Difficult Challenges Help Shape Organic Farmers

8/24/2013 7:00 AM
By Guy Steucek Massachusetts Correspondent

AMHERST, Mass. — Atina Diffley’s core beliefs in the connectivity between healthy soil, farmers who use organic methods and communities that consume those organic products is not rural whimsy, but is engraved in her sole as a result of a lifetime of farming under difficult circumstances.

Diffley was the keynote speaker at the Northeast Organic Farmers Association Summer Conference on Aug. 9 at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

Last year, Diffley chronicled her life as an organic farmer in the book, “Turn Here Sweet Corn: Organic Farming Works.”

Life experience is always the best teacher, and Atina Diffley has learned a lot. She and her husband, Martin, grew organic produce as the fifth generation on the family farm in Eagan, Minn. The farm was 120 acres with 30 acres devoted to vegetables.

“Farming was really easy, no bug and disease problems,” Atina Diffley said.

The family then sold the farm, and development encroached on the produce plots.

“With the loss of the ecological services due to construction, the bugs became a huge problem. I thought this was so easy to see this impact,” she said, adding that runoff from the excavated areas was drowning her crops.

When the bulldozers started to clear land for the development, Maize, their son, said, “Stop them, Dad,” Atina wrote in her book.

“We can’t stop them.” I say. “They own it, but we are going to buy our own farm. We’re going to move to a new home and land, and I promise you, no one will ever bulldoze it.”

“I remember being in the fourth grade when we were taught about how plants and animals contribute to clean air and water, it was an intellectual thing then. Then I learned what it was to be an organic farmer,” Diffley said, adding that “the difference between development and organic farms is profound, you can see it; with conventional agriculture the difference is not as obvious.”

Once the family moved off the family homestead, they rented land for five years. They farmed 18 different properties within a 30-mile radius.

The family then purchased a farm in Eureka Township, Minn., and had it out of production for three years while they used organic methods to build the soil.

Once established, Gardens of Eagan, the name of the farm, was confronted with another challenge in 2006: a crude-oil pipeline was planned to pass directly through their fields. Atina and Martin Diffley remembered the promise they had made to their son, Maize.

MinnCan, the pipeline company, had plenty of experience taking property through eminent domain from small land owners. Moreover, MinnCan was a subsidiary of Koch Industries, one of the largest privately owned companies in the world.

When faced with this specter, Atina Diffley said, “over my dead body.” She said she sat down in a plot of kale and asked for guidance.

In short, MinnCan had to reroute the crude-oil pipeline around the Gardens of Eagan because the organic farm could not be mitigated since it was a natural resource.

Atina Diffley said third-party inspection of certified organic farms added credibility to their case.

“We would not have won the case if our farm had not been certified,” she said.

Because the family argued that the organic farm was a natural resource that should be protected, they also had to demonstrate the farm was a residing ecosystem, serving others beyond the products produced, and different from non-organic farms. This required input from Minnesota state agricultural personnel.

“They were blown away when they saw the difference between our farm and adjacent farm land,” she said. “After we disced our hairy vetch, the soil was crawling with beneficial insects. Having the state department of agriculture behind us was a big plus.

“Public clamor works, but legalese needs an informed citizen input,” she said.

With 4,600 letters sent by the public, all of which had to be read in court, the importance of the organic farm to the community was well documented.

“The letters were amazing,” she said. “Some by third generations of customers who had eaten the produce; and some by chemically sensitive consumers.”

Minnesota now has an organic farm mitigation plan which recognizes organic farms right at the start of construction projects. Inspectors at construction sites have to have organic training.

When talking about the use of pesticides in conventional farming, Atina Diffley said, “They say we have to use them, we have to feed people.”

“When I first started farming, I was ashamed to be a farmer, and the farmer hero has caught me by surprise,” she said. “They never had more power to lead than they do now.”

Atina Diffley sees food as a very personal way to engage the public on farming issues.

She urges organic farmers to grab the opportunity to educate the public on farming issues, educate legislators on issues of food and farming and run for a political position to represent food and agriculture.

For more information on Atina Diffley and organic farming, go to AtinaDiffley.com.

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