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Originally published Friday, March 4, 2011 at 4:31 PM

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Guest columnist

The food movement's role in revitalizing environmentalism

Guest columnist Jeffrey C. Sanders reflects on the history of the Northwest food movement and its potential for connecting east and west, city and country.

Special to The Times

Environmentalism may not be dead yet. In recent months signs indicate that the faltering mainstream environmental movement is about to be resuscitated by, of all things, the contemporary food movement. Foodies to the rescue!

Recently, even Time magazine, has discovered the power of the food movement to "save" green politics. Anyone living in Seattle or Portland over the last several years is well aware of the revolution afoot. Who hasn't awakened on a Saturday morning to a neighbor's clucking chickens? And who hasn't marveled at the variety of local kale at the Puget Consumers Coop? The words "organic" and "local" are ubiquitous in the northwest. But they've also become synonymous with urban, coastal, and elitist. Foodies themselves, like farm-raised fish in a barrel, have become easy targets: comedian Fred Armisen is the most recent to lovingly skewer this sensibility on his new cable show "Portlandia."

Such stereotypes obscure a history of hard work. The roots of the contemporary food movement in the Northwest run far deeper than Seattle's hastily tilled parking-strip gardens. The movement is more geographically dispersed and firmly established than most of us realize. Most surprising, despite its coastal image, its birthplace is not Seattle or Portland. This region's food movement pioneers originated in ... Eastern Washington.

That's right. The Northwest origin story of what used to be called "alternative agriculture" began in gritty, conservative Spokane. During that city's World's Fair in 1974, a motley group of farmers, professors, and students from nearby universities met to debate the environmental politics of food. In those dark days of energy crisis and Nixonian cynicism, these "environmental heretics" saw the light. Although the politics of food had no place in mainstream environmentalism in the early 1970s, young people, such as Mark Musick and David Holland thought otherwise. Along with a growing group of like-minded allies, they began to merge the politics of food with the politics of ecology. They called it Whole Earth Ecology.

Without the benefit of Facebook or food blogs, Musick and his friends used mimeograph machines and microbuses to spread the word. That fall more than 500 people gathered from all over the Northwest to convene the landmark Northwest Alternative Agriculture conference in Ellensburg. It was a historical meeting that, according to Musick, brought everyone "down from the hills." Gene Kahn of Cascadian Farm was there. Darlyn Rundberg Del Boca, the woman behind Seattle's first P-Patch was there. Farmers and co-op managers from across the region attended.

The energy unleashed at that first gathering continues to structure the food culture that Northwesterners — and in fact citizens around the United States — now enjoy and champion. Participants like Musick went on to co-found Northwest Tilth from which Oregon Tilth emerged. The latter is still the gold standard of organic certification (seen on Frito Lay and Organic Valley products).

The Seattle chapter of Tilth and Carl Woestwin taught the city how to compost. It helped build the Danny Woo gardens in the International District. In the process chapter members institutionalized urban agriculture in Seattle. The city-run Seattle P-patch program founded by Tilth and PCC members in 1974, has grown from its first plot on Rainie Picardo's (he was the P in P-patch) old farm in north Seattle to more than 12 acres and 60 patches today.

But perhaps one of the more profound contributions of these environmental heretics who met in Ellensburg — including Holland — were the seeds they planted for Washington State University's Organic Agriculture degree program, the nation's first. The program continues the process of transforming how and what we eat.

So as you bite into your organic rutabagas or crunch organic Cheetos, remember the following:

First, the movement is not as urban as you think. In fact, the state Department of Agriculture estimates that over 60 percent of organic farms in Washington are east of the Cascade mountains.

Second, large federal- and state-funded universities have long nurtured innovations in alternative agriculture, past and present. Patronizing trendy restaurants and the concept of growing your own is only part of the equation.

Third, if we can look beyond the Interstate 5 corridor for a sense of bioregional identity, the contemporary food movement still has the potential to connect east and west, city and country, and hopefully in a way that is more equitable and, one can hope, a little less precious.

Foodies may save us — and the planet — yet, thanks to some unorthodox farmers and professors from Eastern Washington.

Jeffrey C. Sanders grew up in Seattle during the 1970s and now teaches and writes about Pacific Northwest history and culture at Washington State University. He is the author of Seattle and the Roots of Urban Sustainability: Inventing Ecotopia.

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