Atina Diffley

Spring 2014

Atina and Martin Diffley with 140 International Tractor. Photo by Laurie Schneider, from

Organic farmers have a sacred, fundamental, philosophical relationship to the land – a relationship worth fighting for. So said Atina Diffley, author of Turn Here Sweet Corn, during her keynote speech at MOFGA’s 2013 Farmer to Farmer Conference.

Diffley’s earliest memories of that relationship involved following her father in the garden and, especially, feeling the first drops of rain – drops she felt as “God speaking to me.”

This relationship with nature means that organic farmers live outside the status quo – something that takes great courage and makes farmers leaders, said Diffley; “the critical link between people who eat food and the land that it comes from.”

Becoming an Organic Farmer

When she was young and people asked Diffley what she wanted to be, she answered “a farmer or a bum.” Neither was well regarded at the time, but both got to be outside, be “kind of dirty” and have a relationship with nature.

In her late teens, Diffley moved to Milwaukee and shifted from eating from the garden to eating “food that had no life” from the grocery store. She knew then that she had to be a farmer, to feed herself and other people real food with vitality.

“Not only did I want to be a farmer, but I wanted to be an organic farmer.” Organic farmers were considered “kooky” in the ‘70s, but when Diffley heard about MOFGA, she felt organic was beginning to be legitimized. The fact that MOFGA included gardeners “really impressed me,” because she started as a gardener.

“It took me 35 years to get here [to Maine],” said Diffley. “I have never met such an authentic, welcoming group of people. Maine would have served me well.”

Organic Farming in Minnesota

Instead, Diffley and her husband, Martin Diffley, worked his family’s fifth-generation Minnesota farm. Of the 120 acres, about 30 were tillable, “and the rest of the land still had an intact ecosystem. There were flowers blooming everywhere, fruit, hawthorns, sumac, 30 acres of mature oaks.” All the fields at their Gardens of Eagan had biological diversity even before the term “ecosystem services” was being used.

Farming organically was hard work physically, but the diversity on the farm and use of soil-building crops to protect and nourish the soil meant the Diffleys did not have to do much to manage pests.

“I’ll never forget the first day I saw parasitic wasp larvae coming out of a cabbage looper. What an amazing relationship and complicated structure nature had designed! If we could learn to live within those systems, it would really work.”

Diffley is grateful that she could give her children the same relationship to nature that she had. “They worked with us in the field. They knew what we did … what we valued. They knew where our money came from,” she said.

Development Disrupts Farm Ecology, Economics

Unfortunately, the city of Eagan, Minnesota, had not left any land zoned for agriculture and in 1989 needed 20 acres of the Diffley family’s farm to build a school. Then sewer and water lines cut through the rest of the land to serve the school, and the remaining land was assessed. The assessment didn’t have to be paid until the land was sold, but there was 11 percent interest against it. That meant that every seven years, the debt would double. Half a million owed would become 1 million; in another seven years, 2 million … These are difficult decisions for families to make, said Diffley. The situation is not unique. It has happened on hundreds of thousands of farms all across the country.

Four of Martin’s cousins owned the farmland, and after much discussion they decided they had no choice but to sell. Atina and Martin owned only 1 acre on the farm with their home, roadside stand and greenhouses. The development happened over a period of three years. Atina and Martin continued to rent the land – with the developer now as their landlord – until it was developed.

“What happened next was the biggest lesson of my life,” said Diffley. “They came in with bulldozers and took every tree, every bush, every blade of grass. They even scraped up the living topsoil and sold it away from the farm.

“There we were farming on land immediately adjacent to land that had been stripped of all life. It was an ecological disaster. Pests and diseases overran us. There was no habitat for the beneficial species that had previously managed them. When it rained, there was no life to take in the water, and it ran off carrying subsoil and burying our crops.” We learn in grade school about ecosystem services such as water and air purification, but experiencing this loss, Diffley understood at a heart level how utterly dependent we are on nature.

“And there was something even deeper,” said Diffley, “and that was the spiritual aspect. This was the land where my children experienced birth and growth and death, the life process of the annual cycle. This was the land where they met the divine.” Her children lost their innocence, as they saw that their parents were not all-powerful over the destruction happening before them.

“A day came when I found my son, who was three or four at the time, standing with his little toes on the edge of our property, our 1 acre green oasis in the midst of this brown desert of no life, staring at the bulldozers going back and forth. He just erupted – kicked and screamed and threw dirt clumps against those bulldozers, but they just crumbled … mere dust against the void. This went on and on and on until he became too tired to continue, but he couldn’t stop. I picked him up and held him and said, ‘Just let it go. Don’t hold on to this. Let it out.’ What came up and out then was a grieving so much bigger than could have been inside of this little body, but it was completely of him. A grieving for a loss that couldn’t be returned.” He eventually fell asleep for a long time, and when he awoke, asked, “Mom, when can we go and look at land for sale?” and “What kind of tree do you love the most?”

Organic Offers Solutions to Problems of Cheap Food

Diffley pointed out that agriculture, not development, is the leading cause of species extinction and habitat destruction. Agriculture uses about 39 percent of our land; produces 12 to 24 percent of our greenhouse gases; uses 70 percent of our fresh water; and causes 81 percent of deforestation.

“You are the role models showing a different example. It’s no longer the ‘70s … Now farmers are heroes. Now we’re cool. This is a social movement. We’re all in this together,” said Diffley – farmers, consumers and politicians. “Every one of you has a chance to bring in the people that you feed, that you relate to. Those are incredibly powerful people” who “will take action. It’s very important to educate the people you work with.” Tell them why GMO labeling affects them personally; how GMOs drastically increase herbicide use; how pesticides don’t stay put but get into groundwater.

In her county, 27 percent of wells have nitrate levels higher than the drinking water standard – a risk for blue baby syndrome and for polluting the Gulf of Mexico. “It’s important that people know these things,” said Diffley, “because they’re getting a very different story from the chemical industry.”

According to the President’s Cancer Report, of the more than 80,000 chemicals on the market, only 200 to 300 have been tested for safety, said Diffley. Birth defects are high among farm workers and people who live near farms when some pesticides are sprayed. “This is a very expensive price to pay for cheap food.

“To create change,” said Diffley, “we have to reach a certain level of outrage. This is outrageous.”

Diffley said that U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, quoted in a local paper, said that of the 2.2 million U.S. farmers, about 33,000 farm operations produce 50 percent of the country’s agricultural output, and 200,000 to 300,000 produce about 85 percent. Then he said the other 99 percent aren’t farmers, and they shouldn’t have the right to dictate how our farming system works. “I hope this makes you as angry as it made me,” said Diffley.

But “we can’t just be angry. We have to talk about solutions. Many solutions are in organic farming” – such as mitigating the now frequent flooding due to climate change.

She urged her audience to explain how organic farms use less energy and emit fewer greenhouse gases; sequester 15 to 28 percent more carbon; and yield more during droughts. “For every 1 percent increase in organic matter in the soil, the soil can hold 16,500 gallons of water per acre.”

In an average year the Diffleys’ farm yields about the same as neighboring farms; in a dry year or a year with excessive rain, heat or cold, it does better. “That’s just that organic matter in the soil. Tell customers about these solutions. When people learn these things, they’re amazed. They just haven’t had these ideas held up to them in our culture.”

The Diffleys did find new land in 1991. They bought 100 acres that had previously been plowed from one end to the other, right through a waterway. The abused, compacted soil couldn’t absorb water after rains. To bring life back to the land, they took it out of production and built soil for three years, walked it after rains to see how the water moved, planted grass strips to absorb water, planted diverse flowers, trees and shrubs, and finally broke the land into 42 small fields and started farming.

In 2005 Diffley calculated that the farm’s output that year was 3 million servings of food. “That, all of a sudden, was real to me. This was people being fed.”

Kale vs. Koch

The following spring the Diffleys received a letter from MinnCan, a company owned by the multinational Koch Industries, informing them that they had applied for a crude oil pipeline permit and that their preferred route dissected the farm. MinnCan would need extra land for a pumping station as well.

If they bulldozed, said Diffley, “I knew we would never be able to farm [vegetables] on that land again. I ran to the machine shop where Martin was working, told him about the pipeline and said, ‘You have to call them up and tell them they can’t put it through here.’ I gave him a long lecture about what he should say.”

Martin said, “They can put these things where they want. You have all the answers. You call them.”

Diffley said she asked Martin to deal with the company because she had internalized the message that men are more powerful or less vulnerable than women. “But that was just an old message that someone had told me a long time ago, and I was repeating it to myself, holding myself back. That message didn’t serve me or my community.”

Thus began her “Kale vs. Koch” campaign.

“I was terrified” to be taking on the second largest company in the world. “I didn’t think I knew anything about pipelines and the Public Utilities Commission (PUC). I knew about food and farming and the relationship between healthy food and human health. Then I thought, maybe I do know about pipelines – They both have to do with land use. I thought … maybe I could do something to address this.”

She found a map showing that the pipeline would cut through their kale field, and their tomatoes and rye. “I said, ‘No way.’ That’s when the outrage started.”

She also found MinnCan’s Agricultural Impact Mitigation Plan. This was the plan that detailed how the pipeline would be installed and the soil would be handled to minimize impact. She started reading and came to, “The MinnCan pipeline will not knowingly allow more than 12 inches of topsoil erosion.”

“Can you imagine saying that to an organic farmer who had just spent 15 years repairing an abused farm and bringing the soil back into condition?”

Diffley had always had a general personal policy against swearing, saving it “for some time in your life when you really need emphasis. I realized this is what I was saving it for. My first thought every morning was, ‘I’m going to get those f-ers.’ And then I said it again around 9 o’clock and every hour after. I was really outraged. The mitigation plan said topsoil would not be used for destructive purposes, but it could be used for building access ramps. Can you imagine piling your topsoil up and driving on it with those huge trucks and bulldozers and calling it ‘not a destructive purpose’? Clearly they did not understand anything about aggregation, microbial life and soil structure.”

She decided MinnCan just didn’t know the Diffleys’ farm was there, because “nobody could be so stupid as to put a pipeline across a farm that at this point was serving almost 80,000 co-op members in the Twin Cities with local organic food.”

But when she called the route manager, he said, “We put these where we want. If you don’t like it, tell the judge.”

So Diffley sought a lawyer, but every eminent domain attorney she called was unable to help her due to a conflict of interest. Then she called environmental lawyers until one – Paula Maccabbe – said, “Gardens of Eagan Organic Farm? Pipeline? Twelve inches of topsoil erosion? This is going to be fun!”

Asked how she afforded a lawyer, Diffley said she went into her kale patch and said, “Listen, kale, we’re in this together. You are the real defendant in this case. I’m just the human interpreter, because people don’t know how to listen to you. Your job is to be the healthiest, most productive you possibly can. My job is to articulate what you need.’ We sold $43,000 more worth of kale that year. That’s what we spent on the legal proceedings.”

The first thing Diffley asked attorney Maccabee was what it would take to stop the pipeline altogether. Maccabee said, “Just prove in court that society doesn’t need the oil. Can you do that?”

Diffley said, “Yes!” Research from 30-year trials at Rodale Institute show that organic farms use 45 percent less energy, while sequestering 15 to 28 percent more carbon – with equivalent yields to nonorganic farms. If U.S. agriculture changed to organic systems, we wouldn’t need the additional oil, and we would reduce agriculture’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. But less than 1 percent of U.S. agricultural land is certified organic. Paula said, “We can’t show society is ready.”

This was the great irony. Koch Industries is also one of the largest manufacturers of synthetic nitrogen and the second largest privately owned company in the world. “Here we were, a small, local, organic farm supplying our fertility needs using the renewable energy of the sun and legume plants, threatened by one of the world’s largest producers of fossil fuel–based fertilizer.”

They set goals: to create an Organic Mitigation Plan that would not allow any topsoil erosion and would define organic farms as a valuable natural resource benefiting society, like wetlands; and to have the pipeline avoid their farm and other organic farms on the route. The Diffleys’ organic certification was important to this process. Recognizing that she could write an organic mitigation plan, having farmed organically for 25 years, was also empowering. “That’s really important that we each recognize our own experience,” said Diffley.

Diffley’s victim mentality continued to change after she called the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and “they came to the farm, I showed them the soil, and they were absolutely blown away. They had never seen soil like I showed them that day. They had never seen a field of vetch with so many ladybugs and full of beneficial insects just waiting to do their job.” The department testified in favor of her organic mitigation plan at hearings and negotiated with the pipeline company.

She also educated consumers and the PUC. At one hearing she gave the Koch lawyers some of her sweet corn, thinking, “once they taste this, they’re going to understand why this matters.”

When attorney Maccabbe said they needed 200 letters from people to impress the judge, “we got 500 letters the first day we put the call out” – indicating “how powerful people’s relationship with food is.”

The Diffleys told their customers, “We’ve been feeding you for 33 years, and now we need some help. We need you to write a letter to the judge.

“The letters were amazing – they really were informed citizen input, from doctors, reporters, soil scientists, moms. They talked about … how they had the family reunion based on when the corn would come in; about being chemically sensitive and depending on the farm for food; soil scientists described the soil process.”

The judge received and read 4,600 letters. “She understands organic now,” said Diffley.

Ninety percent of the Diffleys’ produce was sold wholesale directly to stores. “We had done such a good job of branding our farm, of having photos in the stores. Consumers forgot they didn’t know us. That was a key part of it. Someone with a less public profile would have had a harder time mobilizing citizen input.

“We were certified organic, and we kept good records,” said Diffley. “We transitioned our land from nonorganic to organic, so we could show, through our records, how our soil had changed over 15 years. That was what we built our case on – showing that the soil and an organic farm was a valuable natural resource; we showed the ecosystem services and the benefits society received that went beyond the food produced. Our organic system plan was crucial. It wasn’t hearsay. We had a federally registered, third-party-inspected, certified document that detailed step-by-step how we managed the farm in accordance with the National Organic Program. It was credible evidence in a court of law. Our expert witnesses, soil scientist Deborah Allan, and certification expert Jim Riddle, furthered this evidence.

“The judge not only supported our goals and recommended the Organic Mitigation Plan, she had received an education in organic and added conditions of her own: a registry for Minnesota organic farms; and giving any landowner, whether farmer or homeowner, organic or not, the right to say no chemicals may be used on his or her land.”

Organic agricultural land in Minnesota is now recognized as a unique feature of the landscape and will be treated with the same levels of care as other sensitive environmental features. The pipeline was moved to the road right-of-way instead of crossing Gardens of Eagan. The Organic Mitigation Appendix to the Agricultural Impact Mitigation Plan provides protections to the soils and certification of Minnesota organic farms, and it doesn’t allow for any topsoil erosion! Wisconsin has since adopted a similar organic mitigation plan, and activists in others states are working to protect organic soil too.

“So we succeeded,” said Diffley. “This was one thing on one farm in one community. To succeed in changing our agricultural system, we have to make little steps in every community.”

Diffley added, “It’s important to recognize that certification protects the farmers, also, in a legal situation, in a drift situation,” which is becoming more common in their community as nonorganic farmers use the herbicide dicamba, which can drift for 6 to 8 miles. People in her community see organic certification as protection now.

“We have to practice engaged optimism,” Diffley concluded. “It took 70 years and hundreds of thousands of people for women to get the right to vote. Things don’t change because it’s the right time, but because people get involved. Changing agriculture will take a long time. The arguments for denying women the right to vote were ridiculous. The same will be true about how we treated our land. Your voice and the people that you feed are really powerful. Don’t let any fears or doubts stop you. You can serve this effort with the work you’re doing.”

All documents from the Diffleys’ expert witnesses are posted at The case study was published in the Drake Journal of Agricultural Law Review and it received the 2008 Lawsuit of the Year award from Minnesota Law and Politics. The Diffleys, now speakers and consultants, sold their farm business a few years ago to Wedge Co-op ( Atina’s book, Turn Here Sweet Corn (University of Minnesota Press, 2012) is available from MOFGA’s Country Store ( and from

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