How One Organic Farmer Fought For Her Rights—And Won
Atina Diffley is an organic farmer, a public speaker and author of the 2013 Minnesota Book Award Winner Turn Here Sweet Corn: Organic Farming Works. Her advocacy has addressed the pressures of suburban development, and she successfully led a legal and citizen campaign against the notorious polluters, Koch Industries, to create an Organic Mitigation Plan for organic farms in Minnesota.
In this episode, Atina talks about what led her to organic farming, shares her own painful stories of being forced to sell the farm that had been in her husband’s family for years and of fighting the proposed route of a crude oil pipeline through their second farm. (A long legal battle with a happy ending for organic farmers’ rights, in this case!) Atina also points out that it’s impossible to buy a “new” farm today: farms are by definition used, and they come in whatever condition their previous owner left them. To that end, Atina speaks passionately about the importance of proper stewardship of farmland—something we’re Tpretty passionate about here at Rootstock Radio too!
Tune in to hear about
What it’s like to lose land you’ve put your whole self into
What it’s like to try to reestablish healthy ecosystems on a farm that’s previously cultivated monocultures
How organizing and speaking out courageously CAN influence legislation
Ideas for farmers wanting to develop meaningful relationships with their customers
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Atina Diffley, author of the book Turn Here Sweet Corn. She is an organic consultant, an organic farmer, and an author, and a public speaker, and a trainer, and an educator. And it’s just exciting to have Atina here with us on Rootstock Radio today. Welcome, Atina.
ATINA DIFFLEY: Hi, Theresa, thanks for having me.
TM: You know, I am always just so excited when I interview women who are organic farmers. And I’m always very curious, how is it that you decided, yes, I am going to be an organic farmer?
AD: Well, I really had to feed myself. It was back in the ’70s, and when I left my parents’ home the food in the grocery store wasn’t edible, it was just flat. It didn’t have any vitality to it. So that was when I knew I had to be a farmer to feed myself, and I wanted to feed others. And then it was just a matter of figuring out how to get there and put it all together. Find land, education—the whole thing.
TM: Yeah, well, that was back in the 1970s, early? Was it 40 years ago?
AD: It was 40 years ago. Which makes us sound old, but we’re not. It’s really fun to see how much things have changed. Because I remember the first salad bar was like 1976. [You] couldn’t buy greens. So our awareness of what we wanted to eat, it was just so lacking from the culture of the United States, and now it’s everywhere. So it’s just so exciting what a group of people can accomplish and have it steamroll and take off.
TM: Well, I’m so glad that you brought that up, because you and I were contemporaries, more or less, because we’re in the ‘70s when people didn’t know what organic was. And it sounds to me that you have actually been farming organic before organic was even defined. Were you part, Atina, of that standard-setting, the definition of what organic is?
AD: Sure. You know, it was defined; it’s just that there were multiple definitions. And my partner, Martin, was part of defining it in the early ’70s for Minnesota. The Minnesota Organic Growers and Buyers Association had their set of standards, and then we were both part of the 1985 Minnesota standards. And many of your readers probably have some sense of this history, but others don’t. It’s pretty critical history that we had different standards all around the country through the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s until we got the federal standards in 2002.
That was really problematic. California, for example, was 12 months of no prohibited substances; Maine was seven years; Minnesota was in the middle at four years. So nothing could really take off. Processors couldn’t take off. You couldn’t easily feed your grain products to your neighbor’s cows if there was a different standard there. And there was a lot of confusion, so that becomes all really critical to making this whole thing happen.
TM: I’m so glad that you mentioned that you’re in Minnesota. Not only are you kind of like in the heartland, in the middle of it, it sounds like these standards were also kind of like very close to what they ended up being.
AD: When I think back to what influenced me the most in all of those years, it really goes back to when we lost our first farm to development. Because you know how we learn in like fourth grade that trees produce oxygen, and we get this little lesson on biologic diversity and ecosystem services. They didn’t use those terms when we were kids, but it wasn’t really very real to me, these regulating services and supporting services—all these services we get from the ecosystem.
So when I started farming I had all this organic ideology and belief systems, but I was kind of shocked because I thought it would be really hard. And it was hard work—you know, we planted, we weeded, we picked, all those things—but I was young, I was energetic. When I say it was really actually very easy, because we didn’t have to manage our pests and diseases very much on our first farm. It was an extremely diverse farm. It had intact ecosystems, and that was really what was managing out pests and disease, but I didn’t know it at the time because I had the ideology of organic, but I didn’t really understand how the systems worked at that time. They didn’t have much literature on it.
And it wasn’t till we lost that farm to development that I started to really understand what these ecosystem services were all about and what we were really talking about when we talked about organic. That farm was in Martin’s family since the 1850s, and it was 120 acres, just small fields popped into the valleys and on hillsides, rather than one big field dominating the landscape as many Midwestern farms do. So those sides of the fields, the hedgerows, the valleys—it was just full of the diversity that had always been there. It was still intact. And when the development situation happened, it was a nonvoluntary situation, and—
TM: So they forced you?
AD: Well, what they did was they needed 20 acres for a school, and you really can’t say no to a school. And then we thought we had the rest of the land—there was still 100 acres. Well, they brought the sewer water across the rest of the farm to serve the school. And when that happens, your land is considered more valuable because it can be developed, so you have to help pay for those services. And you don’t have to pay it until the land is sold, but “never, ever” is a really long time and a fairytale. And there was 11 percent interest against that lien, so that means every seven years it’s doubled—what you owe is doubled. So half a million becomes a million; in another seven years it’s two million; another seven years it’s four million.
So the four cousins who actually owned the land really had to make a difficult decision, and that’s how that land was eventually sold. And that meant the developer became our landlord. The farm was developed over a period of three years, so one-third, one-third, one-third. And they came in classic development style. They took every tree, every bush, every blade of grass. They sold the living topsoil. It meant that we were farming on land that was adjacent to land that had no life. Zero—no life. And we were overrun by pests, we were overrun by disease. When it would rain, there was no life to take in the water, and it just ran off and destroyed our crops.
That was a life changer for me. That’s when I went from kind of talking the talk and being idealistic to actually getting at a gut level, this really fundamental relationship that we have with nature. We really can’t survive without it, and we really take it for granted.
TM: Wow, what a lesson. Did it inspire your book?
AD: It did to some extent. When I started my book, I actually didn’t realize I was going to write that story. And when I started writing, that was what I had to write—it just poured out of me. It’s not development that is the leading cause of habitat degradation and species extinction. It’s agriculture. Thirty-nine percent of our land use is in agriculture. Seventy percent of fresh water use, agriculture. Eighty-one percent of deforestation, agriculture. Greenhouses gases, 18 to 28 percent, agriculture. We are creating these monoculture systems and it doesn’t leave room for anything else. We don’t want any pests in there, we don’t want any other crop species in there, we don’t want any other plant species in there, we don’t want any disease species in there. And we just create a raped landscape.
And then when we got to our new land, it had been—it was good black prairie loam but it had been heavily abused. So we had to set to the task of bringing the life back to this land so we could farm it, and bringing in hedgerows, bringing in other species, getting the microbial life going in the soil, et cetera, et cetera. So the reader really sees how it is, what really is the task before us. There is no new land—you don’t buy a new farm. Farms are used farms. It’s like going to a garage sale and buying something used and recognizing whatever condition it’s in and what you’re going to have to do to get it back into the condition you need it to be. That’s what farmers have to do with the land that we have, and it’s a task that all farmers have to be working towards. Whether we’re organic or not is really rather irrelevant on this matter. We have to be really cognizant of that, getting that land in shape.
TM: So, Atina, you had to probably go through a three-year transition at the time?
AD: We did three years, 36 months at that time. And you know what? We didn’t take cash crops off during that 36 months and sell them as transitional, because we did just soil building on this property for 36 months before we put a cash crop on it. Our neighbors thought we were nuts. They couldn’t figure it out, because we planted soil-building crops and then we would incorporate it. And they were like, “What, they aren’t satisfied with it? Why don’t they ever pick anything over there?” So it’s pretty funny.
TM: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio and I’m Theresa Marquez. And I’m so honored today to be talking with Atina Diffley, really letting us know about how organic farmers can be organic activists as well. And she has written a lovely book called Turn Here Sweet Corn. And if you are interested in learning more about the book and about Atina, she has a website: www.AtinaDiffley.com.
We’re so hopeful that more and more people will choose organic food. What have you seen that you think works in the marketplace to help grow the market? Why are people not choosing organic, especially with all the health consequences that we’re seeing now? I’m always so surprised that not more people are choosing organic, Atina. What do you think?
AD: Well, I think people are really confused. And I think that is the big challenge right now that farmers really have to address, is that the mainstream market has done so much greenwashing and has created quite a bit of confusion for consumers. Consumers Union did a study a few years ago and they found that more consumers think local and natural food doesn’t have chemicals for its production than organic.
So it really boils down to what’s personal for the customer. If you ask the average organic shopper, “Why do you buy organic?” what do you think they’re going to say?
TM: I know a lot of people in the milk world don’t want hormones and antibiotics.
AD: Right. So it’s all about health, it’s about their personal health. And the leading new shopper is young parents with their first baby. That’s the demographic, that’s the largest new organic shopper. So here they have this new baby and they’re suddenly aware of this precious child’s health. So that’s what organic consumers talk about. Well, you ask the average organic farmer, “Why should you buy organic?” They go into a lecture on soil microbes and mycorrhizal fungi and beneficial bacteria. They talk for 30 minutes without taking a breath.
So whatever’s personal for that customer, whether it’s food safety, whether it’s personal health, whether it’s product quality and how long it lasts in the refrigerator, they have to talk about that. And they’ve got to hit that, their product has to hit that, and their marketing has to hit that like a bull’s-eye. What is personal to this shopper? What does this shopper really care about as far as their needs and their values?
And then they have to educate on the external values. So that personal stuff, that’s the bull’s-eye, that’s the internal needs of that shopper. But then the external—that’s the environmental things, the economic and social things that is what usually farmers talk about. So that’s just one part of what farmers really have to do to develop markets and get that security so that that customer can differentiate them from the mainstream. And that’s only going to get harder. The mainstream will do a better and better job of mimicking what took 40 years to build.
But there’s another really critical role that farmers have, and that is as leaders for their customers. They are the people that are on this land. We talked earlier about how this relationship with land and the biodiversity on the land is so critical. Farmers reallly have an opportunity to educate their customers about that and to lead their customers when they have that opportunity.
We had that opportunity in 2006. We got a letter from a Koch Industries—K-O-C-H, as in our favorite Koch brothers—informing us that our farm was in the corridor for a crude oil pipeline.
TM: This was your new farm?
AD: This was our new farm, after we bought a new farm, converted it to organic, spent 15 years developing the soil, getting all that life back. It was so much more work to put that back together than when we had a farm where it just existed still.
So 2006, things were in pretty good condition, and we get this letter. And not only did they want to run a crude oil pipeline through it, but they wanted an extra six acres for a pumping station. And I’ll tell you—it’s really embarrassing the first thing I did, but it’s actually really important. They actually had sent us three letters that were all the same. I grabbed those three letters and I read them in the shop where Martin was working, and I waved those letters in his face, told him the whole story, and then I said, “You’ve got to call them up and tell them they can’t put the pipeline through here.” And he just looked at me and said, “You know, they put these things where they want. You got all the answers, you call them.”
And this is the part that’s so embarrassing, is I was really scared, and I said, “Well, they’ll listen to you better—you’re a man.” And he just laughed because he actually knows I am the better person for the job, and he said, “Ah, this one’s yours. I’ll back you, but this one’s yours.” And it was a pretty difficult moment in my life to really admit that, yeah, this is actually an opportunity.
But I got online and started reading, and they had an Agricultural Impact Mitigation plan [Agreement], which is basically the legal document that they’re supposed to follow when they install a public utility so that they come on the farmer’s land, do all their work, install their facility, and then put it all back together just like it was before, so the farmer can go back to farming it. Well, I kind of wanted to know how they were going to manage to do that because it seemed really impossible to me. So as I read the document, I came upon that they would not knowingly allow more than 12 inches of topsoil erosion. Can you imagine? Twelve inches of topsoil erosion, what that means?
That was really the moment where I got past being scared and realized that this was really an opportunity, because that’s ridiculous. And that was the beauty, Theresa, of being certified organic. I mean, I was always glad I was certified organic—it served me in many ways. We can all talk for an hour about the virtues of being certified organic and the benefits. But because I was certified organic, in a legal battle, what I had to say wasn’t hearsay in court. My farm had an Organic System Plan written; it had records to back that up, documented; it was inspected by a third party. And those documents were federally registered. And the moment that I realized what that meant in court was a pretty wonderful moment for me.
TM: Wow, that’s so good. I’m so happy to hear that.
AD: So we actually set three goals in that legal battle. We actually intervened in the legal proceeding, and we set three goals. One was that we wanted an organic farm to be recognized as a valuable natural resource, just like a wetland, because of the ecosystem services that are provided that go beyond the food produced. And we wanted them to be avoided when feasible, just like a wetland is supposed to be avoided when feasible. And if it could not be avoided, we wanted a specific mitigation plan that would address the soil and certification needs of an organic farm. And let me tell you, that doesn’t allow for 12 inches of topsoil erosion.
So those were our three goals. And the whole process was really fascinating, because what I really realized through the whole process—you know, when I started, the reason I was scared is I don’t know anything about powerlines and pipelines and legal proceedings. But I realized I don’t have to. I actually do know about organic farming, and that’s what my opportunity was.
So really, what we did was educate the Public Utilities Commission who makes these decisions. They didn’t know about organic farming. They know about legal proceedings, they know about pipelines. So we went to the legal proceeding; we brought in expert witnesses. We talked about how our farm provides these ecosystem services. We brought in data—we showed the records from 15 years of transitioning a farm to organic and how we had changed the water, how we had changed the soil. That was all very credible evidence in court.
And that was really fascinating because they wanted to learn about it. And it was really fun since then to see them making different decisions because of that education. It changed them—it changed their knowledge base.
TM: That is so excellent!
AD: So it really gave me this understanding of our role as citizens, to get engaged when we—you know, we live in a culture where we have laws, and they’re a human invention based on whatever humans believe at that time. And they have to be ever-changing because as we evolve we learn new things. Nothing is static, and that opportunity to get engaged is really critical. So it’s an area where farmers can really lead their consumers.
So we went to our customers and we said, you know, “Would you write a letter to the judge? And you don’t have to know anything about pipelines—just talk about your relationship to this farm, Gardens of Eagan, and how you would be affected if you couldn’t get food from it anymore.”
TM: So you had a lot of direct customers then that were… Did you have a CSA? They were buying directly from you?
AD: Well, we had a roadside stand, but most of our food went to the Twin Cities co-ops. And we had branded our product, and the co-ops were incredible. They got the word out to our customers and really were true partners.
These letters were amazing. Doctors wrote saying that they write prescriptions to customers, to their patients who are sick, to buy our food. People who were chemically sensitive wrote and said, “This is the only farm’s food that doesn’t make me sick.” People wrote about family reunions that they plan in the middle of August because that’s when the Gardens of Eagan sweet corn and tomatoes are ripe. They talked about four generations that have eaten food from this land. Forty-two hundred people wrote letters to that judge.
TM: That’s filling my heart.
AD: Yeah. And so they were educating the PUC right along with our organic documents and expert witness, those customers were. So it goes back to what I’m saying, that customers and farmers really have this opportunity to do it, just get engaged. And we all get so upset about stupid laws and problems in our system, but you know, it’s not that long ago that things were really bad. And we have really come a long way.
And it’s happened because so many people—hundreds of thousands of people—get engaged. Millions of people get engaged. And I think it’s just something that we really all have to carry with us, that we are up against really big issues and corporate interests. We’re not going to win this on a money matter. We’re not going to have more money than some of the things we’re fighting, but we can have more people.
TM: So what was the outcome of the legal battle, Atina?
AD: Oh, that was so fascinating, Theresa, because we accomplished not only all our goals but more. So we got the Organic Mitigation Plan accepted by the State of Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. It’s now standard practice in Minnesota that if any public utility wants to cross an organic farm, it’s recognized as a valuable natural resource that should be avoided if feasible. If it can’t be avoided, they have to follow the mitigation plan, so they are trying to avoid them. And they did avoid our farm—they went along the road, which was actually where they’re supposed to go. They’re supposed to follow existing right-of-ways.
So I want people—there’s a lot of people out there fighting situations like this. It’s a huge issue right now. And I have all of those documents that we filed posted on my website, AtinaDiffley.com, which is my name dot com, and they’re welcome to use them if they’re in any way useful to them. And other states have since copied that mitigation plan. Wisconsin is using it; Excel has used it in other states where it’s not even a state law.
But what was so wonderful is that the judge, as she added things to that routing permit that we didn’t even think of based on our testimony—for example, she said that any landowner, organic or not, farm or home, has the right to say they don’t want chemicals on their land for the pipeline maintenance. And that was unprecedented, because that’s such a big problem with those power companies. They come in and they want to spray an herbicide—it’s the easiest and cheapest way to manage that land. And when the landowner says, “Hey, I don’t want that on my land!” then the power company says, “Well then you have to mow it or do whatever you’re going to do, and it’s your problem, your cost.”
So that was a beautiful example of how all these letters people wrote and this expert witness testimony educated the judge, and now she made better decisions moving forward. So, people, people, write those letters! I know sometimes you feel powerless. You’re not. It just takes a lot of letters, a lot of them tied together. And it’s an education process.
TM: What a beautiful story, Atina. And I want to also add, women have a really great place in the world for changing things. I think that you’re such a great model and example of that.
You know, Atina, you were so lucky that you have this real direct connection with consumers and, of course, with the Twin City co-ops, which are a fantastic group. But a lot of farmers, even organic farmers now, sell to a distributor—they don’t have that connection. Do you know of other ways that those farmers could potentially do a better job of getting out there and telling that story?
AD: Yeah, I do think it’s really critical that farms, wherever they’re selling, develop a brand identity. I’m thinking of T&D Willey, Theresa [Tom] and Denesse Willey. It’s a California farm, been around forever—probably 40 years, I’m guessing. But back in the ’80s they were shipping produce that would come into Minnesota from California in the middle of winter, and they would put a note, a little note inside of each box. It was so personal.
Those produce workers in Minnesota would open those boxes up to stock them, and there would be a little hand-written note. It would be just a little, couple words, little saying, or some little poem they wrote or something they saw in the field. But it was a fascinating way that they were developing relationships with people they never met. And it was very effective.
TM: That is a very good idea.
AD: So that is really what it boils down to. These relationships are really critical, and finding ways to develop that relationship with whoever you’re selling to. So if you think about, even our farm, most of our product is actually going out wholesale to these stores. And we really recognize that that buyer who bought our produce and stocked it on their shelves and sold it was our partner. And they did their role, we did our role. And we co-market it so that they were using our farm to differentiate. How could they be different and better than other grocery options?
And that’s a really big deal now, because the mainstream has embraced all the packaged product that’s sold organic. They have that stuff and they have it for cheaper. So how can these alternative stores that really do support small and midsize farms, how do they differentiate is by having a relationship with a small farm that a mainstream store can’t have. So, understanding with partners and whoever that customer is, whether someone’s a large farm or a small farm, but finding that way to create those relationships will be really critical.
TM: So it sounds to me, Atina, that you have been having a life of both a pioneer, a visionary. And, you know, for our listeners, if you’re driving through rural America and you see a sign that says, “Turn Here, Sweet Corn,” it’s probably not a bad idea to do that.
Well, I want to congratulate you and Martin both for a wonderful organic life and all the good things that you’ve brought to the organic industry. It’s a real pleasure to talk with you today, Atina. Thank you so much.
AD: Thank you, Theresa.
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