Apr 7, 2007
Tempting Vegetables Lure in Customers

Atina Diffley remembers the Alar scare of 1989 – but for the opposite reason many apple growers remember it.

For apple growers, it was a financial disaster. In panic, schools dropped apples from the lunch menu and mothers dumped apple juice down the drain. Apple sales plummeted.

History has yet to decide whether the Alar-and-apple cancer scare was based on a “real” health threat or was an elaborate, well-planned campaign orchestrated by the Natural Resources Defense Council, but its effects were real and long-lasting.

“Alar triggered people’s thinking about what they were feeding their kids,” Diffley said, and “it shifted their thinking.”

That would foster the rise of organic farming like nothing had before.

The Diffleys, Martin and Atina, were already organic farmers, but the watermark Alar event helped to move organic farmers from quaint to mainstream. Martin credits consumers, who voted with their food dollars.

“They spent it where it counted,” he said.

Today, the Diffleys operate a wholesale organic vegetable operation, called Gardens of Eagan, that supplies produce to nine natural food stores – both commercial and cooperative – three wholesalers and one farm market (their own).

Gardens of Eagan is a 32-year-old, 150-acre, certified organic farm located 45 minutes south of Minneapolis-St. Paul, near Eagan, Minn.

The farm is based on “wholesale production of a few things,” Atina said.

They sell 12 basic products – kale, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, onions, tomatoes, peppers, sweet corn, watermelons, cucumbers, muskmelons and winter squash. They produce some vegetables in more than one color or variety, but they grow only three kinds of tomatoes, for example, out of hundreds to choose from, and 10 kinds of squash.

Atina, who’s in charge of marketing, is proud that she can pack boxes of vegetables that will be accepted by buyers, who need not open a box and inspect it – and when they do, they’ll like it.

“We aim for the ‘wow effect,'” Atina said.

Martin takes pride in the physical production side of the business and that he has modified or constructed machinery that fits the organic production mode, especially for tillage and weed control.

Both of them take pride in the organic production methods that they hewed to long before organic was fashionable or the federal government set and enforced standards. When standards were set in Minnesota, Martin Diffley helped formulate them.

The Diffleys received the second annual Organic Farmer of the Year award from the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service during the 15th annual Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference in La Crosse, Wis., in February.

They were recognized for “their innovative marketing ideas, use and adaptation of mechanical equipment, experimentation with cover cropping, green manure crops and compost, and just through the sheer size of their operation. They are one of the longest certified organic operations in the United States, having been first certified in 1975.”

Organic Production

Basic to the name “organic” is the idea that crops should grow within a natural ecology in which nutrients cycle through organic matter. To get enough nutrients, as well as to prevent weed, insect and disease buildups and to condition the soil, the Diffleys rely on two basic production essentials – compost and organic matter from cover crops.

Half of their 150 acres are planted with cover crops at any given time, and they grow three cover crops in one year. Here’s how it works.

Starting after a vegetable crop, in early fall they plant hairy vetch, a nitrogen-fixing legume. They let it grow in the spring, incorporating it in June.

In late June, after tilling two or three times to deplete the weed seed bank and kill the vetch, they plant either soybeans or sorghum-sudangrass. Soybeans fix nitrogen (N), a major limiting factor in crop production when synthetic fertilizer is not used. They also do a good job of conditioning the soil, Atina said. Sorghum-sudangrass produces no N, but planted after vetch it takes up N and produces lots of organic matter that returns the N later and adds what she calls “fluff” to the soil.

These are incorporated into the soil in August and followed again with vetch. The two or three legume crops produce the nitrogen that will give the plants that lush green “wow effect” Atina likes in the packed boxes.

They use compost they make themselves from cow and turkey manure they buy. Compost is a source of a complex organic matter often called humus that builds tilth and soil aggregate structure. Added at the rate of two to four tons per acre, compost also adds microorganisms to the soil, which results in disease suppression and enhances water-holding capacity.

While they grow their crops on plastic mulch and use drip irrigation, they find soil rich in organic matter reduces crop stress during hot, dry conditions. One of Martin’s inventions is a side-delivery manure spreader they use to sidedress compost in a two-foot swath.

In recent years, organics farmers have gained access to more pesticides that are made from natural materials, like pyrethrins, or products made with Bacillus thurengiensis, that effectively control pests. The Diffleys use the Bt products against cabbage looper, a major threat to several of the crops they grow.

Despite not using copper and sulfur, fungicides allowed in organic production, the Diffleys tend to have few disease problems. On tomatoes, they use wide rows to maintain good air flow and till in compost, which has fungicidal properties, Atina said.

Weeds are controlled with tillage.

“The soil is pretty well cleaned up,” she said. “We don’t have much weed pressure.”

Saving the Farm

When Martin started farming in 1973, he took over a family farm that was already more than a century old. His father had died the year before, and his uncle offered him the land to farm. He began farming organically, and met Atina in 1985 when she came to the farm to use the cider press. They got to know one another better while pulling weeds from the onions ¬– the price she paid to use the press.

But three years later, the farm was overrun by urban sprawl. Part was lost through eminent domain to the Eagan school district, and when sewer and water assessments became too high, they sold the farm. They spent three years farming scattered rented land before finding a new place in 1991, and three more years cleaning it up for organic production.

What’s left of the old five-generation farm is a site for their farm market. Gardens of Eagan Farm Market is 30 minutes away from their Farmington farm, which makes it hard to manage, Atina said.

“It’s profitable, but we haven’t really developed it and we don’t push it,”

Instead, they have focused on their stores and distributors.

“We do not play the California price game,” Atina said. “Prices don’t go up and down every week. We have verbal agreements with the stores, and they commit to buy from us. We commit to grow for them. We agree to one price for the whole season. We charge what is a fair, organic, local price.”

To the concepts of local distribution and fair pricing, the Diffleys add other aspects of community service.

They worked with the Land Stewardship Project to promote awareness of the importance of land preservation in urban areas, helping to create a documentary film, “Turn Here – Sweet Corn.”

They speak at organic farming and vegetable production conferences and host field days. They help Hmong and other immigrants by providing jobs and connecting them to equipment to start their own farms. They educate young people on organic vegetable farming through their on-farm intern program, which was the first in the Midwest.

It takes about 12 people during the production and harvest seasons. Martin and Atina have one son, Maize, who grew up in the fields and is now 18 and starting college.

The intern program provides needed labor and, in return, gives an education in organic farming, a paycheck at the federal minimum wage plus perks like free food and housing and bonuses for those who stay the season.

The intern work plan includes all the tasks of the farm – starting with greenhouse setup and planting in March, continuing through compost application, machinery preparation, soil preparation, planting, crop care, cultivation, green manure planting and incorporation and sweet corn harvest starting in July.

Then comes September.

“Harvesting, harvesting, harvesting! Everything is ripe!” Atina said.

The farm stand opens and closes after Halloween. By November, the farm gradually shuts down.

But the hard part of organic farming, Atina said, is the “constant need to find the organic solution.”

“You have to be a good observer. You have to like to observe and to think. You have to problem-solve when there’s a problem.

“Organic farming is not substitute farming nor is it organic by default. Organic farmers have a completely different mindset. We don’t view chemical herbicides, pesticides, fungicides as tools. We view them as crutches. We have not yet had a problem face us on our farm that we were not able to solve with an economically viable organic solution.

“By applying observation, research and thinking, we have been able to break problem cycles and meet the needs of the plants. In stressful seasons, which is the true test in agriculture, our crops generally are healthier with equal or better yields and as much or more cosmetic appeal than those of our conventional neighbors.”

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