Natural Foods Merchandiser: You used the legal system to fight the Koch Industries MinnCan Project pipeline when it threatened your farm. How did local retailers support this effort?
Atina Diffley: We received unsurpassable support from many Twin Cities natural foods co-ops. Managers wrote affidavits and letters for the legal record testifying to their customers’ reliance on our farm’s organic produce. The co-ops informed their shoppers about the threat and asked them to write to the judge. More than 4,500 people—co-op shoppers, doctors, scientists, children and produce buyers—wrote letters explaining the benefits organic farms provide and insisting operations be protected. Writers told of their personal connection with Gardens of Eagan, and said that the farm and food were crucial to their wellness.
It is important to note that the retailers’ support didn’t start when the farm was threatened. Gardens of Eagan had been supplying these stores for decades. Their customers acted because they had relationships with the retailers and therefore took the pipeline threat personally.
NFM: The organic sector is largely consumer driven, with little government funding. What’s the retailer’s role in providing education about organic farming’s benefits?
AD: Retailers provide a crucial link. People learn best through personal stories and are more likely to change behaviors and get involved when they “feel” why something matters and when it involves their lives. Retailers can publish farmers’ stories and show their images through in-store point-of-purchase materials.
Organic is about so much more than the National Organic Program and accepted inputs and practices. The spirit of organic is about protecting the relationships between nature, land and people. Organic education is most effective when it’s shown (and tasted), rather than told as dry facts or philosophy. Consistent availability of high-quality products is important for customers to develop a relationship with food and farmers.
NFM: What advice would you give someone considering starting an organic farm?
AD: For those not yet farming, get practical experience before starting your own operation. Experience will save years of costly mistakes. Look for farmers and teachers who will challenge your present thinking and broaden your exposure to efficient systems. Ask if they will share their financial information as part of your education. Economy of scale and efficiency are crucial components of a viable farm.