Tilth celebrates 30 years with a look to the future

The following story originally appeared in the December 2004 issue of The Portland Alliance:

Tilth \\ tilth\\ n [fr. OE tillian to til] 1: the structure and quality of cultivated soil; 2: the cultivation of wisdom and the spirit.

Tilth celebrates 30 years with a look to the future
By Jennifer Polis

Tilth celebrated its 30 year anniversary this November with a look at the organic agriculture movement today and the challenges facing the movement in the future. Speakers Vandana Shiva and Jim Hightower helped to draw about 700 farmers, scientists, retailers, educators, and others concerned about organics to Portland for three days of workshops, discussions, a trade show, and a bus tour of the Portland food system.

Friday's opening plenary was given by Tilth co-founder Woody Deryckx, who spoke out against industrialized agriculture "that ignores the fact that farms are biological communities" and how he learned to "think like an ecosystem". and farm sustainably.
"Where the 20th century was devoted to tearing things up and plundering and pillaging the planet, the 21st century will be in putting things back together in living systems" he said.

Dr. Shiva maintained the message against industrialized agriculture in Saturday morning's keynote speech, reflecting on the history of agriculture in India and the current movement by farmers there against chemicals, GE seeds, and corporate biopiracy. "I have not seen a worse slavery system than contemporary, globalized, industrialized agriculture that denies you the right to choose the food you eat" Shiva stated. Still, she brought a hopeful message to the crowd that we must start small to eventually make big changes.

The day continued with networking caucuses and workshops on the history of Tilth in Oregon and Washington; organic seeds; the Slow Food movement; food quality issues; and a new farmer roundtable, just to name a few. The evening's festivities were more relaxed, with an organic wine tasting and trade show, Tilth award ceremony and salsa dancing into the night.

While Deryckx and Dr. Shiva's speeches were informational and well-received, Jim Hightower brought his unique sense of humor into the mix Sunday morning with a talk aimed at "Mobilizing the New Agrarian Community". Again, he brought a hopeful message, noting that although Bush won the election, progressives were successful in getting out the vote in large numbers, and won a number of unlikely offices, including the governorships of Montana and New Hampshire and mayor of Salt Lake City, Utah.

Hightower's speech focused on cultivating the energy of the country's progressive majority into a cohesive whole. Those who supported Bush are "going to get a dash of cold water". when they realize Bush's plans to privatize social security and pass trade agreements, he said. It's good to be called an agitator, he remarked, since it is the common people who have always stood up for justice. "If they call you an agitator, say, 'Yeah, that's the center post in the washing machine that gets the dirt out.'".

Sunday's events included more workshops, dances of universal peace, and Tilth's annual meeting and board of directors' election. For the first time in Tilth's history, there were more people running than available seats, many of whom were no doubt inspired that weekend by Tilth's vision of the how the future could look.

Commenting on why Tilth is different, longtime member Lynn Coody said, "One of the biggest differences is that Tilth focuses on organic, and other sustainable farming groups focus on a broader palette of agricultural practices. That has lead us to be able to be very activist in the political area and get a political definition of organic that strengthens our ability to move forward".

While many of the discussions over the weekend echoed some of the same things the group started talking about 30 years ago, participants took pride in the progress that has been made. "We've had a lot of successes, like state law for organic agriculture" said organic farmer JJ Haapala, who has been involved in Oregon Tilth since 1988. "Now we have a national law for organic agriculture; we have other national laws that we've worked on including the Conservation Security Program, organic research initiatives, and different community food security programs". It was also noted at the conference that Washington State University has started the nation's first organic farming major.

"It taught me a dream can never be too big" Coody said. "If you work at it long and hard enough you can make even really big dreams come true that change big parts of society".

Yet, despite their successes, the organic movement still has a long fight ahead of it to dismantle industrialized agricultural and replace it with sustainable farming practices worldwide. These challenges include fighting the rise of GE and biopiracy, and educating consumers about the health and environmental benefits of buying organic.

"There's a need like never before to make the connection between urban and rural consumers so that people can get active about their own wellness and their own food base" Haapala said, noting that Tilth has many partnerships and support, including market support, consumer recognition, national laws, and a budget. "And if we have the young people that want to pull this off to step up to the plate and make it happen we can really make some tremendous change".

To learn more about Tilth, or to purchase audio or video tapes of speakers and workshop presenters, visit http://www.tilthproducers.org.