A History of Oregon Tilth
In 1972-1973 a number of people were called BACK TO THE LAND. Most were raised in post W.W.II suburbs. Most had little or no farming/gardening experience. We were mostly just one generation away from generations of farm families. In the Pacific Northwest we found that the advice on organic farming and gardening available at the time from Rodale wasn't really helpful in our Maritime climate.
A conference was called in Arlington, WA. The organizers expected 50 - 100 people. Over 600 showed up. During an evaluation meeting after that weekend some women sitting on Woody Dereks back porch discussed making an organization. Legend is that Woody's wife heard the word tilth during the discussion of soil and suggested it as the name of the proposed organization. Thus was born the regional Tilth organization which quickly had chapters in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Northern California.
We celebrated 30 years of Tilth in 2004. Mark Musick was the glue making the organization happen day to day. The first Organic labeling law in the nation was put into effect in 1972-73 in Oregon, administrated by the Oregon Department of Agriculture. This labeling law defined early organic labels and legal usage of the term Organic for marketing purposes.
One of the most active chapters of regional Tilth was Willamette Valley Tilth. Then President Bob Cooperider was farming near Sheridan. He was growing crops that he needed to market organically in other states. He wrote up the first organic standards for certification that consisted of one page of paper. The exact date was in the early 80s, probably 1982. The first certifications were done on 12 farms, mostly small market gardens. The procedure was that one of the twelve inspected one or two of the others.
By 1984 the regional Tilth organization was broken. Regional Tilth had published one very successful book, Binda Colebrook's Winter Gardening In the Maritime Northwest. There was also a very successful regional Journal that garnered worldwide attention as it told the stories of all the organic farming and homesteading going on here our region. There was an office, a staff, and even a computer. A loan was taken for $10,000 from a private family to publish another book , The Future Is Abundant, featuring many of the authors and subjects covered in the Journal. The book was a few years ahead of its time. It focused on sustainability. It flopped. The family demanded payment. The office was closed. Equipment sold. Loan paid. Time to regroup.
At that point Lynn Coody, Harry MacCormack, Joey White with the support of Yvonne Frost decided that we should begin Oregon Tilth, a 501 (c) 3 independent of what became Washington Tilth. About the same time Seattle Tilth - focused on urban gardening, Tilth Producers - focused on commercial organic farms and led over the years by Ann Schwartz, and several Washington chapters began their own moves toward becoming 501 (c) 3 organizations none of which had a Certification program. In a final Willamette Valley Tilth meeting at Sunbow Farm, upstairs in the barn meeting room, we signed the incorporation papers for Oregon Tilth.
Yvonne Frost volunteered to take over the fledgling Certification Program. She saw it as a business opportunity, as something that needed to be expanded greatly, and that ultimately it should involve processors of organic foods, restaurants, wholesalers, and retailers. A certification office was established on Yvonne's farm. Harry MacCormack was selected by the Board as the first Executive Director. He established what became the Research and Education office at Sunbow Farm. From there he wrote the second round of Standards and Guidelines for Organic Agriculture that included sections on livestock, poultry, and processing. Editions of this document were used to form Oregon Tilth Certified Organic OTCO, which has become one of the most respected certification labels and processes in the world. The early program at the Washington State Department of Agriculture also used these standards, simply putting their stamp on them. The Tilth standards and guidelines were used by Texas, Idaho, Colorado, Hawaii, in their program developments, and were translated into Japanese for use in Japan.
During the late 1980s Yvonne Frost organized The Western Alliance of Certifiers which included Oregon Tilth, The Washington State Department of Agriculture Organic program, and California Certified Organic Farmers CCOF. For almost two years we worked at unifying standards utilizing the best science on what would or would not be allowed in Organic growing and processing systems. Our periodic meetings were electric. In the end we created standards based on lists of allowed products. This process turned organics from a simple philosophy to a science based set of rules. These rules were the basis for the National Organic Program set before the House of Representatives in Washington DC in 1990 by Congressman Peter Defazio with Lynn Coody at his side. The proposal had been blocked in the agriculture committee. Peter poled the House and found that he had one more than the needed votes to pass the proposal. He used a House rule to get the bill on the floor and passed. Senator Leahy of Vermont guided the bill through the Senate. Twelve years later in 2002 the 1990 Organic Law became USDA policy.
Harry MacCormack with the help of Dr. Alan Kapuler and Diana Tracy of ANTECH Labs wrote and published The Transition Document: Toward An Environmentally Sound Agriculture in 1989. The third edition -1993 -of this ground breaking book which researched residue issues in organic foods and growing practices, and which presented amino acid nutritional data never before presented is being rewritten in 2006 and is now an over 250 page book. We hope to have it published by a major publisher soon.
During 1988-1992 Harry MacCormack worked on a series of grants, the largest of which was a three-year multi level grant from the Northwest Area Foundation. The 5 state sustainable agricultural initiative required that a non profit (Oregon Tilth) work with a Land Grant University (Oregon State University). This was a very difficult, institution- breaking, process which allowed us to fund alternative agriculture analysis in Oregon, start IN GOOD TILTH still a major alternative agricultural publication throughout the northwest, fund an administrative assistant for Harry, who was working full time at OSU, farming full time in the summer, and being Executive Director of Oregon Tilth, while writing books and articles. At the university we worked with nontenured faculty, all of whom have gone on to major careers, and some heavy hitters who came into our research and went on to do more sustainable research. The O word was not allowed to be used in that NWAF agenda. The final product from the 5 states helped shape the subsequent farm bill, which for the first time included some sustainable initiatives.
Oregon Tilth became a major Certification organization on the world scene during the 1990’s. It went from being funded from the wallets of the founders to a two and a half million dollar a year corporation with a staff of seven and a group of farm inspectors. In 2006 there are five 501(c)3 Tilths in the state of Washington, Tilth Producers continuing to present educational conferences, Oregon Tilth which has several local chapters, and The Tilth Foundation which currently bridges Oregon and Washington with fundraising and specific projects. The latest foundation project is a three year endeavor filming archival materials, making a documentary and shorter video, and a book focused on Northwest Organic Legends, those on whose shoulders the Organic movement and industry stands. These archival materials will be available on a special web site and will be housed at the OSU and WSU libraries for historic researchers.