Long before there ever existed a county called Dakota, while Minnesota was still just a territory, a community's survival depended on a fresh, local food source.

In 1855, the people who lived off the rich, fertile soil of what is now Eagan had never heard of pesticides, herbicides or any other "'cides." There was no such thing as urban sprawl. There was an abundance of land. And there were the Diffleys.

That's the Diffleys of Eagan's "Diffley Road," to be precise. More than a century ago, on the corner of Dodd Road and what is now Diffley Road, William and Katherine Diffley settled a small homestead and began to cultivate 120 acres of land that lies between Diffley Road and what is now South Robert Trail. The Diffleys, who grew grains and vegetables and raised dairy cows, had a working relationship with soil, water and seed that produced an abundant crop that neighbors depended upon.

The history of Eagan and the Diffley family history are so intertwined, one would be hard-pressed to speak of one without mention of the other.

On April 1, Atina Diffley, who, with her husband, Martin, carries the organic family farming torch to this day, released a book about her own relationships with nature. "Turn Here Sweet Corn: Organic Farming Works," has already been praised as a compelling, yet sometimes tragic, story of her life as an organic farmer.

Pitfalls galore

Today, Atina and Martin are considered experts on organic farming, a status they've attained despite facing unfortunate circumstances over the years.

Perhaps the most daunting, and most well known, was in 2006, when Anita took on Koch Industries, one of the largest private oil companies in the United States, when the company tried to build a crude-oil pipeline that would effectively destroy the farm, called "The Gardens of Eagan" -- a name kept from the former Diffley Road property and used where they were then farming in Eureka Township.

On April 9 of that year, Diffley was notified that the Minnesota Pipeline Company, owned by a subsidiary of Koch Industries, intended to construct a crude oil pipeline beginning in Canada and ending at the Koch Refinery in Rosemount. The pipeline would cross three parcels of her land and, she said, render it useless for growing anything organic.

The proposal included a document called the Agricultural Impact Mitigation Plan, which explained that "MPL will not knowingly allow the amount of top cover to erode more than 12 inches from its original level." The plan infuriated Diffley. "How arrogant that they think they had a right to erode my topsoil that I had built and built for 15 years," she said.

A long, difficult battle began.

"The Department of Agriculture was a big help," Diffley said. She had to prove that organic farms were valuable entities that needed to be protected. In the book, she writes "I am the guardian here. I am the voice for these faultless plants and this generous soil."

Reflecting on that initial experience with the legal process in her book, Anita said she is troubled that nature has "no inherent right of its own in a court of law ... In order to protect nature we must prove a loss to humans, yet we are utterly dependent on nature for survival."

Therein lies an essential message of the book, Atina said: It's about the relationships between nature and people -- and their food.

"I think our relationship with nature is our oldest relationship," she said. Because of today's hustle and bustle, most people are removed from it and don't think about it, "but I believe fundamentally human beings can feel it," she said.

A previous letdown

The Diffleys had been through the loss of their land once before, when the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan schools took over 20 acres of their land to build Pinewood Elementary School. At the time, the Diffleys owned only a small plot on the east side of the property, where they sold produce at their original "Gardens of Eagan" roadside stand along South Robert Trail. Martin's relatives owned the rest of the property. Soon, the remaining 100 acres were sold for development.

It took four years for the district to take over the land, she said. "At the time, we were farming immediately adjacent to the field they were bulldozing."

Once the Eagan land was gone and the Diffleys had purchased their new land in Eureka Township, they spent 36 months preparing the soil to meet certified organic standards.

With the help of her attorney, Paula Maccabee, the Department of Agriculture, expert witnesses and thousands of supporters around the state, Atina wrote up a new "organic appendix" to the original mitigation plan specifically geared toward organic farms, showing their value and what could be lost if destroyed.

After an exhausting legal battle, the new plan was approved by the Public Utilities Commission. In the end, not only would MPL reroute its line, but the Diffleys' efforts also gained protection for all organic farms should they face a similar dilemma in the future. The new appendix has since been invoked in several other projects around the state.

The outpouring of support for organic farms during the case was a major reason for the victory, Diffley said.

Today, six years after Atina received the letters from MPL, the "Gardens of Eagan" name has been bought by the Wedge Community Co-op, which is leasing the land for its own food production and plans to move to its own site in the future.

Atina and Martin Diffley co-own and operate a consulting business called "Organic Farming Works," which aims to educate farmers and consumers about organic farming.

Diffley said she hopes that someday humans will fulfill their need for a relationship with nature and, in turn, nature will have its own inherent right in a court of law.

"We're absolutely moving towards it," she said. "That's why organic food is so important, because every single human being that eats food has a relationship with nature ... By choosing their food, they are choosing what they want that relationship to be."

Ashley Bray is a University of Minnesota journalism student on assignment for the Star Tribune.