Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Turn here sweet corn

Last year as a birthday gift, I received this book: Turn here sweet corn by Atina Diffley.
Atina and her husband, Martin Diffley, spent many years raising organic produce on a farm called, The Gardens of Eagan, which is located in my hometown, Eagan. I didn't realize until I started reading the book how much of its focus was on describing what organic farming is. I learned a lot about how organic crops are grown, harvested and marketed. She also described a bit about the experience of organic farmers who are surrounded by a community of other farmers, consumers and lawmakers who do not understand or respect the differences between organic and "conventional" agriculture. If you're a luddite when it comes to organic farming (like I still am...), this memoir will definitely give you a deeper understanding of "how," if not also the "why." There were parts of the description that were a bit flowery for my taste, but that's just me.

I was so tempted when I started writing this post to call it, "The Eagan Story." Why? Because I wasn't drawn to read this book due to the focus on organic farming. At my last birthday, 11 months ago and long before I'd even heard the word "paleo," I hadn't considered trying to pick organic foods over conventionally-farmed foods at all. Instead, I was drawn to the story of how some farmers in Eagan made it work while the city was growing up around them. I knew where the farm was - regularly driving past their roadside produce stand heading south towards Northfield, where I went to college.

Once I dug in and started reading, I realized that wasn't exactly the case. The Diffleys made it work for a while... but ultimately development in Eagan made it impossible for them to continue farming. Specifically, their farm was turned into a school and a housing development. The author's description of the process, as parts of the farm and the land nearby were converted from regular agriculture into suburban behemoth, was gut-wrenching. At the same time, when I was in high school, I did a tutoring project at the elementary school built there, and had classmates who lived in the subdivisions on land previously owned by the Diffleys.

In fact, when I was a little kid, the school district managed to score some other land from a different farmer and build an elementary school on it. I actually went to 4th and 5th grade at that elementary school, which is so close to my parents' house that I walked there each day. I remember hearing that the school district had been trying to build a school on this site for a long time, but had struggled with the recalcitrant farmer for years before finally being able to do so. At the time, I didn't understand why the farmer wouldn't want a school to be built there. Who doesn't love an elementary school, right?

Now, I can't help but wonder whether that same farmer used to own the land where my parents' neighborhood was built. Though it was a great place to grow up, I can't help but wonder if there was extraordinary pressure put on the farmer to sell to the developer. I just assumed that the suburbs had pretty much always been the way they are now - anathema to farmers and farming. That, at some point at least 100 years ago, the farmers decided to pack up and go somewhere else. So that, for many years, before development of strip malls, playgrounds and cul-de-sacs, no one wanted the land for anything. Not quite!

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