Turn Here Sweet Corn, by Atina Diffley. Book Review

 

This new book (published by the University of Minnesota Press) offers a real-life organic vegetable farmer’s memoir. Normally, I look for inspiring reading during the winter, to refresh myself for the next farming season. This book, however, is a perfect mid-summer revival aid for farmers and gardeners flagging in the heat. It gives us perspective on our troubles as we read of Atina’s and husband Martin’s struggles with wild weather (hailstones the size of B potatoes!), continuous hard work, and land lost to developers and threatened by a pipeline. The immediacy of their powerful and tender story and Atina’s decision to stand up and become a leader for what she believes in gives us inspiration. We can feel validation of our work as organic vegetable growers as we read that 1¼ acres of kale can produce 182,000 servings, and if our marketing is as good as the Diffleys’, we can sell them all within 42 miles of the farm! Organic farming sequesters 15-28% more carbon than industrial farming, with a 33% reduction in fossil fuel use.

Atina and Martin owned and operated Gardens of Eagan (one of the first certified organic produce farms in the Midwest) from 1973-2007, so you can be sure Atina knows farming! Starting as a confused teenager (as many of us do), Atina grew into a strong, committed passionate leader of the organic farming movement. Her descriptions of the beauty, deep satisfaction, multiple stresses and sheer exhaustion of farming ring so true. She talks about the meaning in the daily life of organic farmers, of investing in the soil life, creating balance, seeing the potential of each field, and bringing that out. “Dirt is just soil that’s out of place. Soil has structure. Dirt does not.”

Early in the book, you might wonder if she’ll ever make it as a farmer, but her determination and perseverance, and the quality of attention she brings to what happens on the farm ensure her success, and our gripping reading. The Diffley family farm is lost to developers, who carve and churn up the soil even while Atina, Martin, their two children and their crew rush to harvest their crops. They decide to piece together a farm from patches of land they buy and rent, until they find the perfect farm to buy. Being itinerant farmers is no easy choice, and requires exceptional organizational skills.

One of their organizational strengths comes from using Holistic Management tools learned at a workshop. She and Martin each write “quality of life” statements, answering the question “If we lived perfect lives, what would it look like?” Each winter they quit farming for a week, party and relax in clean clothes, with clean fingernails. Even talking about the weather is an “illicit act” during the Quitting Week. Then they state their goals for the year and recommit. When they farm again it is a conscious choice. Decisions have to fit their quality of life statements.

Atina says: “I have the same nightmare every winter. If I think about everything it takes to pull off a successful season, it seems impossible . . . [but] if we have a plan in place and I stay in the present, then the work is manageable. . . I just have to remember not to look too far ahead.” Exactly the same is true for me, maybe for you too.

One year they decide to simplify their crops and cut a deal where each picks a crop to drop. Goodbye to potatoes, onions, winter squash, leeks. Sort of. Atina admits that she and Martin then each sneak some winter squash in, unable to completely let go of the experience they have gained in growing this crop.

This amazing book also has gems of practical information embedded in the story, and they’re worth noting. Techniques include the use of farm micro-climates (the first place the purslane germinates is the best spot for early tomatoes and melons); moving flats of aphid-infested seedlings out into the center of a field of vetch for the day, to have the insects in the vetch feast on the aphids; accepting up to 50% defoliation of broccoli plants between the six-leaf stage and heading, because it will not decrease the yield; reducing the chance of aphid-vectored diseases in a squash planting by sowing a “toothbrush strip” of wheat around the perimeter (when the aphids chew on the wheat it cleans the viruses from their mouthparts, so the squash stay virus-free).

The farm grows in size and complexity each year, with a bigger work crew and more refrigerated trucks. They also develop a massive supportive community of consumers and produce retailers, which is to prove its worth as the story develops. When the Diffleys find their new farm, they can finally set the washing-line poles in concrete. But a big cloud comes over the perfect horizon – Koch Industries claim eminent domain to route their pipeline through their farm. Atina fights this, not just for their farm, but for other organic farmers too, establishing a protocol for safeguards to be taken if organic farm soil and wildlife habitat is disrupted.

The normal legal process for a farm trying to prevent a pipeline across their land involves proposing other people’s farms as possible alternative routes. This process divides us and causes each of us to need to compete with each other and fight individually. Atina Diffley created an Organic Appendix to the Agricultural Impact Mitigation Plan (AIMP) that is legally required when farmland is dsirupted. Atina and her legal team got the pipeline company to accept that (in the words of Dr Deborah Allen) “The losses to an organic vegetable farm from diminished soil quality are of a different character and order of magnitude than on a conventional crop farm.” Healthy soil is necessary for a successful organic farm. By creating this Organic Appendix and getting the pipeline company to accept it, Atina made something other organic farms could also use to prevent eminent domain devastation on their farms. It could also encourage other farms to transition to certified organic and benefit from the Appendix. Far from falling for the individual solution and fighting only for her farm, while further jeopardizing other farms, Atina found a way to unite with other organic farmers in fighting the assault.

This mixture of heart-breaking and encouraging is what makes the book so engaging. Atina tells us: “Every winter I do recover from the season’s exhaustion, but if I push too far, I won’t. As we age, personal balance will require more consistent time for renewal.” In keeping with her wisdom, after 35 years of farming, Atina and Martin retired from active farming to become educators and consultants about organic farming. See their Organic Farming Works website for more info.

Sowing greens for fall

Senposai – a delicious, cold-tolerant leaf green

One of my tasks this week has been sowing fall greens. I start sowing in the third or fourth week of June, and set aside time once a week for about six weeks, to sow more and weed and thin the older seedlings. The first two weeks are the most intense, and if I’m successful with those, I have a lot less work in the weeks following. If something goes wrong, I resow whatever didn’t come up, or died.

For fall greens, we don’t sow in flats but directly in a nursery bed, covered with rowcover on hoops to keep the harlequin bugs and flea beetles off. It’s less work, easier to keep them all watered, and they are not cramped in small cells: they make good roots and are more tolerant of hot conditions.

This year we are growing twelve different varieties of broccoli and eleven of cabbage! We hope to compare them and next year just grow the best few varieties of each  crop. We are growing to feed the hundred members of Twin Oaks Community, not to sell to a wholesaler, so we want a long broccoli season, and sideshoots are as important to us as main heads. We want cabbage that stores, as well as cabbage that is ready quickly. Our broccoli patch is part of the Novic trials, so we hope others will learn from our plants too.

To organize all these different sowings I have a spreadsheet and a map of the nursery beds. I prepare the bed, make the furrows, write a plastic label for each variety, measure the rows, set the labels in place, then water the furrows very thoroughly before sowing the seeds and covering them with (dry)soil from the sides of the furrows. This is a good way to help seeds germinate during hot dry weather: the seeds sit in the mud, where they have enough water to germinate and get up above ground. It’s much more successful than watering after sowing, when you sprinkle water on a dry surface and hope in goes down deep enough and doesn’t evaporate. And, contrary to some myths, brassica seeds can germinate very well at high temperatures. They just need the water right there where the seeds are.

We’ll transplant our seedlings when they are 3-4 weeks old, watering first, then

Kohlrabi is another of the less-common brassicas. We like to mix the purple plants with the green ones

digging them up and setting the bare-root transplants out in their rows. We’re planning 2000 ft of broccoli, 1300 ft of cabbage, 540 ft of senposai (a delicious tender leaf green with some frost tolerance), 360 ft of kohlrabi, and 90 ft each of Chinese cabbage and Yukina Savoy (a cold-tolerant giant tatsoi). That’s plenty of plants to rehouse in a short time and keep alive and happy.

This year we are trying two new things. One is Proteknet in place of rowcover. It’s a fine mesh nylon fabric that keeps bugs out, but lets more light in than most spun-bonded rowcovers, and has much better airflow. We think we’ll have healthier plants. Also, we can see them through the mesh, so we know they’ve germinated and can spot problems early. One year we checked under our rowcover and found fleabeetles had got in and had a busy week, chomping along the rows. We got the ProtekNet from Purple Mountain Organics in Maryland, suppliers of good tools with the personal recommendations from the company.

The second new thing we’re trying is drip irrigation in the field. We use drip for some of our crops, but previously we used overhead sprinklers for the fall greens. We’ve had trouble in recent years with the extremely hot weather in late July and early August when we transplant. We think setting out the drip irrigation and running the water while we plant will help the plants get over their transplant shock. And we’ll be able to give them an hour of water in the middle of each day for the first week, to help them face this brutal weather we’re having. And the best bit is: they can get their mid-day watering without me walking up and down dragging a hose. I can be indoors blogging!