Reflecting on the early days of organic farming

Atina Diffley says she likes to look back at her career in farming and imagine all of the food she’s helped produce sitting in a single pile.

After more than three decades working the soil at one of the Midwest’s first organic farms, it would be a fairly large collection of squash, watermelons, onions and sweet corn. 

A fair amount of that food has come through the halls of Minneapolis co-ops, too. 

Diffley, who helped run Gardens of Eagan with her husband Martin from 1973 until the farm was sold to The Wedge Natural Foods Co-op in 2007, recently spent 18 months plumbing her memories and writing about what it meant to deliver such a bounty. 

The result is “Turn Here Sweet Corn,” which comes out in April from the University of Minnesota Press. The book is pocketed with policy, but is largely built on 

Diffley’s personal experiences — a story that in many ways parallels the growth of the Twin Cities’ local food community.

And while there are moments of loss — at the hands of both nature and man — the overarching message is that organic farming has gained an audience with an appetite, particularly in the Twin Cities. 

“In 1985, you couldn’t buy an organic canned tomato,” Diffley said, recalling the evolution in a recent interview. “Now you can’t figure out which one to buy at the market.”

Diffley, now a speaker and farming consultant with a new business, Organic Farming Works, credits co-ops around the Twin Cities for playing a large role in that growth, helping lift farms like Gardens of Eagan in the process. 

Gardens of Eagan began selling its produce at the Minneapolis Farmer’s Market, but quickly established a route that brought their food directly to the doorsteps of co-ops like The Wedge and the Linden Hills Co-op. 

The steady supply of produce helped the co-ops attract a growing number of consumers. Their growth led to larger orders for Gardens of Eagan, which benefited from not having to compete with larger distributors to get into grocery stores. Today, the farm grows nearly 3 million food servings a year. 

“Gardens of Eagan would not have survived without the Twin Cities co-ops,” Diffley said. “It was really a growing up together.”

Dean Schladweiler, who has worked as The Wege’s produce manager since 1996, said the co-op has long looked to the farm as a staple supplier of kale, broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes and corn, Gardens of Eagan’s most acclaimed crop. 

It was that reliance that led Schladweiler to suggest The Wedge purchase Gardens of Eagan when the Diffley’s said they wanted to break from farming. 

“It would have been a huge heartbreak to see that go away,” said Schladweiler, who estimates around a third of the co-ops local produce sales are tied to Gardens of Eagan. 

But the growth hasn’t just been about pushing more corn and cabbage out the door. Diffley said the farm’s ever-expanding role in the community also helped create a powerful community of advocates for local food.  

Such allies became key to blocking a proposal to run an proposed oil pipeline through the farm property — a move Diffley says would have wiped out years of work, and made it nearly impossible for the farm to continues. Nearly 5,000 people wrote letters advocating on behalf of Gardens of Eagan, a show of support that led to the 300-mile pipeline to be re-routed around the farm. 

“That was such an incredible example of how much power consumers really do have and how critical it is for them to be involved,” Diffley said. 

Diffley is hoping her book will serve as a reminder to consumers of what’s at stake, and dram them into the conversation in a similar way. 

While not heavily filled with policy — Diffley says she didn’t want to be “preachy” and risk losing the casual reader — Gardens of Eagan’s story is a poignant illustration of the way farms can either help or hurt the environment, she said. 

The farm dealt with suburban sprawl, losing their original location to development, and neighboring farmers who sprayed their crops with pesticides. Losing the original farm was painful for the family, and it took years of labor to convert a new location into an organic farm with nutrient-rich top soil. 

Diffley said she believes small farms like Gardens of Eagan continue to struggle in a market that is still largely built on monoculture and pesticides. While organic farms have grown since standards were adopted in 1990, they still make up less than 1 percent of all farmland in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Gardens of Eagan’s story, she hopes, will help illustrate how far there is to go and compel people to put their ideals into action. That action could be as simple as buying from local farms or sharing the message with friends or include things like actively lobbying for changes that will help reform agriculture policy, she said.  

“We all see these problems, and while we can rally and complain, we really have to take action to change that,” Diffley said. “We have to eat, educate and engage in policy as if the Earth matters — and it does.”

Despite the challenges, Diffley said she believes Gardens of Eagan helped pave the way for a new generation of more thoughtful farmers who will become increasingly important as those who have been in the industry for decades begin to retire. 

The average age of a farmer in the United States is now 57, but a growing number of young people are showing interest in farming. 

Those who show in interest are finding support at Gardens of Eagan, too. The farm has employed a number of first-time farmers and serves as the host site for the Organic Field School, a program that serves as an incubator for fledgling farmers.  

“We’re giving people the opportunity to run a farm and learn at a level they wouldn’t get working for anyone else,” Diffley said. “It’s going to spawn a lot of new farmers, which is what I hoped it would do.”

Laura Frerichs is among those who were mentored by the Diffleys on the farm. She came to the farm in 2003 with no experience, but is now in her eighth year running Loon Organics in Hutchinson with her husband Adam Cullip. 

Frerichs saw hail destroy crops and the fight over the pipeline during her stay, but said she left more determined than ever to make farming her lifetime pursuit. Now, she said she is hoping to pass on the tradition to other young people. 

“It’s really come full circle,” Frerichs said. “Now that we have our own employees who want to be farmers, it’s a really neat feeling. I think it’s heartening for Martin and Atina to see that the people they taught are now able to teach others.”

Had she ended up anywhere else, she said, her life could have been completely different.

“I’m just so happy that they took a chance and hired me,” Frerichs said. “That first experience was so crucial. Had I ended up on a different farm, I may not have wanted to continue learning and continue down this path, so I really credit them for paving the way and planting that seed.”