Looking at our Roots: The Tilth Association Founding Meeting

By Mark Musick

Forty years ago today more than 70 people from across the Northwest gathered at Pragtree Farm in Snohomish County to officially form the Tilth Association (the predecessor to Tilth Alliance).

The catalyst for the regional Tilth movement was a speech by Kentucky farmer and writer Wendell Berry at a symposium in Spokane on July 1, 1974. A few days later he wrote a follow-up letter about what he saw as the emergence of a “constituency for a better kind of agriculture.” The young people who met Wendell in Spokane took up his call to empower that community.

The gathering at Pragtree Farm culminated three years of planning and preparation that grew out of the Northwest Conference on Alternative Agriculture, held in Ellensburg in November, 1974. Meeting participants committed to incorporating Tilth as a nonprofit association to provide a framework for organizing local chapters and for promoting research, communications and education. From the beginning Tilth was equally urban and rural, designed to support people devoted to organic farming and urban ecology.

The Tilth movement has continued to evolve, but it still embodies many of the principles instilled four decades ago. Here’s a link to a detailed report on the founding meeting:

Here is the story told in photos from that time.

1 Tilth Planning Meeting - 8-27-77

The founding meeting at Pragtree Farm where we established the regional Tilth movement, August 27, 1977.

On August 27, 1977 more than 70 people from across the Pacific Northwest met at Pragtree Farm to establish the organizational foundation for the regional Tilth movement. Participants in the meeting agreed to incorporate Tilth as a nonprofit membership organization, providing the framework for organizing the first local Tilth chapters and initiating educational and research programs.

At that time, I wrote a detailed report about the meeting: www.tilthproducers.org/quarterly/a-new-beginning/

2 Tilth Planning Meeting - Becky Deryckx 8-27-77

Becky Deryckx sits on a tractor during the founding meeting at Pragtree Farm.

Becky Deryckx proposed “Tilth” as the official name for our new organization. She talked about the significance of the word and its linkages to both the soil and to traditional agriculture.

The word “Tilth” was originally adopted as the name of the informal group that organized the Northwest Conference on Alternative Agriculture in Ellensburg in November, 1974, and meeting participants agreed that it would be an appropriate name for our new nonprofit organization.

Twenty years later, at Tilth’s 20th Anniversary Conference in November, 1994, Woody Deryckx (Becky’s husband) reflected on significance of the word “Tilth” as the name for our organization: www.tilthproducers.org/about-us/history/woody-deryckx-on-the-origins-of-tilth/

3 Tilth Planning Meeting - Elaine Stannard

Elaine Davenport-Stannard helped facilitate the Tilth planning meeting on August 27, 1977.

Elaine Davenport-Stannard, an urban gardener, first proposed the idea of creating a formal organization for the regional organic movement and she helped facilitate the Tilth planning meeting on August 27, 1977. During one of the brainstorm sessions she noted a list of priorities that sounds familiar four decades later, including regional networking, political clout, communications, publicity, research, public education, machinery and resource exchanges, and helping new farmers.

Following the planning meeting Elaine assisted with filing Tilth’s IRS non-profit application and she joined with Carl Woestwin, Tim McGee and Mark Aalfs to form Seattle Tilth, one of our first local chapters.

4 Tilth Planning Meeting - Strategy Session

Participants in the regional Tilth planning meeting outlined the structure and programs for the new organization, and they established the first board of trustees. Founding board members were Joyce Schowalter, Mike Maki, Carl Woestwin, Elaine Davenport-Stannard, Tom Thornton, Binda Colebrook, Michael “Skeeter” Pilarski, Marshall Landmann, and O.J. Lougheed.

The founding board members spearheaded the formation of local Tilth chapters in their communities. Out of those early efforts emerged strong Tilth organizations in both Washington and Oregon. A few years ago New Farm magazine reported on Tilth’s role in the beginnings of the sustainable agriculture movement: www.newfarm.org/features/2005/0105/tilth/history.shtml.

5 Wendell Berry Letter

Photo of the letter from Wendell Berry, July 4, 1974, catalyzed the regional Tilth movement.

The Tilth movement was inspired by a speech by Wendell Berry, Kentucky farmer and writer, at an environmental symposium in Spokane. Following that symposium Wendell wrote a long letter to the young people he met in Spokane discussing what he saw as the emergence of a “constituency for a better kind of agriculture,” and encouraging them to bring that constituency together in the Pacific Northwest. His letter, dated July 4, 1974, was the catalyst for the regional Tilth movement.

Here are links to a video a video and full transcript of Wendell’s Spokane speech and the text of his letter:

Wendell Berry, The Culture of Agriculture

Letter from Wendell Berry, July 4, 1974

6 Ellensburg Conference Directory

The directory from the Northwest Conference on Alternative Agriculture in Ellensburg, November 22-24, 1974.

Following up on Wendell Berry’s suggestion to unite the “constituency for a better kind of agriculture,” Mark Musick, Gigi Coe, Michael Pilarski, and Woody & Becky Deryckx started an informal organization they called “Tilth” to organize the Northwest Conference on Alternative Agriculture in Ellensburg, November 22-24, 1974.

More than 800 people from all corners of the region attended that first conference and the ideas and energy expressed in Ellensburg spread across the Northwest, leading three years later to the formal incorporation of the Tilth Association and the formation of local Tilth chapters.

You might enjoy reading a detailed article about that conference and the evolution of the regional Tilth movement that I wrote: www.seattletilth.org/about/abriefhistoryoftilth

7 Tilth Definition Poster

Tilth is an old English word that comes from the same root word as “to till,” while also speaking to the cultivation of wisdom and the spirit.

Becky Deryckx suggested the word “Tilth” as the name for our regional organization. Tilth is an ancient word that reaches back to the origins of agriculture. Becky’s husband, Woody, reflected on the ecological and social significance of that name: www.tilthproducers.org/about-us/history/woody-deryckx-on-the-origins-of-tilth/

8 Seattle Tilth 1st Garden

Volunteers dig garden beds creating the first Seattle Tilth demonstration garden behind the Good Shepherd Center, which remains today and is a destination as a learning garden.

The Tilth planning meeting established the framework for organizing local chapters across the Northwest. Carl Woestwin, Elaine Davenport-Stannard, Mark Aalfs, and Tim McGee joined with other friends to form Seattle Tilth, which took as its mission establishing an urban agriculture center. Seattle Tilth hit the ground running with an Urban Ecology Workshop in early 1978, and later that spring Carl shot this photo of volunteers digging the first garden beds at the Good Shepherd Center. Over the next four decades Seattle Tilth grew into one of the nation’s leading urban agriculture organizations.

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, both urban and rural, 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.

One response to “Looking at our Roots: The Tilth Association Founding Meeting

  1. God Bless Our Farmers! I have the best memories of working in my grandparents garden. They were always so generous with the fruits of their labor. They instilled in me values I still cherish today.

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