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Turn Here Sweet Corn

Turn Here Sweet Corn: Organic Farming Works

Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 344
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  • Book Info
    Turn Here Sweet Corn
    Book Description:

    When the hail starts to fall, Atina Diffley doesn't compare it to golf balls. She's a farmer. It's "as big as a B-size potato." As her bombarded land turns white, she and her husband Martin huddle under a blanket and reminisce: the one-hundred-mile-per-hour winds; the eleven-inch rainfall ("that broccoli turned out gorgeous"); the hail disaster of 1977. The romance of farming washed away a long time ago, but the love? Never. In telling her story of working the land, coaxing good food from the fertile soil, Atina Diffley reminds us of an ultimate truth: we live in relationships-with the earth, plants and animals, families and communities.

    A memoir of making these essential relationships work in the face of challenges as natural as weather and as unnatural as corporate politics, her book is a firsthand history of getting in at the "ground level" of organic farming. One of the first certified organic produce farms in the Midwest, the Diffleys' Gardens of Eagan helped to usher in a new kind of green revolution in the heart of America's farmland, supplying their roadside stand and a growing number of local food co-ops. This is a story of a world transformed-and reclaimed-one square acre at a time.

    And yet, after surviving punishing storms and the devastating loss of fifth-generation Diffley family land to suburban development, the Diffleys faced the ultimate challenge: the threat of eminent domain for a crude oil pipeline proposed by one of the largest privately owned companies in the world, notorious polluters Koch Industries. As Atina Diffley tells her David-versus-Goliath tale, she gives readers everything from expert instruction in organic farming to an entrepreneur's manual on how to grow a business to a legal thriller about battling corporate arrogance to a love story about a single mother falling for a good, big-hearted man.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-8161-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[viii])
  3. Cold, Hard Water
    (pp. 1-12)

    An explosion of light rips me out of deep sleep. Behind the flash is a deafening boom. The sky sparks again, a fused web of tearing lines. Wind jumps in, straight on from the west, driving hard rain against the house. I crank the window closed but not quickly enough—the bed and I are drenched. I hear tiny pings against the glass.

    Damn. I look at the date on the clock, June 8, 2005. Not now.

    Maybe if I go back to sleep, I’ll find I’m just having a nightmare. I curl into a ball at the foot of...

  4. My Name Is Tina
    (pp. 13-21)

    My earliest memories are in the garden. Some people say the kitchen is the hearth of their family, and ours is important, but it is between the lettuce and carrots that my mother is most free.

    Our spring ritual is following Dad, our feet bare, stepping into his big prints as he steers the rototiller. Birds hop around us pulling worms. Fresh earth spills the first smells of life. He is whistling, happy in his temporary role as family yeoman. Even Mom takes her shoes off and drops her winter cloak of serious. I assume this is how the world...

  5. It’s Not Here
    (pp. 22-31)

    I am sixteen now. The Catholic shrine, Holy Hill, is a walk of a mile, a castle perched on the highest spot, ruling over not only our physical domain but also our spiritual lives. Our land is a patchwork. We have planted forty acres of pines and cedars on the low land, have dug a pond, and have acres of vegetables, grapes, berries, even fruit trees. There are woods. I am immersed in finding me.

    More than five hundred thousand people from all over the world pilgrimage to the basilica each year, but I can’t feel God confined inside the...

  6. The Other Has My Heart
    (pp. 32-44)

    Roots are one thing to recognize—with their hold on the soil, the way they channel life and ancestral lessons, knit communities together. It is harder to find a beginning. Where is that point, that magic line called start? Is it when the seed goes in the ground? When the field is first worked? Way back before there was soil, when boulders weathered into the fine particles of parent material?

    Is it when two lines meet?

    I had been to the Gardens of Eagan before. Bill, the driver from Roots and Fruits Warehouse, drove Eddie and me out in the...

  7. Forward through Fire
    (pp. 45-48)

    I must look a complete pauper at Shannon Airport, or maybe they are thinking the ships have reversed and the immigrants are returning. It’s me, pushing the hammer dulcimer in a giant plywood box on rollers, with Eliza sleeping in a baby carrier on my back, our clothes in a home-sewn duffle beneath her seat. We are taken into a tiny windowless room. There are two customs agents. I am told to seat myself at a small table; one sits across and questions me, the other leans against the wall and watches my face from the side.

    Mr. Customs 1...

  8. Past in the Present
    (pp. 49-53)

    Martin says, “It was at my father’s wake in 1972. My Uncle Aubrey said, ‘You should move home now and help your mother with your father’s businesses. While you’re there, you could grow pumpkins and Indian corn, like back when you were a kid.’”

    We are lying on the side of the hill behind his house, soaking in the late fall sunshine. It was a simple question I asked, “How did you get started farming?” I knew that his great-grandparents settled this land in 1855. But I didn’t realize the answer to my question would go back to them. He...

  9. Spring’s Fault, 1985
    (pp. 54-63)

    It’s spring’s doing that people jump into farming and gardening. Every time I am in the field or garden, there is one plant or insect, one leaf or flower, one line or shape that jumps out from the rest and catches all my senses with the profound beauty of its lovely self. It might be a simple cabbage plant—round leaves, plump from an evening’s rain, red veins transparently glowing—or a long stalk of dill aslant in its garden slot like the leaning tower of Pisa, leaves, ferny sprays of lacy greenness, yellow flowers buzzing with pollinators.

    Sometimes it’s...

  10. Songbirds Nesting
    (pp. 64-72)

    On the kitchen table is a little, brown, square box with an antenna—the Great Oz.

    First thing in the morning, while we are preparing breakfast, we invite Oz to speak, and again at lunch, and before bed. It is a major offense to make noise while Oz is pontificating. Fortunately, since Eliza lacks the patience or respect to worship Oz with silence, he is a grand repeater. He has a great deal of power over Martin. If he says the “r” word, Martin is likely to go into a complete panic. He doesn’t hear the percent chance, the time,...

  11. Ancient Need
    (pp. 73-83)

    Every inch of the roadside stand is being scrubbed, raked, or painted. Eliza is taking her job as stand assistant seriously—fetching baskets, straightening bags. We pull out the sign I remember from the first time I came, TURN HERE → SWEET CORN. I joke, “It should work on customers; it sure reeled me in.”

    Martin tacks a small metal plate over the tomato display,Century Farm. He says, “Uncle Bill and I got this in 1976 at the state fair.”

    A full sheet of plywood is painted, GARDENS OF EAGAN—Certified Organic. Eliza sprays it with a hose, and...

  12. Rock and Bird
    (pp. 84-92)

    Martin’s winter job in a barbershop connects him with a customer named Spud from Prince Edward Island. The economy of the rural community is based on small-scale agriculture, hence its nickname Garden of the Gulf. Spud is a professional hockey player with the Minnesota North Stars, but he grew up working with vegetables. Today he brings in an article about a new potato variety bred by Gary Johnston, a researcher at the Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph, Canada. The sentence that gets Martin’s attention is, “The local Dutch and Belgian farmers in the region were asking for a yellow-fleshed variety...

  13. Health Is True Wealth
    (pp. 93-100)

    Maize is fourteen months old, but he’s not a toddler. He rarely falls, though he climbs everything and runs barefoot through mud and rocks.

    It’s a typical Saturday morning in August. I’m whipping through a stand setup. Maize is entertaining himself by dumping driveway gravel onto just washed potatoes. I move him to the sandbox and hand him a bucket and shovel, but he doesn’t stay there. Soon he is on top of the tomato display making sauce. I cut a muskmelon in half and stick a spoon in it. That will keep him occupied—for a little while.


  14. Drought of ’88
    (pp. 101-111)

    Every morning I look at the horizon, sniff the air, and listen to the train whistle; then I write down my take on the weather and the forecast from Oz. He keeps offering chances of rain. I provide none. At the end of the day, I check who was right.

    If this is a contest, I am winning. Does this mean I am smarter? Perhaps it is just easier to forecast the weather when you live outside instead of in a little brown box. Or maybe it means we are doomed.

    We are working in loose clothes and straw hats,...

  15. Endangered Species
    (pp. 112-121)

    Martin truly believes that if he sings the right song, it will solve any problem. Since his other cure-all is repairing engines, he is now singing Woody Guthrie’s version of “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad” as we drive to Joe’s Junkyard to buy a Ford carburetor.

    We come up on a rusty grain truck parked on the side of Rich Valley Boulevard. “It’s a ’66 International,” Martin says, as he slows to pass it. I hear pigs squealing and glimpse moving pink flesh. Hog stink simmers in the heat. He’s back to the second verse, “I’m a-goin’ where the...

  16. Nomads
    (pp. 122-131)

    The developer, Ryan, sits in our kitchen with a map of the housing project that covers the entire table. He shows us where the roads will be and how the land will drain. The work will be done in three phases. The first year they will bulldoze and build the infrastructure on the back third, next to the school. Martin puts his finger on the map and mouths to me, “Fox’s Grave.” In phase two they will take Bluebird Valley, the Bee Field, Jim’s, and the Clearing. The third year, Treasure Hill and Christina’s, even the Ball Field and the...

  17. As If It Never Existed
    (pp. 132-142)

    I accompany Eliza across the farm for a ballet class at Pine Wood Elementary. The brand-new school, built in the Swamp Field, has just opened its doors with community education classes.

    One minute we are strolling a dusty field road between vibrant crops of kale and tomatoes. Birds are calling from the trees. Martin with Maize on his lap is cultivating corn with an IH Super C. We wave at the crew hoeing onions.

    Then we are cutting through the bulldozer work area. There is no life here, just sand-gravel subsoil for a base, and beeping, rolling machines without a...

  18. What to Hold On To
    (pp. 143-149)

    The last of the Diffley land will be bulldozed this season—right up to our one-acre property line. None of our crops will be on the home farm. We are true migrants now, but we do have one rented field that we can walk to. Louise’s Field is a pasture that Martin’s father sold in the 1950s, along with a house he built at the base of Devil’s Hill.

    Devil’s Hill, the wildest spot on the farm, has a fierce energy that sets it apart from all other land formations in the area—a mingling of uncontainable passion and independence,...

  19. Subsoil Is the Mineral Base
    (pp. 150-159)

    There is a pair of robins I have been watching. The tree that held their nest was flattened. They moved to a new branch and started over. A few days later they were treeless and nestless again. Three times now—they just build anew and lay another batch of eggs. They make it look so easy.

    Just wake up each morning and sing the same song. The bulldozers have ripped the development right up to the edge of our one acre—a green refuge pushed tight against the border of destruction. The robins have made it to the cottonwood on...

  20. Eureka
    (pp. 160-169)

    Chris, the Viking-looking drummer from Martin’s high school rock-and-roll band, is pounding the drum solo to “Wipe Out” on our front door.

    I’ve told Martin I don’t want him around the kids. He always was trouble, but I’ve heard he’s now peddling stolen goods and hanging out with the local drug dealers. Plus he owes Martin $1,500 for a van. He was going to pay within a month, but it’s been over a year. It’s just after Christmas, and I’m sure he’s not here to make good on his debt.

    Martin goes out to talk with him on the front...

  21. If Soil Is Virgin
    (pp. 170-177)

    Coming down the driveway is like going through a gateway to paradise. It’s hard to believe it’s the same place. The snow and cold are gone now. The soil in the neighbors’ fields is so black, the gopher mounds look like giant chocolate drops. I feel like I am hopping from mound to mound, being led in to a new life. We come up to our property line, and the land lies before us, like a book open on display waiting to be read. The soil is glistening, wet still from the snowmelt. Dave Frattalone’s voice is in my mind:...

  22. Maison Diffley
    (pp. 178-186)

    Ryan, the developer, stops by the roadside stand. I wonder what he wants. We haven’t seen him since the debacle of Devil’s Hill and Louise’s Field. “How’s your land search going?” he asks.

    “We bought land in Eureka Township,” Martin says.

    “Congratulations. When will you move?”

    “We put all our money into the land,” I say. “There’s an old house. Well, there was an old house. We’ll live here until someday when we have the money to build.”

    Ryan’s eyes circle the yard, dart at our clothesline, and move over the equipment. “I suppose you’ll be moving your tractors and...

  23. Spring Covenant, 1994
    (pp. 187-197)

    Should we call it the Gardens of Waukegan, or maybe the Gardens of Eureka? It would be confusing for our customers if we changed our name, but this land has a completely different personality.

    In Eagan, the shelter of the landscape felt like our own private kingdom and ecosystem. Here it’s like we are standing on the Eastern Edge of the Great Plains. The view is open. There is wind and prairie exposure. We see storms coming long before they arrive.

    The ground is still frozen, and we need to get the greenhouses up. We buy time by starting the...

  24. Fertile Ground
    (pp. 198-207)

    It’s hard to believe it’s only mid-June; the crops are so much larger than normal. Even the weeds seem to be growing twice as fast.

    It’s just before sunrise. Martin has a light clipped to the rear fender of the Farmall Super C and is lying on his back changing the oil. I line up the cultivator shoes and tighten them, then check the tire pressure. By the time the tractor is set, the sky is light enough to see the weather.

    Right now the way the clouds are roiling, it looks like just about anything could happen. Sometimes that’s...

  25. The Difference
    (pp. 208-223)

    It is scorching hot. Martin is lying in a Mayan string hammock with feet up, drinking iced tea and eating cookies—so not Martin. Nothing is planted. The fields are tall with weeds gone to seed. I keep saying, “Come on, we need to plant.”

    “Mañana. Today is too hot,” he says.

    I scream at him, “It is August, and we are so far behind, not even the onions are in.” Then I wake up—drenched with sweat and trembling.

    I have this same nightmare every winter. If I think about everything it takes to pull off a successful season,...

  26. The Real World of Fresh Produce
    (pp. 224-238)

    Martin is in his typical rain-is-coming, corn-planting tizzy. I find it interesting that in some areas he is the complete Buddha of patience, and I have none, and on other details, we are the reverse. The first thing he said to me this morning was, “Uncle Jim called this ‘the kind of weather where your best cow would kick you,’ hot and muggy, dropping barometer, rain coming.”

    “This is the kind of weather where your best friend might kick you,” I sassed back.

    I still think God can be in the form of raindrops, and it is fascinating to me...

  27. Living in the Relative Present
    (pp. 239-254)

    Dirt is just soil that’s out of place. Soil has structure. Dirt does not.

    I have been cleaning all week, as if dirt is the enemy, not a lost tribal member of our friend soil. Once our home is reclaimed from the summer’s madness, the real fun begins. As part of our annual evaluation process, we formally quit farming for one week at the end of the season. Quitting is part of our commitment. When we farm again, it is a conscious choice. We quit to begin anew, to create larger lives. We intentionally lose the path in order to...

  28. Looking to the Future
    (pp. 255-270)

    Finally, National Organic Standards. Organic production is now defined at the federal level through the USDA. All organic certifiers, producers, processors, and handlers must be in full compliance by this fall, October 2002. Having federal standards feels like the organic community is securing its clothesline poles into concrete. The next generation will be able to build on this solid base.

    This is monumental. For the past three decades, numerous private and state agencies have been certifying organic operations, but each certifying organization had its own standards, causing a lack of uniformity from certifier to certifier. One national standard is crucial...

  29. Kale versus Koch
    (pp. 271-284)

    I’m reading through the week’s pile of mail. There are three identical-looking envelopes from an organization called the MinnCan Project. Minn must be short for Minnesota? And the Can, yes you can?

    Maybe they are donation requests from a Minnesota food shelf. How annoying that they sent three. I’m about to toss them in the trash but stop myself; it will take only a second to look at one. I am halfway through skimming it before I realize that this is not a food shelf. MinnCan is a crude oil pipeline project owned by the Minnesota Pipe Line Company (MPL),...

  30. Definitely Not Fungible
    (pp. 285-297)

    Martin and I sit down with Dean, the produce manager of the Wedge Co-op, and Lindy, the general manager, to tell them about the pipeline.

    I explain that we have hired Ms. Maccabee, how the legal process works, and that we need to do an informed-citizen letter-writing campaign. Lindy is happy to write an affidavit, and she offers the Wedge’s help getting the message out. Dean doesn’t utter a word through the entire conversation, just sits mute and listens until I’m finished. Then it tumbles out, like water hitting cold rocks. “What should I do?” he asks. “What would you...

  31. Soil versus Oil
    (pp. 298-308)

    The stand is open! I stand amid the excited reunion of repeat clients and see a quaint roadside stand, a relic of simpler days, elegant in its pragmatism. Watching the delight of the customers, I see clearly that a fundamental human need is being satisfied. We need food businesses like this in every community.

    We are distributing pipeline flyers and letter-writing information. Our customers are alarmed. This crude oil pipeline is threatening them deeper than their food supply. A boy runs up to the corn table and stands there, feasting with wide-open eyes on the produce. His mother tells me...

  32. Organic Integrity
    (pp. 309-321)

    Brilliant information request!

    For us. Our Organic System Plan (OSP) is a federally registered document. Every certified organic farm is required to submit the details of how their individual operation is managed organically and in compliance with National Organic Standards. Having our OSP on the legal record provides credible evidence of our organic practices and the difference between organic and conventional systems. I hadn’t thought to include it, and now they will do it for us.

    Ours is forty detailed pages. Every practice on the farm is documented. I start to review it and come to “Has your water been...

  33. Hail Thaws into Life
    (pp. 322-326)

    Paula says, “We’ll wear clothes that are peaceful colors, not screaming victory.” I arrive in tranquil blue, she in blinding red. Martin wears all black.

    The public hearing is a formality and a blur. Bob Patton, from the Department of Agriculture, testifies in support of the Organic Appendix to the AIMP. The MPL attorney shakes my hand and says, “I’m glad we reached the stipulation. It was the right thing to do.”

    Paula says, “How does it feel to have kicked ass of the largest privately owned company in the world?”

    “Did we do that?” I ask.

    She knows just...

  34. Normal Process
    (pp. 327-329)

    MPL files exceptions—arguments against the judge’s recommendation. I read them without strong emotions. Now the process is just that—process—and interesting. Today I receive an e-mail from one of the organic farmers who rents land on the pipeline route. She is relying on the Organic Appendix to the AIMP to protect their soils and certification:

    Atina, I just thought I’d check in. A guy from the pipeline came out to meet with the landowners. At first, the pipeline guy was trying to say that everything will be the same as conventional, blah, blah, blah, but as soon as...

  35. Postscript
    (pp. 330-332)

    In January 2008, the Wedge Community Co-op purchased the Gardens of Eagan name and equipment and began leasing the farmland for organic vegetable production. The Wedge-operated Gardens of Eagan continues to provide organic produce to the local community. At the end of the 2012 growing season, the Wedge Co-op will move the Gardens of Eagan to their own farmland. For current information and opportunities at Gardens of Eagan,

    In addition to managing the farm, the Wedge Co-op has started the Organic Field School at Gardens of Eagan, a 501(c)3 educational nonprofit dedicated to transforming our food and farming...

  36. Gratitude
    (pp. 333-335)

    When people ask what I most cherish about farming, what comes is the depth of intimacy—with plants and nature, with coworkers in the field and at the stand, with produce buyers and customers.

    Hundreds of people have worked at Gardens of Eagan over the years. This farm would not have thrived without their labor, sweat, ideas, and commitment. The Twin Cities natural food co-ops and wholesale distributors, produce buyers, and tens of thousands of people supported this farm through purchasing its produce. Thank you all. A major challenge when writing this book was choosing between stories and characters. Endless...

  37. Back Matter
    (pp. 336-336)
  38. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)