BY ATINA DIFFLEY
As a child growing up in a family that grew or wild crafted many of our fruits and vegetables, I experienced nature’s inherent resiliency through the annual cycle of life and death—the recycling and renewing of nature.
Our spring ritual was following Dad, our feet bare, stepping into his big prints as he steered the rototiller. Birds hopped around us pulling worms, fresh earth spilled the first smells of life. I thought this was how the world worked. Everyone grew food to eat. My favorite thing in the entire world was rain. When I sensed it coming I would go out and lie faceup on the open ground beside the lilacs, close my eyes, and hum. Then it was like God just reached down and touched my skin. I knew about nature and life without having to ask.
As I became an adult— I could see this basic truth in nature and in others; yet somehow I didn’t notice my own resiliency. Bad things do happen in life and I’ve always recovered, always come back even stronger. My roots are deep in fertile soil.
It took writing my memoir, Turn Here Sweet Corn, for me to see it.
The Gardens of Eagan
I started farming with my husband Martin as partners in his business, the Gardens of Eagan. The multi-generation Diffley family land still had intact eco-systems; wild hills with vegetables nestled in the fertile valleys. Much of the land was in grass, native herbaceous plants, mixed hardwood trees, and brush. Berry brambles, hawthorns, plums, flowers, and chokecherries filled any niche. Wild flowers provided pollen and nectar for beneficial insects and native pollinators. Our fertility needs were met by incorporating soil-building plants. Pests and crop disease were largely managed by rotation and the diversity of the ecosystem.
Soon we had a 5th generation, our two children, growing up in the heart of our business—working and playing in the fields, at our roadside stand. They knew what we valued and how we earned our money. The land was their school and sanctuary; it was there they experienced creation in the making. We were not only a farm family. We were a family farming.
There was just one problem. The city of Eagan had not left any land zoned for agriculture and the day came when the school district asked for twenty acres. Sewer and water crossed the farm to serve the school—bringing assessments—forcing the sale of the rest of the land for housing.
All life—the trees and grass, flowers and forbs, the fruit and bushes—was torn out; then burned or buried. Even the living topsoil was scrapped into a pile and sold. The remaining subsoil was flattened and reshaped—1980s style development.
We continued to farm on adjacent land that had not yet been bulldozed, but rain could not soak in—there was no life to hold water—and it ran-off into our fields. Our crops were covered with silt and gravel. Pests and disease, previously a non-issue, became a loosing battle. There was no habitat or food for beneficial insects, for birds, frogs, and spiders—consumers of multiple pest species—our allies disappeared.
It was through this loss that I understood how utterly dependent humans are on a healthy relationship with nature. I committed to protect land and nature through my farming decisions.
Fortunately, we found a way to purchase our own land and begin anew, using organic practices of renewability to transition the land and prepare it for vegetable production. We’ve experienced success as organic farmers with high yields of quality produce, and stability in the market. Through it all the lesson of the bulldozers has been a constant guide in our decision-making.
It is relationships that carry us through life’s challenges, healthy relationships with the earth, plants and animals, family and community, with each other—because like nature: none of us live in a void.
Eminent Domain Threat
Relationship was the ultimate lesson in 2006 when our second farm was threatened by eminent domain for a crude oil pipeline owned by Koch Industries.
Martin and I intervened as parties to the legal proceeding and brought in expert witnesses, demonstrating that organic farming systems work by fostering healthy relationships with soil life and the species on the land. The customers we had fed for decades wrote letters to the judge—over 4,200 letters—insisting: Gardens of Eagan must be protected; we rely on this farm for our food.
And we succeeded. The pipeline was moved to the road right-a-way, and the state of Minnesota now has an Organic Mitigation Plan to protect the soil and certification of organic farms.
Each of us has a relationship with nature through the land that feeds us. I encourage you to love and protect its resiliency by supporting renewable organic systems. Grow your own, or buy direct from organic farms or grocers who purchase organic. Speak to your legislators about agricultural policy.
Support resiliency: yours and the earths. They are inseparable.
A master class in organic farming, a lesson in entrepreneurship, a love story, and a legal thriller… In telling her story of working the land, Atina Diffley reminds us that we live in relationships—with the earth, plants and animals, families and communities. A memoir of making these essential relationships work in the face of challenges from weather to corporate politics, this is a firsthand history of getting in at the “ground level” of organic farming.
When the hail starts to fall, Atina Diffley doesn’t compare it to golf balls. She’s a farmer. It’s “as big as a B-size potato.” As her bombarded land turns white, she and her husband Martin huddle under a blanket and reminisce: the one-hundred-mile-per-hour winds; the eleven-inch rainfall (“that broccoli turned out gorgeous”); the hail disaster of 1977. The romance of farming washed away a long time ago, but the love? Never. In telling her story of working the land, coaxing good food from the fertile soil, Atina Diffley reminds us of an ultimate truth: we live in relationships—with the earth, plants and animals, families and communities.
A memoir of making these essential relationships work in the face of challenges as natural as weather and as unnatural as corporate politics, her book is a firsthand history of getting in at the “ground level” of organic farming. One of the first certified organic produce farms in the Midwest, the Diffleys’ Gardens of Eagan helped to usher in a new kind of green revolution in the heart of America’s farmland, supplying their roadside stand and a growing number of local food co-ops. This is a story of a world transformed—and reclaimed—one square acre at a time.
And yet, after surviving punishing storms and the devastating loss of fifth-generation Diffley family land to suburban development, the Diffleys faced the ultimate challenge: the threat of eminent domain for a crude oil pipeline proposed by one of the largest privately owned companies in the world, notorious polluters Koch Industries. As Atina Diffley tells her David-versus-Goliath tale, she gives readers everything from expert instruction in organic farming to an entrepreneur’s manual on how to grow a business to a legal thriller about battling corporate arrogance to a love story about a single mother falling for a good, big-hearted man.