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Part II: Atina Diffley
Atina Diffley is an organic vegetable farmer who now educates consumers, farmers, and policymakers about organic farming through the consulting business Organic Farming Works LLC, owned by her and her husband, Martin. From 1973 through 2007, the Diffleys owned and operated Gardens of Eagan, one of the first certified organic produce farms in the Midwest. To contact Atina or Martin Diffley, visit www.organicfarmingworks.com.
Hello I’m Caryn Hartglass and you’re listening to It’s All About Food. Hi and Happy April. It is April. I think it’s my favorite month. Not just because it’s spring but because I was born in the month of April and I’m celebrating my birthday all month. I was fortunate to be born on Earth Day, April 22nd and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I really care about the planet, our home, planet Earth and how important it is to nurture and appreciate the planet and everything that we get from it that nurtures us. We’re going to be talking a little bit about that. We’re going to be talking about organic farming in just a moment but what’s so wonderful about spring if you’re in New York at this time, or anywhere else in the world where you’re experiencing spring, it’s when new life becomes so apparent, all the lovely green buds on the trees and sprouts coming out of the earth all around us and in some places no matter how we try we can’t stop it, even if we want to. It’s really a beautiful magical thing and I really appreciate those who have a great respect for the earth and take care of it and do great things with it and that’s why we’re going to be talking to Atina Diffley today who is the author of a lovely new book, Turn Here Sweet Corn, Organic Farming Works. She is an organic vegetable farmer who educates consumers, farmers and policymakers about organic farming through the consulting business Organic Farming Works LLC which she owns with her husband Martin. From 1973 through 2007 the Diffleys owned and operated Gardens of Eagan, one of the first certified organic produce farms in the Midwest. They have a website organicfarmingworks.com.
CARYN HARTGLASS: Welcome to It’s All About Food, Atina.
ATINA DIFFLEY: Hi, thanks for having me.
CARYN HARTGLASS: I am so excited to be talking to you, you have no idea. I loved, loved, loved, your book. I just read it this week. It’s beautiful.
ATINA DIFFLEY: Thanks, I put my heart into it.
CARYN HARTGLASS: That’s very apparent. Your heart is all over this book and so we’re going to talk about some of it. One of the things that really amazed me is what an excellent writer you are. Usually when someone has a story like yours to tell they get someone else to tell it. Were you journaling all along during your period as a farmer?
ATINA DIFFLEY: I’ve always journaled but I never had edited by writing before. It was always raw because I never had time when I was running a farm. So I wrote a lot while I was taking produce orders on the phone. The produce buyer would say something I thought was interesting. I would sit and write about it while we talked. But I never put anything together before.
CARYN HARTGLASS: One of the interesting things I found about your style of writing is the presence of time and how time progresses because there are paragraphs that jumped from one time to much later and there’s no real apparent mention of how much time has passed and I appreciate that. I don’t normally feel that in a book. It kind of gave me this feeling of continuity about how time marches on and somehow the days pass and so many are like so many of the others and things move on.
ATINA DIFFLEY: I think time is very relevant to life on the planet. As a farmer we see time in an annual basis and we see life on an annual level. As vegetable farmers we see that whole cycle—birth to growth to death in six short months. So we have so many opportunities to really reflect on life and what it means and how it comes and goes and the renewability of it. It creates a different sense of time.
CARYN HARTGLASS: There’s a lot of things I loved about this book. The first thing I want to mention is all of the art that’s in it that you mention. So you’re not just farming which is very, very difficult physical work but there’s art to it, there’s love to it and I loved that you named your son Camille Maize after the artist Pissarro, who I love, who has painted some really majestic landscapes.
ATINA DIFFLEY: Camille Pissarro painted the Parisian suburbs before they became suburbs when they were still market gardens. And that’s really why we gave our son the name Camille because he was the last Diffley born on our family land, the fifth generation before it was bulldozed for suburban development.
CARYN HARTGLASS: It’s a very sad compelling story. I’m not really sure how it could be done differently other than planned urban areas for people to live in and then leaving the farmlands alone to do what they need to do.
ATINA DIFFLEY: I think we really have to have some serious thought put into where our food is coming from. Every single community in the world can have its fresh food grown right there in the community. It doesn’t take a lot of land to grow fresh fruits and vegetables. So that can happen right in the community as we were doing in Eagan before we were developed out. In the city of Eagan there was no land left for agricultural purposes. That was really a loss.
CARYN HARTGLASS: We definitely need to rethink the way we think about food on so many levels and we need to give organic farming our 110% support. Unfortunately we have corporations that are taking over our food production. One thing that drives me crazy is when we call industrial food, or industrial farming, conventional. There is nothing conventional about it. You have a great paragraph in this book when you talk about certified organic. It sums it up in a nutshell and it’s so important. You write here “I explain soil building, rotation and biological diversity, beneficial insects, no chemical pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, 36 months compliance with Minnesota organic standards.” All of this is very complicated, very specific. How difficult is it to get organic certification?
ATINA DIFFLEY: It’s not hard to be an organic farmer but it’s knowledge based. It’s not a matter of input substitution and just using different products. All of our systems are really based on understanding our relationship with ecosystems and how they affect our pests and disease and fertility. The act of doing that isn’t onerous it’s just a matter of understanding basic knowledge. The certification process itself, it’s really quite well structured because the farmer basically has to keep the records, track what they’re doing, make sure they’re in compliance with the organic system, write a system plan and go through the certification process.
CARYN HARTGLASS: How do you feel about the farmers that don’t go through the certification process for lots of different reasons?
ATINA DIFFLEY: I think they’re missing a really valuable opportunity and I’m going to say that for two reasons. One, certification protects the farmer and when you read my book that becomes really obvious when we had to fight the Koch Brothers who wanted to eminent-domain our second farm for a crude oil pipeline. One of the main reasons we were able to win in a major court of law against someone as powerful as the Koch Brothers, the largest privately-owned company in the world, is because we were certified organic. Because we had an organic system plan which is part of that certification process. It is actually a federally registered document, admissible in a court of law. So it wasn’t hearsay that we farm a certain way, we had the evidence. We’ve seen organic certification protect farms in Minnesota when they had drift issues. It helped them in a court of law settle those cases. So that’s one reason. It provides credible protection for the farmer which they won’t have without the certification. The other reason that I think it is so crucial is it’s the only way the USDA can truly count how many farms are organic. It is absolutely crucial that we make a very strong statement to the USDA that organic farming systems work–that farmers are doing it and that consumers are demanding it. That’s a big part of changing the system and getting the USDA on board with funds for research and for cost-share programs and all the other policy changes that really do make a difference in helping farmers to change their broke systems. So it’s a commitment to the movement and to having this whole process move forward.
CARYN HARTGLASS: I appreciate that. I really appreciate that explanation that you went into because I’ve heard so many different opinions and I know that a lot of different farmers struggle with the thought of going through certification and I agree. I think it’s important on many levels.
ATINA DIFFLEY: You know some people are concerned about the paperwork. I feel strongly that any paperwork you keep for certification you really need to keep anyways to be a quality farmer. You need really good records. So those papers need to be kept anyways. People should be really aware that there is a cost share program and it pays up to 75% of the certification costs up to $750. So that will actually cover the majority of a farmer’s cost. If they are a small farmer they shouldn’t have more than a few hundred dollars beyond that.
CARYN HARTGLASS: That’s very good to know and I’m going to share that information. Thank you.
ATINA DIFFLEY: And then of course it helps them in the marketplace. If there is a certified organic grower and the consumer wants organic they generally will pick that first.
CARYN HARTGLASS: You have so many wonderful stories in this book. Maybe you could retell a couple of them that I really enjoyed. One was where you have this problem in one field…or was it in your greenhouse…with aphids.
ATINA DIFFLEY: Oh yeah. It’s a really great example of how organic farming systems work. We had an aphid infestation in our greenhouse which is actually very rare. I’ve only had that happen to me one time in 25 years. We had a pest in the greenhouse. My first thought when I saw them was I wonder if I used a little too much nitrogen in the mix in my compost. Because when you have excess nitrogen it makes the cells grow really fast in the plant and then they’re thinner and it’s easier for the aphids and attracts them so that was my first suspicion. My second thought was I had just that morning seen in the vetch field, the hairy vetch field, that it was full of ladybug larvae and I know that ladybugs love aphids. It was simple matter load up the pepper plants on a haywagon and drive them out to the hairy vetch field and leave them there for the day. When I came back in the evening those plants were covered with ladybugs and not aphids, they had consumed them all. The problem was solved. That’s pretty classic of how organic farming systems work, where we’re really working with biologic balance to manage the pest and disease.
CARYN HARTGLASS: I think unfortunately in industrial farming they try more and more to take people out of the equation and we really need people in the equation. Maybe those fields need to be smaller and more manageable so more people can get involved and really pay attention at—not quite a microscopic level—but at the detail level where they can really see what’s going on.
ATINA DIFFLEY: You know that example I just gave you is a really good example of present time. Because to some people it may look like we spent a lot of labor loading those plants and moving them out to the field and it might have been easier to just use a chemical pesticide to manage those aphids but we were really using present labor and present energy and present time in that right in that moment we were doing that task. Where if we had used a pesticide we’re actually using the stored time and the stored energy of fossil fuels. So it’s actually a much more expensive use of time. But it’s not as obvious to us in our society because right now we’re still putting such a low value on those inputs. And then we’re also affecting the future when we use those pesticides by bringing a pesticide into the environment that’s going to affect all the other species and the health of the people involved. It really becomes much more expensive. When you look at it that way it starts to really make sense why these systems are so crucial for the planet.
CARYN HARTGLASS: Absolutely and we need not to lose this knowledge for the few that still have it.
ATINA DIFFLEY: This is why I wrote up the loss of the first farm to the suburban development…as strongly as I did because what I learned in that experience when our first farm was bulldozed was I understood ecosystem services in and the ecosystems benefits we get that we take so for granted. It doesn’t mean we have to preserve every single tree or every single plant. That’s not realistic. What I saw happen there when they took that farm they removed every tree and every plant, everything living including the topsoil. What happened was ecological collapse. We were continuing to farm immediately adjacent to this land that had been completely raped on everything living…
CARYN HARTGLASS: That’s the word “raped”. Definitely.
ATINA DIFFLEY: We couldn’t farm because without the adjoining life we had no pest control, we had no birds to eat the insects, we had nothing alive in the soil to hold rain when it fell. We had terrible erosion. It was so obvious to me what we get from nature when I saw nature stripped. As dramatic as those scenes are in my book, it’s even more important to realize that agriculture is the leading cause of habitat degradation and species extinction not development. So we can see it so obviously when it’s development. They are just taking everything away. But the agricultural systems that we are now using with monocultures and large amounts of one form of life are actually causing far more harm.
CARYN HARTGLASS: There was another story that I liked about how you sat in a new field of freshly planted lettuce, …arugula I think it was…and in a meditation gave your wish to the deer not to come and eat. It’s something that worked one time but maybe didn’t work later on. But I loved that.
ATINA DIFFLEY: I actually have a lot of stories similar to that I couldn’t put in the book. I could have written an encyclopedia. I had to choose stories carefully. It is a practice I’ve always had because everything we do affects nature so we might as well ask nature how it feels about it. Whenever I’ve had a problem on the farm or some information I needed, I do go out and ask the plants. I am amazed at how often I receive an answer. It sounds a little “woowoo-ish” but it is where the information is coming from.
CARYN HARTGLASS: You know whether or not they are really communicating to you, that presence, being there and not being arrogant about thinking that you have all the answers.
ATINA DIFFLEY: It’s kind of going in there and watching the plants.
CARYN HARTGLASS: There’s a practice, I forget what it’s called right now, where people go into the fields and ask the plants when they need to be watered. Are you familiar with that?
ATINA DIFFLEY: I haven’t read about it but it makes sense.
CARYN HARTGLASS: Because the plants seem to know when they need whatever they need.
ATINA DIFFLEY: Different crops really have different water needs. … I really try to think about everything that’s going on with a plant. Where its roots are, how deep they are, what type of rooting system they have, is it wide, is it deep, are they fat roots, do they have a lot of fine hair roots. Then I like to think a lot about where the fruit is. The fruit production gives me a lot of information about what the plants’ water needs are. I think you said this very well earlier, whether that information is coming from the plant or not, just going in there and being quiet and listening and paying attention is really an important part of getting all that information.
CARYN HARTGLASS: I’ve read that different organic farmers have different techniques where they might go in and look at different trees and see what’s happening and actually if they see a mild infestation they will manually pick off bugs and take care of them as needed, where needed, and it works on a small scale.
ATINA DIFFLEY: It can actually work on a larger scale if you have it as a balanced system. A good example we have for that is like with potato beetles. We know we’re going to have potato beetles and they can be very problematic. So what we really want to do is understand their life cycle. So, for example, we’ll plant eggplants in the field where we had potatoes last year because we know those beetles will go straight to the eggplant. We’ll just put out maybe ten of them in a field that was two or three acres—that’s quite a few potatoes—but because there’s so few plants all those adult beetles will go right to those plants and it’s really quick and simple to pick them off. It’s just a matter of outsmarting those insects. We should be able to do that, we do have bigger brains.
CARYN HARTGLASS: Can you talk about your children and their appreciation for vegetables and their diet of eating vegetables? We’re going to be talking about that in the next part of the show and I just was curious what your perspective was as a farmer.
ATINA DIFFLEY: Children inherently connect with nature. I’ve yet to meet a young child who didn’t want to connect with nature and have a spirituality about it. That was true for me as a really young child and it certainly was true for my children. When we were farming and they were young, they really were in those fields with us and doing everything with us. It was their whole world. It was really quite a spiritual experience for them. My experience with children, all children, my children and children who have never eaten natural foods, is when you take them out in the field and they can pick that fruit fresh, they are almost always interested in eating it.
CARYN HARTGLASS: We bought some ornamental kale in the winter time and I have a little terrace in my apartment in New York City and I try and grow whatever I can there, when I can. So we planted these ornamental kale and one of them has just made it through the winter and is now growing really tall and it’s amazing. I’ve been picking off these lovely kale leaves and eating them. I love it.
ATINA DIFFLEY: I think the really important thing for your listeners to really understand is that organic farming systems really do work. They aren’t complicated. They are actually really simple. They are simply working with the natural systems and the fertility is completely renewable. It’s based on the energy of the sun and plants. We’ve really got to move in that direction as a society. It’s not like we’re going to have synthetic fertilizer affordable at our fingertips forever. It’s exciting that we’ve got as much information about organic as we do and we continue to get more and things are definitely moving in that direction. The more people can support it, the more will happen.
CARYN HARTGLASS: This book really has a great arc in it. You begin talking about your romance with your husband Martin, you talk about your romance with the farm and the life and the soil and the difficulties involved dealing with all the unexpected things that come up, especially the weather. Then there’s this other piece that makes this—I think this book would be a great read even if you didn’t have these extra challenges—but then you had these extra challenges of eminent domain coming in and bulldozing all the land around you and then another problem of Koch Industries coming in and threatening to put a pipeline under your property. Where did you get the time, the energy, the strength, to deal with these things?
ATINA DIFFLEY: You know there’s anger and then there’s love. Part of me was angry, really angry at Koch Industries, at their arrogance of not recognizing what was there, that was serving—we were serving 50,000 consumers in the Twin Cities. To not recognize the value of that was extremely arrogant. More importantly, we were always acting from love. When you are acting from love you can always do the impossible. It’s really amazing how that works. Our love for the soil, our love for food, that’s what really always pulled us through. When you direct-market produce you have this opportunity to have no end to relationships. As an organic farmer it’s the relationships with the soil and the other plants that are living in your ecosystem. In that marketplace we had literally tens of thousands of people who really cared about our farm and stood up for it. When we had to fight Koch Industries over 4500 people wrote letters. So that’s really community and that’s what we’re seeing in this food movement and the organic movement is the power of community and what it can accomplish. Everyone getting out there in their very own communities, supporting their own organic farmers, standing up for them, getting involved with policy, that all comes together and makes a very powerful change.
CARYN HARTGLASS: Love and community, that’s powerful and that solves so many things and without it we’re nothing.
ATINA DIFFLEY: Anger will just burn us out. We do get angry. I got up every morning and had my little “I’m going to get those Koch Brothers” but it wasn’t what really propelled me.
CARYN HARTGLASS: I think it’s really important that we support local food, we support our farmers, we support our community. We have to buy organic. When troubles come along we’re nowhere unless we have community around us.
ATINA DIFFLEY: Absolutely. We see that whenever someone’s in trouble people rise up to help them.
CARYN HARTGLASS: Another crazy thing that you mentioned in this book that I noted was about drying clothes. I guess there was something in the back of our culture’s mind that associated clotheslines, hanging out, maybe with poverty and as we moved up and had more affluence we didn’t want to have that image. I’m looking forward to that coming back and maybe there’s a way where we can have more attractive clotheslines that are more orderly.
ATINA DIFFLEY: Put them in the back yard.
CARYN HARTGLASS: It’s so annoying from so many levels.
ATINA DIFFLEY: When you go to Europe even in wealthy communities they have clothes drying in the front yard.
CARYN HARTGLASS: We need to raise the price of fuel and electricity so that drying clothes is really not affordable. That’s part of the problem it’s too cheap to waste energy. We’re so wrapped up in this doing everything so quickly that we have to get our clothes dry right away. People talk about how they like this smell of Bounce and these other artificial fragrances that are actually probably neurotoxins to make our clothes fluffy and smelling good but there’s nothing like putting clothes outdoors and drying them.
ATINA DIFFLEY: People say it takes too much time but if they figured out how much time and energy it took to dig that petroleum out of the ground, create the energy to run those clothes dryers, I think it’s a lot less time to just hang them up. Again it’s present time just like the example of the aphids and the ladybeetles was.
CARYN HARTGLASS: I dry my clothes inside in a small New York City apartment. The sad thing though is there are people that want to dry their clothes outside and they unfortunately live near horrific factory farms, especially in North Carolina where they are growing a lot of these hogs confined in factory farms and the air smells horrible and they can’t dry their clothes outside because they get this horrific stench.
ATINA DIFFLEY: And as I have in my book there are communities where outdoor clotheslines are forbidden.
CARYN HARTGLASS: I know. We can’t dry our clothes outside at my apartment. It’s a building rule and it’s nutty and sometimes I do it, don’t tell anybody.
ATINA DIFFLEY: I have a lot of fun with the clotheslines as a thread in the book. They keep showing up. They are a character of their own.
CARYN HARTGLASS: Atina, I really loved your book. I think it should be in all schools where children read about how to grow food and what it takes and get inspired by it. It’s so important, a lovely book. Thank you so much for writing it. I feel so privileged that I could read it. I’m glad you’re doing what you’re doing. Thank you for joining me on It’s All About Food.
ATINA DIFFLEY: Thanks for your work.
Transcribed by Suzanne Kelly, 1/29/2013