Woody Deryckx

Woody Deryckx, Member Spotlight, October 2014

In the spirit of Tilth Producer’s 40th anniversary, it seemed appropriate to spotlight one of the original founders of the Tilth organization, Woody Deryckx, owner of Gratitude Gardens in Skagit County. Woody, a long-time farmer and advocate of the Tilth movement shares his perspectives on the roots of Tilth, the progress of the sustainable agriculture movement, and what lies ahead for our organization.

Tilth Producers: What were your main motivations to become a farmer?
Woody Deryckx: I came to agriculture entirely through the back door. I wasn’t raised by farmers or by people with awareness of what they ate or of growing food. I became involved with agriculture out of ecological considerations. As a young person during the first Earth Day in 1970, I listened closely to the events of that time and what was happening with the environmental movement. After reading and listening about Earth Day I decided to work in the environmental movement. Through that realization I later decided I wanted to work within agriculture. I saw agriculture as the largest enterprise in which we interact with the biological systems upon which we rely for support. It is these systems that we modify, and our modifications create huge problems—problems that I also learned about in reading Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. That book led me to be very concerned about the effects of chemical fertilizers. The complexities of the soil also interested me and I soon found myself involved in the early beginnings of the organic farming movement.

TP: Who have been your inspirations?
WD: Sir Robert Howard, J.I. Rodale, Lewis Brownfield, Wendell Berry—the kinds of people that wrote about agriculture in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. I realized that I knew nothing about farming so I went to the library and read all the older material. Then I started meeting people and finding inspiration.

TP: Describe Tilth in the beginning. What was it like to be at the beginning of such a movement?
WD: We all had a sense of urgency. My involvement was really fortuitous; a whole cascade of lucky coincidences allowed me to go to the 1974 World’s Fair in Spokane and meet Wendell Berry. Out of that event there was a realization that in agriculture there are conflicting values: the type of agriculture Wendell Berry represented and the agriculture practiced by everyone else. We wanted something that wasn’t a conflict, and wanted to dispense with the debate about industrial agriculture. After we received a letter from Wendell Berry about becoming organized around our ideas for a better kind of agriculture, I and others got down to work and began building our community and instituting change. Quickly that first conference happened: Tilth first convened in July 1974 and we held the conference that November.

TP: Wendell Berry spoke about a “constituency for a better kind of agriculture.” In your eyes, how has the Tilth constituency evolved in the past 40 years?
WD: I delight in Tilth’s success as an organization. Back then, there wasn’t much going on in organic agriculture and we really had to look for people to talk to and connect with. Now there are so many wonderful people that know so much and are teaching. It’s heartening that people are actually making a living with this type of agriculture. But the dangers, the things that inspired us to feel a sense of urgency, are even worse now than when we started. There is still a continuing trend of standardization, degradation, loss of biodiversity, poisoning of the soil—things that make me want to cry. The only thing we can do is keep doing this work. We need to celebrate our successes but there is still a great need. And education is paramount.

TP: Do you have suggestions for ways Tilth Producers can encourage and support the next generation of farmers?
WD: There are so many educational opportunities available now that we didn’t have before, and Tilth has done a super job of supporting those activities. The farm walks and the collaboration with WSU [Washington State University] are wonderful. The fact that land-grant universities have made room in their world for ecological and organic agriculture—at first reluctantly but now enthusiastically—is an important service to our cause. Education really needs to emphasize the process of growing food and fiber in a harmonious relationship with the biological systems that they are a part. Some people emphasize the products rather than the process, but it is important to educate how nature does these things sustainably.

TP: What is the importance of the T40 conference as part of educating farmers and supporting this community?
WD: Back when we first started the conference, we definitely meant it to be very educational. We had programs on how to do certain production practices or techniques and improve soil quality. We devoted ourselves to supporting development of markets. Other conferences became more hands-on, but the real transfer of technology and ideas comes from peer-to-peer connections in the hallways and at the lunch table at these meetings. We always provided lots of opportunities for farmers to compare notes. These connections support the farmers and the community.

TP: What is your vision for agriculture in the next 40 years?
WD: There isn’t anything different about agriculture 40 years ago, when we identified the problems and started to find solutions. It was and is about finding sustainability. A little over 10,000 years ago there wasn’t agriculture and I have yet to be convinced that the invention of agriculture was meant to be sustainable. But we are here now and we still have to prove that this is going to work. We’ve come close a few times in a few places. There is still dependence in organic agriculture on fossil fuel and even on the waste of the systems in industrial agriculture. People need to realize that we are all in this together. We have to learn a whole lot more than we know now about the living systems which we are a part, and of the consequences of our involvement in those systems.

Further, we need to stop leaving the farm for the city because we think that’s where we are supposed to be. In my lifetime, I have seen a great flight from agriculture and it’s to our doom. We need to learn that it is legitimate, honorable, fun, and downright wonderful work. There’s value in understanding the workings of the soil, how to grow plants to perform well and nourish us, and to make subtle manipulations within an ecosystem. We need lots of people educated about these things to meet the challenges of farming. More than that, farmers need to have fun and know that they are respected and appreciated. There has been a wonderful resurgence of small farmers – so why can’t we have a landscape of small family farms?

Tags: Gratitude Gardens, T40, Tilth, Wendell Berry, Woody Deryckx