Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the Northwest Permaculture Conferences

In the spring of 1981 more than 400 advocates for new approaches to agriculture in the Northwest met at the first two permaculture conferences in North America. On the weekend of April 3rd to 5th the Interior Northwest Conference was held at the Sagle Community Hall, near Sandpoint, Idaho, and the weekend of May 8th to 10th the Maritime Northwest Conference was held at a camp overlooking the Columbia River near Corbett, Oregon.  

Michael Pilarski, founder of Friends of the Trees, lit the first spark for the conferences. He was joined in co-sponsoring the events by Mark Musick and Barbara Snyder representing the Tilth Association and Michael Soule with Children of the Green Earth. Many friends also helped with hosting and presenting at the conferences, including Larry Korn, Sego Jackson and Beverly Reed, Mike and Barbara Maki, Forest Shomer, Tom Ward, Anya Woestwin, Sam Benowitz, and Larry Geno.

More than 300 of the participants in the two conferences came from Idaho, Washington and Oregon, but several came from British Columbia, California, Montana, Utah, and as far away as Ohio. The two conferences featured more than 30 workshops on topics including windbreaks and shelterbelts, edible landscaping, seed collecting, beekeeping, nitrogen-fixing trees and shrubs, farmers markets, nut trees, dryland permaculture, fungi, integrated pest management, medicinal herbs, ethnobotany, natural farming, aquaculture, woodlot management, land reclamation, and livestock in permaculture.

Larry Korn gives the keynote address at the Maritime Permaculture Conference, Portland, OR - 1981

Larry Korn gives the keynote address at the Maritime Permaculture Conference, Portland, OR - 1981

Larry Korn, editor of the English translation of Masanobu Fukuoka’s “The One-Straw Revolution,” was one to the keynote speakers at both the Idaho and Oregon conferences. In addition to having apprenticed on Fukuoka-san’s farm in Japan, Larry also had the unique opportunity of meeting and traveling with Bill Mollison, one of the founders of permaculture, during his first visits to the United States.

In his keynote address Larry described the ways in which permaculture, natural farming and biological agriculture all share the goal of working more closely with nature. He said Mollison’s permaculture principles were developed using the Western, scientific method, while Fukuoka’s natural farming grew out of his Oriental, philosophical approach to nature.

Larry noted that edges of ecosystems are the most diverse and it’s along the margins that change is most likely to happen. Given its relative isolation from the industrial agriculture of the Midwest and California, the Pacific Northwest, with its relatively smaller farm sizes, favorable climate and diverse crops, was well suited for pioneering the concepts of permaculture and natural farming in North America.

Larry closed his talk by saying we have an opportunity to adapt Mollison’s permaculture concepts and Fukuoka-san’s natural farming philosophy to create new approaches to agriculture unique to the Pacific Northwest. The ideas and information generated at the two conferences provided the basis for the book, “The Future Is Abundant,” published in the summer of 1982 by the Tilth Association.

As part of celebrating the 40th anniversary of the nation’s first two permaculture conferences, we’ve gathered photos and information about the events. In addition, here is a link to a story-telling page where you can share your experience either at the first conferences or other permaculture events over the years and the ways in which the events and the people you met there helped shape your lives.

        -- Mark Musick, April 3, 2021

The top photo was taken by Jan Kepley at the Maritime Permaculture Conference, May 8-10, 1981 near Corbett, Oregon. It was the masthead to the article "A Report on the Permaculture Conferences" by Mark Musick in the Summer 1981 issue of Tilth, Biological Agriculture in the Northwest, the quarterly journal of the Tilth Association which at the time had more than 1,200 members in nine local chapters throughout the Northwest.