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Books: Harrowing Plenty – A review of Atina Diffley’s “Turn Here Sweet Corn”

In Turn Here Sweet Corn, Atina Diffley recounts a life of farming, of building and developing relationships with food and the soil, with wildlife and insect life, with urban living and with the idea of progress itself. It is also a guidebook for how we can intelligently make those relationships work for all involved. Success need not be a zero-sum game.

There’s something of a Steinbeck saga feel to the book, although only one generation is portrayed. But through that one generation, we feel the pull backwards towards Diffley’s mentors and grandparents, and forward to her children and the lives they begin to choose for themselves. We are shown her instantaneous upsurge of love for her then husband-to-be, then the painfully slow process of that love becoming manifest. She has a remarkable gift for showing how one life is, at once, so many lives.

Diffley charts the rise and fall of one farm and the rise and growing prosperity of another. We hear the very human story of a failed marriage, then the story of a successful one. Yet while the memoir is everything a memoir should be—engaging, approachable, emotionally raw, honest and open—it is also so much more: educational, mythic and redemptive.

While this book celebrates nature and the overarching power it has over us, it also encourages us to learn from all experiences. Diffley, an organic vegetable farmer alongside her husband Martin, begins the book with accounts of potato-sized hail devastating hundreds of thousands of dollars of crops. Yet these crops survive, some thrive, and we are led to the profound learning of how roots sustain life—that strong roots will bring a plant back when all that is above the surface is gone. Throughout the book, we are offered snippets of information both tangible and ethereal. How do insects actually help manage pests? How are soils regenerated by the practice of organic farming? Most largely, how does farming help us, especially those of us who choose to live in cities?

The story of the land, encroached upon and transformed by development, is mythic. We hear the sound of backhoes, and we feel the anger and bewilderment of Diffley’s children as they watch all that is solid melt away in the name of progress. The family’s search for a homeland is harrowing, as they watch while their 150 acres are whittled down to one. And through the Diffley family, we feel for all people removed from the land upon which they have subsisted, including the native Dakota, whose ghostly presence suffuses this story.

There is redemption as the family finds land and begins again. With much hard work, their new farm is transformed into a viable and thriving economic entity. But just as success seems imminent, there is the threat of an oil pipeline being forced through their land. The Diffleys, with the help of the surrounding community, must again defend what is so dear to them.

Turn Here Sweet Corn is not a simple-minded call for all of us to return to rural living. The chain of food to eater is shown clearly, and it is depicted in all its miraculous abundance. Somehow, the Diffley’s 100 acres supply hundreds of thousands of servings of sweetcorn, broccoli, kale, cabbage, cucumber, tomatoes and squash through their delivery to the co-ops of the Twin Cities metro area and a roadside stand with a sign saying simply, “Turn Here Sweet Corn.”

Atina Diffley will be in Iowa City for the Field to Family Festival taking place throughout the month of September. She will read at Prairie Lights on Friday, Sept. 21 at 7:00 p.m.; she will sign copies of her book at the Iowa City Farmer’s Market on Saturday, Sept. 22 from 9 a.m.-noon and will be giving the keynote address at The Field to Family Harvest Dinner on Sunday, Sept. 23 at 5:30pm.

Visit www.fieldtofamily.org for full event details and to purchase tickets.

David Burt is a local food advocate and owner of Burt family Food Services.

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