Atina Diffley, a "rock star" in organic farming circles, now aims to cultivate hearts and minds with her new memoir about love, loss, land and battling a pipeline.
It took a while, but Atina Diffley has finally broken her habit of dressing like a farmer.
"I don't get up in the morning and put on dirty clothes anymore. I kept doing it for three years," she admitted with a hearty laugh.
Now the organic farmer turned writer, teacher and consultant has to get her exercise at the gym. She's even started wearing makeup, a concession to promoting her just-published memoir, "Turn Here Sweet Corn." "I've had to shift my image of myself," Diffley said.
"She kept saying, 'I don't believe in makeup. I am what I am,'" said chef and author Beth Dooley, Diffley's writing mentor. So how did Dooley finally persuade her? "I told her it was no different than garnishing a plate."
Filling people's plates with delicious, healthful food has been Diffley's lifelong passion. Protecting the land that produces such food is the beating heart of her book, which the University of Minnesota Press is promoting as "a master class in organic farming, a lesson in entrepreneurship, a love story and a legal thriller."
Diffley won a David vs. Goliath battle against an energy conglomerate that wanted to put a crude-oil pipeline on her land, a dramatic episode recounted in her memoir. That victory helped cement her stature as a "rock star" in organic farming circles, as she was introduced at her recent book-launch party, where she received two standing ovations.
"It's such a powerful tale: Atina and Paula [attorney Paula Maccabee] vs. the Koch brothers," said Audrey Arner, co-owner of Moonstone Farm near Montevideo, Minn. "It makes it feel like a supernatural story, like they're superheroes."
But ask Diffley what she's proudest of, and her answer is simple: "Growing food. I wish I could see all the food we've produced in one space and all the people who've eaten it. It's so basic to what's important in life. To us, that's a legacy."
"Us" is Diffley and her husband, Martin, her longtime partner in farming. Together, they operated Gardens of Eagan -- one of the Midwest's first certified organic produce farms -- for more than two decades before selling the name and equipment to the Wedge Community Co-op in 2008. They still live on the Eureka Township farmstead, but now they're partners in a consulting business, Organic Farming Works, as well as a corn-breeding project.
She helps other farming couples find their way at a class she teaches, through the Land Stewardship Project, on communication for beginning farmers. Many are husband-wife operations, she notes, and farming is a demanding 24/7 lifestyle, yet farmers can't neglect their own needs.
During her class, she instructs students to stand on a chair, put their hand over their heart and say, "Me first." She jumps onto her own couch to demonstrate. "Louder! It's hilarious. Do it every morning in the mirror. It's like putting on your own oxygen mask so you can help others."
Students have been enthusiastic, said Nick Olson, Land Stewardship Project program organizer. "Everybody raves about that session."
Diffley has "charisma," Olson said. "She captivates you the moment she starts talking. And she's drawing from experience, which makes it richer. She puts herself out there, shares stories about herself."
Her desire to share stories is what drove her to the keyboard. "I love writing. It's what I want to do with the rest of my life," she said.
But she also has an agenda: spurring thought and discussion about land use. Or, as she writes in her book: "Instead of entering people's lives through food, I want my words to enter their minds."
"That's a little creepy," she said with a laugh. "I wrote it, then deleted it, then put it back in."
The book, which ends with a kale recipe, includes vivid stories about her stint as a migrant farm worker, meeting and falling in love with her husband, weathering drought and hail, bearing and raising children and planting potatoes while eight months pregnant. But one story was the catalyst for the book.
"The bulldozers were burning a hole in me," she said. "I had to tell that story."
The bulldozers are the villains, the destructive symbols of an earlier land battle, one the Diffleys didn't win. Their original Gardens of Eagan, a farm that had been in Martin's family for generations, was lost to suburban development in the early 1990s. Acre by acre, the bulldozers strafed the land, and their farm suffered. "We had terrible erosion, and went from managing our pests to having major pest issues," she said. "It was the biggest lesson of my life, why we have to protect nature."
The loss scarred their whole family. "Our kids were so connected to the Eagan land," she said. "It was their school, their sanctuary, where they got in touch with the divine. It was so intimate. When the bulldozers came, it was not just an ecological collapse, but a spiritual collapse."
There was no time to grieve; the Diffleys had a new farm to start up and run.
But years later, once she started writing, the pain came pouring out. "The book had a life of its own, and I was hanging onto the steering wheel," she said. "I wrote the bulldozer scenes in four days, then read them to Martin. We sat and sobbed. It was the first time we allowed ourselves to feel what that loss was."
But that loss stiffened her resolve, she said. "If I hadn't gone through the bulldozer experience, I don't know if I would have had what it took to fight the pipeline," when their second farm was threatened in 2006.
Once she'd written some sections, she approached Dooley and asked for feedback. "Frankly, I was surprised how good it was," Dooley said. "I've read plenty of farm memoirs but what captivated me is the poetry in the way Atina writes. She has a wonderful ear and a good sense of story."
The book deserves a wide audience, Dooley said. "I pray it doesn't get pegged to a category. This is literature. It's every woman's story, about land use and food but also about resilience and being yourself."
And even though Diffley finally caved to using cosmetics, she's still very much herself, Dooley said. "There couldn't be anyone more genuine. There isn't a lick of bullshit in her."
Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784