Skip to main content Skip to navigation
Science in action to improve the sustainability of agriculture, natural resources, and food systems
Learn More Program Areas

2019 Tilth Alliance Conference: Learning Beyond the Surface

Posted by KJ Fitzgerald | December 10, 2019

This year CSANR sponsored travel for several WSU students to attend the Tilth Conference in Yakima, WA. We are posting reflections written by the students over the next several weeks. To view student posts from this year and prior years, visit http://csanr.wsu.edu/tag/tilth/

Kathryn Fitzgerald head shot.
WSU student Kathryn Fitzgerald

Before attending the Tilth Alliance Conference I was unsure what “tilth” even meant. I am currently a senior studying organic and sustainable agriculture at Washington State University. I grew up on my family’s dairy farm in Southern Idaho where the majority of the farms are commodity crops and there is not much farm-consumer interactions. I knew that there would be great food and people who shared a common goal of growing food in a way that promotes social, economic and environmental viability.

After reading through the event schedule I knew that I would meet some incredible educators, farmers, and food advocates. I learned that the Tilth Alliance came from a convergence of Seattle Tilth, Tilth Producers, and Cascade Harvest Coalition. “Tilth” refers to the cultivation of the land. This conference wasn’t just about growing good food, or celebrating sustainable food systems, this conference brought about a sense of community. Reminding attendees that there are people that are fighting the same fight you are.

I felt incredibly welcomed and I learned so much from the keynote speakers and session presenters in two packed days.

Growing up in rural Idaho I became aware of student food insecurity at a very young age. I wanted to dive deeper into “Farm to School” model and learn from farmers that are already a part of these programs. The first workshop that I went to featured Tobias Magaña of Magaña Farms, Chris Iberle from WSDA Regional Markets and Marcia Wagner from Grandview School District. Chris started the session by pointing out all the benefits that a farm to school program brings to the community, in Washington State alone almost $17 million went to WA grown foods. He also pointed out the community networking that comes with integrating these programs.

Tobias loved that he was able to introduce students to new vegetables and foods. This benefits the students’ health as well as drums up consumer interests for Tobias.  Marcia walked us through all the loopholes, paperwork, and grey area that has to be figured out before integrating these programs. She pointed out that schools must make this a priority as a whole community if they want programs to be successful. I learned about state-wide initiatives such as Taste Washington Day where schools serve locally grown food to highlight Washington agriculture.

I attended a pollinator education session put on by the Xerces Society. Xerces gets their name from the Xerces butterfly, the first North American butterfly to go extinct. The Xerces Society now works all around the country integrating pollinator habitats, working with cities and producers to improve both native and beneficial insect populations. The presenter, Eric Lee-Mader, was phenomenal. He went deep into the history of human and nature interactions, different consequences of how we have chosen to interact with our surroundings and the state that we are in globally in terms of biodiversity.

  • Earth has lost 60% of its biodiversity in the last 60 years
  • 25% of bumble bees are at risk of extinction
  • Between 1986-2016 insect biomass has declined by 76%

These are just to name a few of the stark statistics he provided. After showing us where we were, he spoke about the variety of farming systems that have existed in the 40 centuries we have of recorded farming activity. These examples were from all around the world and showed how farmers worked with nature and their surroundings to not only create beautiful landscapes put highly productive and sustainable production systems.

The Tilth Conference provided insight into different perspectives, information networks, and tools that farmers could use to improve their farm. From learning the ins and outs of open-source software to the legal policy controlling food banks and food distribution there was an abundance of knowledge to try to absorb. The food was good and the people were even better than promised.