Author shares information on organic farming,
preserving the land during visit to Chatfield
Wednesday, October 16, 2013 6:05 AM
"My earliest memory was of being in the garden, my feet bare and stepping in my father's footprints as he steered the roto-tiller," said organic farmer and author Atina Diffley, addressing a gathering of listeners in Chatfield on Thursday, Oct. 3.
GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/CHATFIELD NEWS
Author Atina Diffley speaks to an audience last Thursday evening as part of a program sponsored by the Chatfield Public Library.
"At that point in my life, my favorite thing was rain. If I sensed that it was going to rain, I would run out to the garden and put my back to the soil...the rain coming down was God speaking to me," she continued.
Diffley appeared in Chatfield during her author visit to share about her book "Turn Here, Sweet Corn" at the Chatfield Center for the Arts, sponsored by the Chatfield Public Library and Southeast Libraries Cooperating (SELCO).
"I didn't question the relationship I had with the soil. When I was young, I said I wanted to grow up to be either a farmer or a bum, because I had this idea that farming was easy, and that being a bum, you could jump over fences and just take shiny tomatoes whenever you wanted," Diffley said.
At that time, she continued, farmers were considered dirty. They weren't the salt of the earth, so her family tolerated her saying that, but they were not excited about it.
"I grew up and moved to Milwaukee and the food I found there had no life in it, so my only choice was to grow my food...I faced the same challenges farmers face - access to land, prices going up," she said.
Diffley eventually became a migrant worker and became known as the "Florida tangerine queen" because she had such nimble fingers and could pick so quickly.
"I also worked as a produce manager in a grocery store. But one day, I was driving along, and there was a sign that said 'turn here, sweet corn.' I turned in, got out, and it was everything I was looking for...and there was a really handsome farmer there, too," she added.
Diffley eventually began farming and a marriage with that farmer, Martin Diffley. "I was really young, and there were words I didn't know, like 'biodiversity.' My husband was the fourth generation on that farm, as if the land had come handed down with a farm manual. As an organic farmer, we were using biodiversity - the fertility, pest and disease management were managed by the diversity of the land. I thought farming was easy."
She told how she and Martin, their daughter Eliza and son Maize, were "a family farming, not just a farm family," until the city of Eagan decided it was time to build a new school.
"The city of Eagan didn't recognize agricultural land as something of value, and they needed 20 acres...we knew we'd be adjoining, and there were water mains to be installed, making way for other development," Diffley explained. "That meant that there were liens and assessments at 11 percent interest...a ticking time bomb, even though the amount didn't have to be paid until the farm was sold. It multiplied every day...that puts a family in a really difficult situation."
The Diffleys were allowed to continue farming their land until the school was developed. "It took three years, and when they came, they took every tree, blade of grass...they even removed the topsoil and sold it. We experienced a complete ecological collapse. The fields were removed by pests and disease, and the rain would run off, burying the crops in soil," Diffley recalled sadly. "I learned about ecosystems in fifth grade - rather simply - but it wasn't until I experienced this that I fully understood. And my son and daughter witnessed it on a spiritual level."
She recounted how Eliza refused to come out of the house, and how Maize misbehaved because he no longer had his woods and fields to wander.
"It was more profound than witnessing the ecological collapse. Maize went to the edge of the field, his toes on the line between the green and the void, and he began kicking and screaming at the void because his world was now gone. He was cut off from farming. He actually became violent, really. What was his life and world was now just his parents' job. We were still a farm family, but we were no longer a family farming."
Diffley pointed out that it's easy to see the loss of habitat, but it's actually agriculture that causes the majority of the loss. "Twenty-four percent of greenhouse gases are caused by fossil-fueled agriculture...monocultural crop farming isn't sustainable," she explained. "There's a decision every single one of us makes every time we eat. It's really important to recognize this as a social movement because we're all in this together."
She observed that each year, 1.1 billion pounds of chemicals are sprayed on fields, that "over 80,000 chemicals are being used but only a fraction of them are being tested," and that migrant workers' children are the ones who suffer through birth defects. "That's a really expensive price to pay."
Instead of focusing on problems, Diffley has chosen to focus on solutions, and she encouraged others to do so, too.
"Organic farming 100 acres is the equivalent of taking 117 cars off the road each year. Organic farms are more resilient and more drought-resistant than monoculturally-farmed land because the organic matter in the soil holds the rain and topsoil."
The Diffley family searched for a new farm to plant and nurture, but they also farmed on 18 different acreages in the meantime, trying to sustain their livelihood and feed the people who depended on them for produce.
"In 1991, we found our new farm, and we knew the first thing we would have to do is return life to both the topsoil and above ground. We had a plan to address water flow, soil building and biodiversity," she said. "I used to think it was easy, but it's a lot of work to bring life to a place that's been abused. In 2005, we had significantly changed this piece of land since we'd bought it, and we were doing our evaluation of the last season, coming up with the question about how much goodwill we'd done - what it means in terms of food. I figured out that we'd grown approximately 3 million servings of food off our farm, feeding people fundamental food, back where I started as a child, feeling satisfaction with being in the garden."
Shortly thereafter, the family received three letters from what Diffley thought might be a food shelf, but upon opening them, she discovered they were from Koch Industries, "the second largest privately owned company in the world," demanding the Diffleys allow an oil pipeline to be built on their farm.
She made a phone call to the company, receiving a response as brazen as the letters.
"The lady on the other end said, 'It doesn't really matter if your farm is organic. We put pipelines where we want to. You'll just have to call the judge.' I started doing research and found out that what they called an 'agricultural mitigation plan' wasn't going to take apart my land and put it back the way it was before," Diffley shared. "It stated that they would not 'knowingly cause erosion of more than 12 inches of topsoil.' I'm an organic farmer, and I knew what that meant. I got on the phone and started calling eminent domain lawyers. Every one of them said they had a conflict of interest, so I called an environmental lawyer. The first conversation we had, she asked if we could stop Koch altogether. In order to stop the pipeline altogether, we would have to show that society didn't need oil, and we had to work to move the pipeline across the road, protect the topsoil and maintain the organic certification of the farm."
The Diffleys were given a hard-won but deserved victory when the judge ruled that Koch Industries had no right to interrupt their farming operation because it was a natural resource upon which 60,000 people depended for their organic produce.
"We were showing that organic farming is a natural resource, and we'd kept really good records, so we could prove in a court of law that the soil had changed from the time we bought the farm," Diffley said. "You could see the difference. The key to our success was all the years of goodwill in feeding people...4,600 people wrote letters to the judge, talked about the relationship with the land that fed them, that they cared for its wellness. These were doctors, scientists, mothers who wanted their children to eat well. What I found funny was that the judge had to read 4,600 letters, but that's when I realized that I was an educator."
Diffley encouraged the audience to give thought to their food and where it comes from, noting that local organic farmers were in attendance and available to share information about their farms and food.
"I ask everyone to eat, relate and advocate. Pick one issue to change. Support these farms. It really makes a difference to be part of the educational process, to relate with others, to advocate," she said. "Advocating is key. Minnesota's legislation is working on the right to know if food is genetically modified. In fact, the judge recommended everything we were asking, and she even created a registry for organic farms. Even if you don't always succeed, keep trying."
Diffley closed her presentation by taking questions from the audience, including how to address the issue of silica sand mining in the area and its effects on the environment and agriculture.
She answered, "Write a really honest assessment of what the damage will be. When I started writing about our farm and why the pipeline shouldn't go through the Gardens of Eagan, I spent three hours and had a 16-page document. I didn't know it would be, but it was."
Diffley shared that she and Martin are currently working on willing their farm to a conservation trust and that their children, who "eventually reattached" to the land, are pleased they are doing so.
"My grandson wants to know where the well is, where the water lines are. I like that," she concluded.