An Excerpt from Atina Diffley’s New Book, Turn Here Sweet Corn: Organic Farming Works

By T.L. Gettings © Rodale Institute

An excerpt from Turn Here Sweet Corn: Organic Farming Works
By Atina Diffley
University of Minnesota Press

We hear bulldozers start up, back where the school will be built. Martin and I meet eyes, but we don’t say anything. He glances sideways at Eliza, then back to me. I tip my head toward the wire, and we keep planting. The idling engine changes to the crushing and falling of trees and the beep-beep of backup warning. Eliza drops her basket and runs to her tree. Maize dumps the beetles and squishes them under his bare heel. He sends the jar flying into the woods and then takes off running toward the bulldozers.

Martin races after him. I’m thinking, they shouldn’t be hearing this. Then I realize it’s too late for that. There is no sheltering from it. We will not only hear it. We will see it and feel it. We sit down together, pulled into a family huddle. Eliza is shaking underneath her skin. Her lips are moving. One tear hangs trembling in the corner of each clenched eye. She squeezes them tighter.

Maize whispers, “Stop them.” His voice cracks, like it’s trying to break through the wall between frightened and angry, “Stop them, Dad.”

I don’t think Martin even hears him. He is staring. His skin is drained of blood. I don’t know what to say. They are too young to be learning that their parents are not all-powerful beings who can protect them from everything. “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 don’t know when, or where, or how. But I know we will do it.

“I don’t want a new farm,” Maize says. “I want this one.” Eliza and Martin sit mute, just holding on to each other.

When Atina Diffley made this promise in 1989 she had no idea that she would ever be called upon to keep it. Seventeen years later their new farm was threatened by eminent domain for a crude oil pipeline proposed by one of the largest privately owned companies in the world, notorious polluters Koch Industries.

Following the proposed route, I measure out and pound stakes down the center of MinnCan’s pipeline corridor. I attach the twine: through the seven threatened fields, stake to stake through the young kale plants, across the lush and tangled nitrogen-sequestering hairy vetch, down into and back out of the grass-covered waterway that also serves as beneficial insect habitat, through the just-planted-yesterday broccoli, the plot ready for watermelon planting as soon as the weather breaks, across the rye and vetch soil-building crop, and, finally, the field where yesterday the crew laid compost in long lines to prepare for tomato planting.

When I get to the end, I look at the installation diagram. “Front- End Grading.” I look back at the string line running the width of the farm and see giant machines forcing their way. The kale, broccoli, rye, and vetch lie flattened, trampled — innocent victims. The topsoil sticks to the bulldozer tracks as they lug through mud, compacting a permanent footprint, an indelible mark, forever on the soil.

Again at the paper. “Topsoil Stripping.” I look up and see the well- aggregated soil particles crushed. Microorganisms starving, dying. Water channels collapsed. I see a line of Topsoil pushed aside, a long, low ridge. The work zone of the easement is an exposed stripe of bare, brown, skinless subsoil. Veins of erosion scour the surface.

The paper. “Stringing Pipe, Field Bending Pipe, Initial Weld, X-Ray Inspection, Coating Field Weld.” Heavy trucks and toxic substances, leaking, dripping, soaking into the soil where we once grew food.

“Trenching, Backfilling.” Backhoes digging and beeping and belching diesel smoke. Ripping a seam through the parent material — the mineral source of this landscape. Tearing a hole through the greenness of my life. “Replace Topsoil, Fill-Up, Full Restoration.”

Forty feet of the easement width titled “Spoil Side.” Sixty feet titled “Working Side.” I see a hundred-foot-wide stripe of pasture mix, our attempt to rebuild the soil, but no vegetables growing.

I know what this looks like. I’ve seen it before. And I know what it feels like. I’m not willing to do it again. I remember the promise I made — it seems like a lifetime ago now — sitting in the Woods Field with Martin, Maize, and Eliza, listening to the first bulldozers flattening trees in Eagan. “We’re going to move to a new home and land, and I promise you, no one will ever bulldoze it.”

The switch flips. The truth grows bigger and stronger the longer I stand reflecting. I am not a victim, not even a potential victim. I am the guardian here, the human voice for these faultless plants and this generous soil. I am alone right now standing in this field, but I am not alone in this commitment to life. There are thousands of people who will stand up for this kale, for this land, and for this issue. This soil and these plants are not only our witnesses and experts; they are our partners and allies.

Maybe it is historically true that pipeline companies don’t change routes for landowners. But this time they have picked the wrong plant, on the wrong farm, the wrong woman, and the wrong community.

I take down the string and pull out the stakes; the thought of leaving them up feels like a curse. And that is key. There is no curse.

Not on this land.

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.

For more information on Turn Here Sweet Corn, including upcoming events with Diffley, click here.