Former Shows & Episodes

The Manic Gardener

Kate Gardner

The Manic Gardener – A Farmer’s story

When they try to make a movie of Atina Diffley’s story, some producer is going to reject it as unbelievable. Losing one organic farm to development, okay; but nearly losing a big chunk of the second to an oil pipeline? A pipeline owned by one of the two largest companies in the United States?

Start with this setup, and it’s a given that Atina takes them on and beats them. To top it off, she not only protects her own land from the pipeline, but she gets Koch to accept an agreement (at least in Minnesota) that will protect all organic farms threatened by pipelines. Then add that Atina had survived five years in an early, abusive marriage.

Isn’t that just a bit much, as plots go? Maybe. But it’s true.

Author of the beautiful memoir, Turn Here Sweet Corn: Organic Farming Works, Atina Diffley joins me this week to talk about the double assault on organic farms that she and her husband Martin have endured. She describes the “total ecological collapse” they saw as their first farm was gradually sold off to developers, and the shock when she discovered that their second farm might be subject to a claim of eminent domain by the Koch Brothers, who were planning to lay a pipeline across it carrying oil from Alberta’s oil sands. (No, the Keystone XL pipeline would not be the first.)

In part, this is the story of Atina’s transformation, from a battered woman almost devoid of self-esteem, to the woman who took on the Koch brothers and won. But it is also the story of the community she and Martin had built, for Atina stresses, both in the interview and in the book, that she did not win this victory alone. Her intrepid attorney was essential, as was Martin’s support on the home front. But the thousands of letters written by satisfied customers may have tipped the balance, for they made clear to the judge that this farm could not simply be replaced by another. Establishing that fact—that the farm was not fungible—was essential in arguing that Koch should not be allowed to damage it.

This saga is rife with smaller anecdotes, often funny ones, for Atina has retained her sense of humor even about some of the most devastating moments in these crises. There’s not much to laugh at when she tells how she and Martin lose an entire potato crop in a single night of rain after the adjoining hill has been stripped bare. But when she adds that the developer—of Irish extraction, no less—doesn’t know that potatoes grow in the ground, a touch of the ludicrous leavens the scene. And when she tells how her gentle husband terrifies the developer into buying the ruined field from the old woman who owns it—well, I, for one, laughed out loud. I hope you do too.

Go to the blog, The Manic Gardener to see more on this topic.