Atina Diffley: A Woman Farmer’s Empowering Life Story

20 May, 2012

If Atina Diffley’s life could be briefly expressed, it might be said that she has triumphed over adversity throughout the years. She overcame an abusive marriage. She and her second (and current) husband prevailed over the many odds against becoming successful organic farmers—long before its benefits were generally recognized. Together they managed to stop one of the world’s largest companies from running an oil pipeline directly across their land, and in doing so laid a successful defensive foundation for many organic farmers to come. And through the telling of her story in her new book, Turn Here Sweet Corn: Organic Farming Works, Atina is communicating her many practical, farming, and life lessons learned—with heart, depth, humor, and a true gift for words.

Her book’s title comes from the sign Atina saw at the side of a road, which pointed to the produce stand being operated by the man who would become her second husband.

“Martin was fourth generation on a family farm, and the family had never used chemicals,” Atina told Organic Connections. “After the Second World War, there was a whole run-up of wheat prices, and other farmers started commodity cropping and putting everything into wheat. Martin’s family were leaders in his community and around the township and were very strong-minded. They rejected chemical and commodity farming. They always had direct-market relationships, being close to the Twin Cities, and weren’t interested in any kind of farming that didn’t involve that.

“As Martin was growing up, he had all these vegetable farmers as his neighbors. He grew up working for those neighbors and learning from them. He really loved these old-timers and, as a child, recognized their value. He was probably pretty unusual. He collected all their stories and information.”

Once Atina and Martin married, they faced many odds—not the least of which was that organic as a descriptive and operating term was relatively unknown. “I remember in the eighties when there would be an article in the paper about ‘organic’ that it was a big deal,” Atina said. “We’d all call each other up—there were maybe only eight of us—and make sure that each of us saw it because it was just so rare. We weren’t making money in the seventies or in the eighties because there really wasn’t an organic market. We could grow a crop—we knew we had that part down—but the market simply wasn’t developed. We had a roadside stand, and people really came in originally because it was local and fresh, and was convenient.

“Every customer had to be educated. Our sign said Organic but I didn’t talk about it. Usually two or three or four visits in they’d say, ‘You know, this is the best food I’ve ever eaten! What do you do?’ Then we’d have the whole summer to talk about it. In fall they’d sort of realize, ‘Oh, this is seasonal and winter’s coming in! What am I going to eat?’ Then I would educate them about the food co-ops, because we had so many food co-ops here in Minneapolis–Saint Paul.”

Due to circumstances beyond their control, Atina and Martin eventually had to give up the land that Martin’s family had farmed for generations. One realization that came from this was the recognition of just how valuable that land had been. “When we were farming there, I thought farming was so easy, because it was a diverse piece of land,” Atina recalled. “It still had an intact ecosystem. Our pests and diseases were largely managed by the diversity of the habitat and the biological life that was there. Our fertility was managed by rotating the crops and protecting the soil.

“When the land was developed, which took a period of five years, they came in and took out every tree, every bush, every fruit, every blade of grass. The wildlife all left. They even bulldozed the living soil and sold it. We continued to farm immediately adjacent to that land, and we went from having our diseases, pests, and everything managed largely by the diversity of the habitat into complete ecological collapse. We lost crop after crop to those sorts of issues. It became very obvious to me how utterly dependent we are on biological diversity.”

Throughout it all, Atina learned a critical lesson: “I don’t think it does any good to blame,” said Atina. “When we blame, we play victim, and when we play victim, we become helpless. That was one of the messages that I wanted to send in the book. It’s why I included my first marriage story, because I was in a situation where I played victim, and when I did that I was powerless. I didn’t get out of a violent marriage until I stopped thinking like that. People get so discouraged about all the environmental issues, and they give up because they feel powerless and they feel like the corporations are so big and there’s nothing they can do. That’s why I wanted to show the change in my character through the book.”

The Diffleys managed to find some great land elsewhere on which to farm, which they happily did, and were finally doing well. But then in 2006 the outside world intruded once again. A corporation called Koch Industries, working through laws that would compel the Diffleys to comply, was threatening to run a crude oil pipeline across their land. A legal proceeding ensued in which the Diffleys were parties.

“Koch Industries is the largest privately owned company in the world,” Atina said. “They certainly had the money, but I had the people on my side. I had over 4,500 people who wrote letters to the judge for our farm. We were able not only to protect this little farm, but we were able to write an Organic Mitigation Plan for the state of Minnesota that spells out how to protect the soils.” Now any organic farmer can utilize the information from this case, and the plan itself, to thwart such future efforts by oil, electric, or utility companies.

Today, the Diffleys have sold the farm name and operation. They still live on the land but wanted to pursue many other interests they have had for years. “We just really got to a point where we wanted to do other things with our lives,” Atina explained. “We love farming, but it’s intense and it didn’t leave time for these other parts of ourselves. So we sold our business name, because it was a branded farm, and sold our equipment. We still have our land and do some seed breeding right now, which is very exciting. We also work with beginning farmers, doing training with regard to marketing, food safety, and decision making.”

With the publication of Atina’s book, she has come full circle: all those many hard years with lessons learned can now be shared with others. It is well worth the read.

Turn Here Sweet Corn: Organic Farming Works by Atina Diffley can be purchased through the Organic Connections bookstore.

For further information on Atina and Martin Diffley, their consulting and many other activities, visit www.organicfarmingworks.com.

You can read more of Atina Diffley’s work, including her blog, at www.atinadiffley.com.

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