Organic activist Atina Diffley to speak at Ohio food and farm conference

By Debbi Snook
The Cleveland Plain Dealer

Old MacDonald had a farm, and a whopping good story to go with it. Atina Diffley had a farm, and she believes that every organic farmer needs to find his or her own stories and sing them aloud.

Here’s one of hers: When plants in her Minnesota greenhouse became infested with damaging aphids, she noticed one of her field crops was covered with ladybugs, the aphids’ natural enemies. She trucked her aphid-infested plants out to the ladybug area and let them sit overnight. In the morning, the aphids had been devoured.

It’s the classic story of integrated pest management, she says, one of the hallmarks of organic solutions. No pesticides were necessary.

Diffley wants organic farmers to use stories like this to help make the world healthier and less chemical-dependent.

Diffley, 54, will be the keynote speaker Friday-Sunday, Feb. 14-16 at the annual conference of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, or OEFFA, the state’s leading organic advocacy group and one of its major farm certifying agents. The conference draws hundreds of attendees to Granville, southeast of Columbus, with nearly 100 talks and workshops with topics that range from growing and marketing to making a living from small-scale organic farms and gardens.

Diffley spent decades as a farmer and wrote books about it, including “Turn Here Sweet Corn: Organic Farming Works” (University of Minnesota Press, 2012) — part romance (with her husband and co-farmer, Martin), part war (legally, with a utility trying to run a pipeline through her land) and part organic creed. She has since left farming for work as a consultant and advocate.

The organic movement is a small part of agricultural America, but its sales are growing much faster than sales from conventional farms. Even the supermarket industry is predicting organics will have a 14 percent growth over the next five years.

Diffley spoke by phone about the optimism – and proper storytelling — necessary for the organic movement to pick up greater speed and meet what she calls greater needs.

She misses farming, she says, “but I wanted to be feeding people through their minds.”

Why do farmers need to be organic advocates?

I really want farmers to recognize their role as a connection between the land and the people who eat their food. They really have this opportunity to activate the people they’re feeding toward making policy changes. We are a hero culture and eaters are interested in what the farmers are doing.

The way we eat is really important, and we need to take the next step. Agriculture is 40 percent of our planet and the leading cause of habitat degradation, species extinction and greenhouse gases that lead to climate change. When you change agriculture, you make all the difference in the world.

How so, exactly?

Organic farms, statistically, sequester 15 percent to 28 percent more carbon than conventional farms. That’s significant. That’s equal to hundreds of thousands of cars off the road. Instead of bringing in fertilizer from off the farm, you’re growing it on the farm by building soil health. Organic farms change the hydrology of their soil, and they change where the water runoff goes. If you add 1 percent of organic matter to the soil, an acre can hold an extra 16,500 gallons of water. That also will get you through six weeks of drought. The service provided to the community by an organic farm goes beyond food. Another is the practice of biological diversity on a farm, which supports pest and disease management and the protection of native pollinators. We take trees and wildlife for granted, but we cannot survive without them. We can survive without our computers but not without nature.

Who should farm?

It’s not for everyone. You have to like being outside. You have to have some tolerance for physical discomfort, and you have to have good stress-management skills. I encourage anyone to take a look. When we were farming, people would show up every year, wanting to work for us. One said he definitely wanted to have a farm, but never did. Other people said they were doing it because they didn’t know what else they wanted [to do]. And they became farmers. People should just go and try it. They should go work for someone else’s farm, or multiple farms, and at places bigger than they ever want to be. If you’re going to make it, you have to learn systems of economy. I’ve seen high-quality farms not make it because they couldn’t figure out that when they said they’d be at a meeting at 7 a.m., they needed to be there at 7. You’ve got to know how to be in a business relationship, and how to repair those relationships. I see people with a marketing background thriving as farmers, and growing more quickly than those who don’t have that background.

You’ve talked in your book about running away from home at 17, being in an abusive marriage and finally “stepping out of the victim role.”

I was caught in a situation where I let other people define me. But you can’t be 50 and living as a 2-year-old would see the world. When I see people acting irrationally, I think that what they’re doing is going back to their hurt 2-year-old self. It’s nice if you can get professional help or find friends to catch you when you’re stepping out of reality, thinking you’re not smart enough, strong enough or good enough. One of my best gifts was being able to write my “Turn Here” book. I had to say what happened, how I felt about it, and what I know to be true now. In that process I learned a lot of things.

You’ve said cities need to plan for their food futures.

If you took out the bridges to cities, most of them would run out of food in three or four days. It’s important to decentralize food for stability. If you have a drought, you need another system to move to.

I like to think regionally. The word “local” food is not clear enough. It’s an abused word. There was a summer in the 1880s when summer never really came. There was massive starvation in Europe and America. Now we have the luxury of shipping food long distances, but just because we have the capacity, doesn’t mean that’s what we should always do to be economically viable and environmentally sound. That will take a maturation of growers’ skills and it will bring the price of food up.

But it’s worth it. When abolitionists were fighting slavery they faced the argument that without slaves there would be an economic disaster in agriculture and its economy. That’s the same argument we’re facing today. Basically, when you look at the fruit and vegetable-growing world, you’re looking at institutional slavery. These people are not making a living wage, not getting health care, can’t afford homes.

But people don’t want organics to cost more.

It has to cost more because smaller farms don’t have the same economic advantage. But that will get better as organics grow. I’m upset at people who think of organic food as bourgeoisie. I bought a solar-power system once and a friend remarked that if I had waited two years, it would be cheaper. My response was that it would never get cheaper if nobody bought them now. It takes somebody to make change happen. Gradually, prices will come down. Right now we need to do what it takes to keep these farmers going. Glory be to the people who put their money where their mouth is.

You see the food movement as a social movement?

Absolutely. It took women 70 years to get the right to vote. There were women who didn’t live long enough to see that happen. But it was worth their efforts. Today we wonder, ‘What was the world thinking when they believed that women were too emotional to vote?’ So today we have an agricultural system that’s destructive of the environment. We cannot survive without that environment, cannot replace it. Look at the composition of the body. Essentially, we’re made of the same stuff plants and insects are made of, and soil is made of. And we eat those plants and they become our bodies. Yet we are so fundamentally removed from that realization.