2014 24.2 The Tilth Movement Through Time: Wendell Berry’s Enduring Influence

On July 1, 1974, Wendell Berry spoke at the “Agriculture for a Small Planet” symposium at Gonzaga University in Spokane. Wendell’s speech that day was the catalyst for the regional Tilth movement. Following are excerpts from his speech in which he decried the impacts of industrial farming and called for a restoration of the culture of agriculture. Wendell’s words inspired the Northwest organic farming movement for the past four decades. The T40 Conference in November will be an opportunity for Tilth people to re-connect and re-energize as we continue to grow the agricultural community around the region.

The Culture of Agriculture — Wendell Berry

In my boyhood, Henry County, Kentucky was not just a rural county, as it still is. It was almost entirely a farming county.

In the decades since World War II the farms of Henry County have become increasingly mechanized. Though they are still comparatively diversified, they are less diversified than they used to be. The holdings are larger, the owners are fewer. The land is falling more and more into the hands of speculators and professional people from the cities who—in spite of all the scientific agricultural miracles—still have much more money than farmers. There are not nearly enough people on the farms to maintain them properly, and they are for the most part visibly deteriorating.

The number of part-time farmers and ex-farmers increases every year. Our harvests depend more and more upon the labor of old men and little boys. The farm people live less and less upon their own produce; more and more from the grocery stores. The best of them are more worried about money and more overworked than ever before. Among the people as a whole, the focus of interest has largely shifted from the household to the automobile; the ideals of workmanship and thrift have been replaced by the goals of leisure, comfort and entertainment.

In all of this few people whose testimony would have mattered have seen the connection between “modernization” of agricultural techniques and the disintegration of the culture and the communities of farming. What we have called agricultural progress has, in fact, involved the forcible displacement of
millions of people.

I remember, during the fifties, the outrage with which certain of our leaders spoke of the forced removal of the populations of villages in communist countries. I also remember that at that same time, in Washington, the word on farming was “Get big or get out”—a policy that is still in effect. The only difference here is in the method: the force used by the communists was military; with us it has been economic, a “free” market in which the freest were the richest. The attitudes were equally cruel, and I believe that in the long run the results will be equally damaging—not just to the concerns and values of the human spirit, but to the practical possibilities of survival.

And so those who could not get big have got out—not just in my community but in farm communities all over the country. But bigness is a most amorphous and unstable category. As a social or economic goal it is totalitarian; it establishes an inevitable tendency toward the tyrannical one that will be the biggest of all. Many who got big to stay in are now being driven out by those who are still bigger. The aim of bigness implies not one social or cultural aim that is not noxious. Its influence on us may already have been disastrous, and we have not yet seen the worst.

And this community-killing agriculture, with its monomania of bigness, is not primarily the work of farmers, though it has burgeoned upon their weaknesses. It is the work of the institutions of agriculture: the experts and the agri-businessmen, who have promoted so-called efficiency at the expense of community, and quantity at the expense of quality.

Our rural and urban problems have largely caused each other. The result is an unimaginable waste of land, of energy, of fertility, and of human beings. The result is that the life of the land, which in its native processes is infinite, has been made totally dependent upon the finite, scarce and expensive materials and products of industry. The result is the disuse of so-called marginal lands, potentially productive, but dependent upon intensive human care and long-term human familiarity and affection. The result is the virtual destruction of the farm culture without which farming, in any but the exploitive and extractive sense, is impossible.

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 invokes calamity. A healthy culture is a communal order of memory, insight, value, and aspiration. It would reveal the human necessities and the human limits. It would clarify our inescapable bonds to the earth and to each other. It would assure that the necessary restraints be observed, that the necessary work be done, and that it be done well.

A healthy farm culture can only be based upon familiarity; it can only grow among a people soundly established upon the land; it would nourish and protect a human intelligence of the land that no amount of technology can satisfactorily replace. The growth of such a culture was once a strong possibility in the farm communities of this country. We now have only the sad remnants of that possibility as we now have only the sad remnants of those communities. If we allow another generation to pass without doing what is necessary to enhance and embolden that possibility, we will lose it altogether. And then we will not only invoke calamity—we will deserve it.

On the Origins of Tilth — Woody Deryckx

I would never have lived the life I’ve lived if I hadn’t of stumbled across and subjected myself to the beneficial influence of Wendell Berry. Let me tell you a little bit about that; this is where I start to reminisce. I had decided at a turning point in my life to dedicate myself to environmentally better agriculture. I did that at a particular time in my life when I was very confused and upset about my situation in the world. I had been involved in a most terribly destructive and unjust war, and I just wanted something really different—really opposite.

In 1970, I heard about Earth Day about a week after I got out of uniform, and I said “this is what I’m going to be involved in. I’m going to be involved in environmental causes.” Looking around for just exactly what kind of environmental causes, somebody put a bug in my ear by saying on the radio, “If you want to find a real, true environmentalist, you look at an organic gardener or an organic farmer because these are the people who are living their doctrine. They’re actually performing environmentally benign acts, recycling, making the ecological loops connect, and restraining from polluting and enslaving the environment as the recipient of destruction like some other kinds of farmers tended to do in their excesses in the industrialized model. So I hit the library studying this.

I’d already read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring as a teenager a couple of times straight through, so I was kind of set for that. And one of the things I discovered right off the bat was a delightful interview in Farm Journal in which the writer had visited Wendell at home and had asked to use the bathroom, to which he said, “No, you can’t.” Then he sent him out to the composting privy. And the rest of the article was all about how wonderful this composting privy was. Now, in the same issue of that Farm Journal there were articles about the exhaustive work that the United States Department of Agriculture scientists were doing to once again affirm that barnyard manure was not worth the cost of hauling it out to the fields to spread. So you can see that this was the turning point in consciousness in a lot of ways. And it’s the point at which I got involved and the beginning of my personal journey which has brought me here.

So when I say the measure of a great writer is his ability to deepen the understanding of his readers and to catalyze action, I say that from a personal sense in that I experienced that change of direction in my life. And I also say it in a community sense, too, because, Tilth as a community in the Northwest, and I think other people like us all over the nation, have been led by Wendell as a guiding light toward a more sustainable future.

I ran into Wendell [in 1974] through a strange group of coincidences. I got invited to participate as a moderator in the “Agriculture for a Small Planet” symposium in Spokane, and Wendell was one of the speakers there. I went up there and I encountered him at the hotel. I’ll never forget this image. It was early in the morning. He was sitting with his three-piece suit and a newspaper draped over his lap. He was sitting in this dark, lush hotel lobby leaning over in the light. He had his pocketknife out and he was picking away at his left hand. I introduced myself and he said, “You ever put up hay? These darn thistles are driving me crazy!” He was digging thistle stickers out of his hand and I think several people here know how it feels about two days after you put up hay.

Wendell spoke so eloquently at that symposium about the unraveling of the society he had grown up in Henry County, Kentucky, that it was saddening and disturbing—deeply disturbing. But I couldn’t help but think as I sat there listening to the penetrating logic and the polished prose that was coming out of this great man’s mouth (which later appeared in a slightly altered form in his wonderful book, The Unsettling of America), I couldn’t help to think simultaneously that we needed to get right to work, and we had the opportunity to get right to work to start putting our society back together just as it was coming apart.

Following the symposium, Wendell wrote a letter to the young people he met in Spokane to suggest we consider organizing “another kind of agricultural symposium…to bring together the various branches of agricultural dissidence and heresy.” And that’s what we started to do. My wife Becky proposed “Tilth” as the name of the organization we formed to host our first conference in Ellensburg.

I had learned the word “tilth” and the concept tilth from Wendell and the great guides that he directed me to. As you know, it’s a magnificent concept—such a complex and mysterious product of an incredibly complex biological system guided by a vast storehouse of information encoded in the genetic material of microorganisms, many of which have not even been named and discovered yet, that exist in every teaspoon of healthy agricultural soil.

It never occurred to me that we could use that word other than what it was for, but instantly it made such good sense because in the biological, soil sense, tilth has such a great meaning. And in the social sense it also has the same meaning.

Think about it a minute. The cohesion of the soil particles, the mineral particles, is a product of all that cooperative biological activity.

And the cohesion among us people—after 20 years this room is full of good people with the same ideals and the same goals who have put in—many of you—20 years more or less, of excellent good work and we all know we’re just getting started. We have a lot of cohesion in this group, in this community. We have a lot of Tilth here.

The vast information involved in the miracle of the biology of a teaspoon of good, fertile, healthy agricultural soil—information that is ancient in its trial and error pursuit of survival under all kinds of conditions. Tailor made for every condition where a different species predominates. Tailor made for different seasons of the year—the ability to fluctuate from one season to another. To be able to pull back from damage. To be able to accommodate the annual input of organic matter and transform it into stable humus. To be able to take the energy of the organic matter input of the seasons and perform vital work with it. To be able to create a structure of soil.

We know, too, that there’s a tremendous amount of information that we seek and that we have to pass on. The information that I got, personally, that put me in a career in agriculture primarily came from before World War II. Primarily came from before herbicides and synthetic insecticides, and even before the total dominance of traction horsepower internal combustion engines that dominated agriculture and put us into an industrial situation.

We are using that information and we’re passing that information on. And the most important thing is we’re passing it on in a cultural sense, from one person to another in a structure. We are taking a society which truly is coming undone…and the society in Henry County, Kentucky, where Wendell was a boy is truly becoming undone. But, in a sense, we’re gluing the pieces back together. We’re creating, I hope, a set of water stable soil aggregates in a cultural sense—in a community sense—that is going to be replacing the ruin that we have to leave behind.

Tags: Culture of Agriculture, Food Systems, History, Tilth Conference, Tilth Movement