Many of us can remember that moment while eating fresh broccoli, sweet corn or kale and we were struck by how incredibly delicious vegetables taste. It is as if we were eating vegetables for the first time in our lives. In Atina Diffley’s new book, Turn Here Sweet Corn, we learn what it takes to produce that sort of vegetable—the hard work, the love of the land, the capacity for taking risk, and the joys and pains of a farm family.
Read from one perspective, the book is a chronicle of Atina Diffley’s life so far. She paints a portrait of a farm girl with a fierce independent streak, longing to get away, but also longing to farm. As an adventurous young woman, she leaves home, pursues music, marries unhappily, has a child, is introduced to the world of food co-ops, falls in love, and begins a very interesting and challenging life raising organic food with her husband Martin Diffley. Throughout, she draws on the strength of her roots, and nurturing those roots becomes a metaphor that sustains her story.
From another perspective, this is the story of Atina’s relationship with her husband Martin. From her descriptions of falling in love to their conversations decades later, Diffley gives the reader a picture of a true partnership. The Diffleys are fifth generation farmers whose lives and farms are an important piece of our region’s history, of its development from a frontier settlement to a metropolis. Everyone on the family farm had a job, of course; growing up, Martin was the “gardener,” the one who grew vegetables. To Martin, gardening means loving the land more than loving farming.
Looked at it yet another way, this is the story of Gardens of Eagan, which Martin and Atina built and nurtured over many years, and which the Wedge Co-op bought in 2008. When Martin was starting out, organic was virtually unknown; Diffley recounts a funny story of the market manager at the Minneapolis Farmers Market putting up a sign for Martin’s stall that read, “Gardens of Eagan Organatic Vegetables.” The story of Gardens of Eagan is one of learning and stewardship, seeing the connections in all things. It is also a story rife with calamity and struggle: crop failure, pesticide drift, drought, loss, development, hail, oil pipelines. Through it all, the Diffleys are resolute and resilient, as is the land they tend.
In fact, this is quite simply a tale of intimacy with the land, told by one of the pioneers of the modern organic movement. Along the way, it raises interesting questions about the financial viability of farming, and paints a pretty stark picture of the reality of that life. But it leaves no doubt about what it means to truly know and love and care for the land that produces our food.