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Eureka resident Atina Diffley publishes book about organic farming

There is more drama than you might expect in the world of organic farming. Bad weather and legal battles. Romance. Even some menacing coyotes.

Atina Diffley has captured much of that drama in Turn Here Sweet Corn, a recently published memoir that records more than three decades of her life as a pioneering organic farmer in the Midwest, first in Eagan and later in Eureka Township. The book, published by University of Minnesota Press, was released April 1.

Diffley grew up wanting to be a farmer. Her parents both grew up on farms, and while the family had a 100-acre property when Diffley was a child they also had off-farm income. For Diffley, it was the best of both worlds. She got an early exposure to agriculture, but without the chores most farm kids have.

Diffley and her husband, Martin, launched Gardens of Eagan in 1973 on Martin's family land in Eagan.

In those days, nobody knew much about organic farming. There were no federal or state regulations for the fledgling industry, and potential customers knew little about why they should choose an organic product over what they could find in the supermarket.

"We just had to educate every single customer," Diffley said. "They didn't know what organic meant at all. There was a lot of preconceived notions that organic would be lower quality, which there's no reason at all for organic to be lower quality. We had to educate them why it mattered."

There were plenty of other challenges, too, from dealing with the whims of the weather to fighting against a planned oil pipeline that would have disrupted their farm operations.

All of that is in the book, which has been described as both a history of Diffley's involvement in the growth of organic farming and a love story.

That last part surprised Diffley. She didn't know what people were talking about when they started describing the book as a romance. She didn't know what the inner story of the book would be until she was nearly finished.

A lot about writing the book came as a surprise. Diffley didn't know quite what would come out when she sat down for the first time in November of 2009. She just knew she wanted to write a memoir of her farming experience and, after selling the farm operation to The Wedge Co-Op, she finally had time. She figured the rest would come together along the way.

"I didn't know what stories I wanted to tell and I didn't know what my inner story was," Diffley said.

Diffley took a writing class, and on the advice of her instructor she sat down one day and just started writing. One story reminded her of another, and she just went with them. Eventually, she had about 300 stories. That's when she started figuring out how to pull them all together.

She has scenes about delivering sweet corn to a vendor, or about a particularly damaging hail storm. Then there's the scene with the coyotes. That's one of her favorites.

The story took place shortly after she and Martin moved their operation out of Eagan to make way for a school and a housing development. As they spent their first night on the Eurkea property coyotes circled the house. She doesn't finish the story - you have to read the book for that - but it illustrates one of the book's main themes.

"You're really out there with nature," she said. "What we do is interacting with it, and we all are affected by one another."

Writing the book was a unique experience for Diffley. It allowed her to look back on parts of her life and in some cases it let her get closure she couldn't have gotten any other way. It made a difference, she said, being able to look back with a more mature perspective.

"I came up with things I decided when I was 3 years old and I'd never really reexamined them," Diffley said. "I realized I was still living as if they were true."

The experience has her hooked. She already is talking about writing a second book.

There's no shortage of drama in organic farming, after all.

Nathan Hansen

Nathan Hansen has been a reporter and editor with the Farmington Independent and the Rosemount Town Pages since 1997. He is very tall.

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