Minnesota organic farmer shares experiences

Author Atina Diffley to hold book signing May 19

For over 30 years, Atina Diffley and her husband Martin owned and operated Gardens of Eagan, one of the first certified organic produce farms in the Midwest.

Martin and Atina Diffley

Now the organic vegetable farmer educates consumers, farmers and policymakers about organic farming through her consulting business Organic Farming Works.

Diffley shares her experiences through her new memoir, Turn Here Sweet Corn: Organic Farming Works. The University of Minnesota Press author will be in Cambridge on Saturday, May 19, at 11 a.m. for a talk and book signing at Scout & Morgan Books.

“It’s really about empowerment and relationships and renewability of life itself, of weather, plants, animals and humans,” she said. “It’s about life, about relationships between animals and plants and people.”

Readers experience the loss of the family-run farm; the way the farm is stripped of all life in its development, with trees removed, topsoil shaved off and the land reshaped. In 1991, the Diffleys bought their own land and spent 36 months transitioning the land to an organic system.

Organic farming is key to our future and is crucial for several reasons, Diffley said. Fertility, pest and disease management are based on working with life forms, rather than bringing in off-farm synthetic input. Without pesticides and herbicides, she added, people need not worry about consuming toxic chemicals.

Organic systems use about a third of the energy as conventional farming.

“As we look into the future and start to develop more renewable systems, it’s crucial for long-term sustainability,” she said.

And organic farming focuses on soil building and crop covering, Diffley said, explaining that farmers will grow plants other than the cash crop, which creates fertility and protects the soil by bringing in nutrients through growing plants.

“Drought proofing of soil is really crucial, and organic farming adds more carbon to the soil,” she said. “Research is showing that organic systems have higher yields in droughts.”

Diffley goes on to explain that pesticides work by killing species, which throws nature out of balance.

“If you think about what pesticides are, they’re poison to life,” she said. “They really throw an ecosystem into chaos, both through poisoning of different species, but also by killing the species that is the food for another species. It’s a really vicious chain.”

Most approved chemicals have not been tested for affects on humans, she added.

“That’s the beauty of organic systems; they’re looking at the whole cycle of life,” Diffley said. “We actually want to have some pests in our system, or we don’t have anything for our beneficial species to eat.”

For instance, a disease on winter squash called zucchini mosaic is spread by the insects aphids. It’s not the aphids the organic farmer minds—they just need to prevent them from spreading the disease.

The solution Diffley found successful was planting wheat around the squash field to clean off the disease from the aphids.

Atina Diffley

“We’re creating ecosystems where we look at the relationship between all different species and look at that chain of life,” she said. “If we poison the lives we’re living with, we’re poisoning ourselves.”

As these systems become more the mainstream, organic produce will become more affordable so it’s less of a specialty crop. One of the biggest barriers is that the first three to five years are difficult for farmers as they transition their land.

“The farmer no longer has the chemical tools, but they also don’t have the life system yet, and that takes time to build, so the transition period is really difficult,” Diffley said.

In Turn Here Sweet Corn, the story really comes to life through its characters and their struggles.

In 2006, Diffley gained local attention when she successfully fought Koch Industries, preventing them from putting a crude oil line through the farm property and proving in court that organic farms deserve legal protection.

More than 4,500 letters of support poured in during the legal battle. Today, new policies exist for placing pipelines through organic farms.

Readers face their own belief in stereotypes, such as one Diffley herself grew up with that farmers are not intelligent.

“I really work on bringing the reader into the story emotionally so they feel the characters and take them through all the experiences we went through,” she said.

Diffley also hopes the story will be a source of strength for women, as a main theme from a female farmer’s perspective is power and respect for women.

“Writing was so healing. It allowed me to look at many painful or wonderful experiences I had and see how clearly I came through them and am so strong from them,” she said. “Bad things happen, but I came through just fine, so it’s about resiliency.”

Diffley said she hopes the book will help educate readers about organic farming, bringing it into their consciousness by starting a conversation around land use.

“Through my experiences I really understood, on a really deep level, how profoundly dependent all life is on nature,” Diffley said. “We take it for granted because we don’t see it in our everyday lives, and here we were seeing it directly head-on.”

For more information, visit www.atinadiffley.com.