic growers. The also publish the bi-annual Tilth Producers Directory, which is a comprehensive guide to the state's organic farmers, farm suppliers, and additional resources.
Over the decades Tilth has grown into a lively network of local organizations. One thing that makes Tilth unique is its equal emphasis on both rural and urban agriculture. Taken as a whole, our chapters have created models of organic and sustainable practices—research, certification, composting, gardening, farmers markets, biodiversity, education—which have given Tilth a national and international reputation.  

Today the seven Tilth organizations in Washington and Oregon combined have 2,400 members, 32 full-time and 14 part-time staff, and an annual budget of $3.5 million.

A Vision for the Future
Since its first conference in 1974, Tilth's primary focus has been on encouraging the growth of what Wendell Berry called the "constituency for a better kind of agriculture," uniting the community of people concerned with food, agriculture and the environment. As Berry noted, however, "this constituency is as yet powerless because it has no program. It has no coherent vision for what is possible." The challenge, Berry continued, is that the emerging constituency "is without the arguments and the proofs—the language—that will make it coherent."

Reflecting on the emergence of the Tilth movement over the past three decades, I'm encouraged to see that our language has evolved to articulate the vision for a better agriculture. 

For me the simplest example is the evolution of the "O" word. Thirty years ago the word "organic" was treated with disdain—as the province of an eccentric fringe. Today 58% of American households report that they purchase organically grown foods and "organic" is no longer taboo in mainstream agriculture. An estimated 40% of the farmers in our region are implementing techniques that reduce the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. And in 2007, largely as the influence of the Tilth movement in our region, Washington State University initiated the nation's first organic farming degree program.

Another excellent example of our evolving language is the word "sustainable." I'm not sure when the word first entered our language, but a quick Google search now turns up 46 million references for the word "sustainable." The concept has been adopted by a broad spectrum of organizations and agencies concerned with all aspects of public policy. Sustainability indexes and programs are now commonplace, and sustainable agriculture is now recognized as central to any long-term vision for our future. 

Another term we didn't have 30 years ago is "Community Supported Agriculture" (CSA). Today variations on CSA farms and marketing networks have opened a new world of direct marketing opportunities for established as well as new-entry farmers. The Puget Sound Fresh CSA Directory lists 33 community-supported farms in Western Washington serving more than 4,000 families with projected sales approaching $2 million. On-line CSA directories are also available for Portland and Lane County, Oregon.

Farmers markets aren't new, but their growth has been phenomenal in the past 30 years. In 1974, opportunities for farmers to sell directly to the public were few and far between. Today farmers markets are appearing in towns and cities across the region and, in many communities, Tilth farmers and Tilth chapters are at the heart of the movement.  

Farmers markets are where “the constituency for a better kind of agriculture” convenes each week. In 2007, there were 120 farmers markets in Washington (34 in King County alone, with total sales estimated at $41 million. In Oregon the pattern is similar. In 2007, Oregon had 88 registered farmers markets (a nine-fold increase over the past fifteen years), with estimated sales of $30 million.   

According to consumer surveys, farmers market shoppers say they spend between $15 -$30 per visit. Based on those figures, during the summer between 115,000 and 230,000 people per week are shopping at farmers markets in Oregon and Washington.    

“Locavore” is another new word that recently entered our language. First coined in 2005 by a group of friends in the Bay Area, two years later it was selected as the New Oxford American Dictionary Word of the Year.

And finally, there's another promising new concept that's entered our language, and that's the "food policy council." Rather than tackling problems one at a time, an increasing number of communities are taking a systems approach to confronting the complex issues of hunger, malnutrition, and declining local agriculture through the formation of food policy councils. 

Food policy councils bring together "stakeholders" representing all facets of state or local food systems, including farmers, retailers, nutritionists, educators, chefs, and anti-hunger advocates, plus representatives of public agencies such as health and human services departments. The councils are chartered by municipal or state governments to advise policy makers on issues such as preserving farmland, purchasing locally grown foods for public schools, regulating food-based enterprises, or examining the root causes of hunger in the community.

Within the past few years food policy councils have been established in Lane County and Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, British Columbia, plus the recently-formed Acting Food Policy Council for Seattle/King County. Food policy councils have tremendous potential as vehicles for bringing together small farmers, food processors, marketers, anti-hunger advocates, and government officials to create comprehensive approaches to food and hunger issues.

In retrospect it's a pleasure to see that the seeds Wendell Berry planted nearly 30 years ago have grown vigorously and are bearing abundantly in the Pacific Northwest. While the crisis in agriculture he foresaw continues to intensify for many farmers, there are signs of hope. A lot of work has been done to establish communication links and develop markets, but in the years ahead we will continue to more clearly define our vision for a new, truly ecological agriculture, both in the Pacific Northwest and around the world. 


Mark Musick grew up on the shores of Puget Sound. As a young boy his introduction to agriculture was harvesting strawberries and raspberries on small farms in the Puyallup Valley. In 1974 he helped organize the Northwest Conference on Alternative Agriculture in Ellensburg, Washington, which was the catalyst for the regional Tilth movement. Mark coordinated the Tilth Association for several years. He edited the regional Tilth journal, organized local chapters, and published three books: Winter Gardening in the Maritime Northwest, The Future Is Abundant, and the Seattle Tilth Garden Guide.  

For ten years Mark was a member of Pragtree Farm, a commercial organic farm on a land trust property in Snohomish County specializing in direct marketing to PCC and local restaurants. Forced to retire from farming in 1985 due to the late effects of polio, Mark devoted the next 15 years to marketing for local farmers, first by developing the first direct buying program for a grocery store chain in Seattle, and then as farmer liaison for the Pike Place Market. In 1989 he helped found the Vashon Island Cohousing Community, where he now lives with his wife, Terry. For the past five years Mark has worked as a consultant to the City of Seattle on resource conservation and food policy. In 2007, he produced the Washington Food System Directory and the Seattle Hunger Map, and he maintains the regional sustainable agriculture calendar for the Washington Tilth Producers’ website.

*The newest Tilth Chapter, Tilth on the Willapa, was incorporated in 2008.