First Person: Abundant Clean Water and Optimism

by Atina Diffley, guest contributor

Atina Diffley is an organic farmer, activist, public speaker, and author of the 2012 award-winning memoir, Turn Here Sweet Corn: Organic Farming Works. Her writings can be found on her blog, AtinaDiffley.com. Her areas of expertise include postharvest handling, brand-name marketing, greenhouse management, and organic farming systems. She is associated with FamilyFarmed as a co-author/editor and lead trainer for Wholesale Success: A Farmers Guide to Selling, Postharvest Handling and Packing Produce, and also is the editor and designer of Roger Blobaum’s Organic History Website

Atina Diffley is an organic farmer, author, and food safety trainer

Atina Diffley

When had I last stayed in a $45 hotel? I didn’t know they existed anymore. The decor was simple, and the sheets clean — no problem with that. The bath water, however, was piss-yellow.

I thought maybe it hadn’t been run for a while and might clear, or maybe the fire that the clerk told me had burnt half the rooms a few nights before had somehow left soot in the water lines. I opened the drain, turned the faucets full open, and left the water running while I brushed my teeth.

When I returned, it was …  a little lighter? Maybe? But still yellow, though. What the heck, it was hot, it was water, I was sticky-dirty-tired from traveling, and it was the only hotel in the area of Belington, West Virginia, where I was visiting from my home in Minnesota to conduct a Wholesale Success training in nearby Oak Hill that day.

I switched from bath to shower to minimize my skin imbibing whatever was coloring the water yellow, and hopped in for a quick rinse. In that moment, I felt BIG gratitude to Joy, the host at that day’s training session, who had given me a gallon of water from her farm’s spring for drinking.

Clean, abundant water was the top criterion for Joy when she was searching for land to buy. She found it in a deep mountain spring. She has tested the water repeatedly for e-coli and nitrates, and always the test has come back negative.

She had brought water from her spring to make the coffee and tea for the training, and the gallon she gave me would get me through the next two days in the area. Joy’s commitment also shows up in her work with the Value Chain Cluster Initiative, the group hosting my visit. Also known as “VC2,” the organization provides hands-on business development and coaching services to strengthen local food and farm businesses in four regions of West Virginia.

Water quality and quantity is the most difficult challenge that comes up in the food safety trainings I provide through FamilyFarmed: sufficient volume of water with low enough levels of pathogens to use for overhead irrigation, and water that is potable for drinking and produce washing, hand washing, and cleaning produce contact surfaces.

Joy advised me to stop at a grocery on my two-hour drive to the next training. She laughed when she said that a Walmart might be the only place available to buy “fresh” food.

I knew why she laughed. Upon meeting her, I had immediately recognized her as a kindred spirit. And I knew her suggestion spoke volumes about the realities of the economy and food systems in the region. I would need to include a robust discussion on market development for the farmer-participants. West Virginia felt like a step back in time.

Most of the farmers raised their hands at the start of the next day’s training when I asked for a showing of who used organic methods. Then every up hand dropped when I asked who was certified organic. I was told that organic is referred to as the “O” word, as if it were dirty, and shouldn’t be said for fear of lost sales.

In Minnesota, where I live, the market broke free of that negative connotation decades ago after the 1990 Organic Production Act passed. This set the stage to talk about marketing to values. We mapped the demographics of their customer base, and the psychographics — why they buy. We then had a fascinating discussion on why it is crucial to focus marketing on a customer’s personal values while educating them on the larger social and environmental values of local and organic, the fundamental strategies for successful market development.

The people had a vibrancy I don’t see everyday. Their farms and markets were small. It was challenging to obtain a fair price to cover their cost of production and earn a modest living. Some counties were so poor they didn’t have a full grocery. Yet the people were optimistic, and they clearly had passion for growing good food.

I knew the workshop had been successful at the end of the day when each participant shared a personal takeaway from the six-hour training. People appreciated the emphasis on identifying potential risks and minimizing them in a scale-appropriate, economically viable way. Several proclaimed a change in thinking about organic certification — they are now planning to get certified and use it as a tool to educate customers and develop their market.

I also heard a shift in thinking, from the concept that the Produce Rule under the 2010 federal Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) is a witch hunt on small farmers and that food safety doesn’t apply to them, to a commitment to work toward compliance with the eventual final rule even though they expect to be exempt (because their annual sales fall below the legal threshold). Smart thinking. All of us farmers are food handlers, handling someone else’s food.

But best of all, every hand went to a pen and wrote down National Sustainable Action Coalition to get information on commenting on the proposed supplement to the FSMA Produce Rule, and every hand went up, waving high in the air, when I asked, “Who will be making an informed citizen comment on the rule before the Dec. 15, 2014 deadline?”

And by the way, of the three nights I spent in West Virginia, the best sleep was there in that $45, half-burnt Belington motel! I like West Virginia — yellow water, Walmart, and all. The people I met engage and take action, working together from where they are.

Farmer training work sheet created by organic farmer and trainer Atina Diffley.

A worksheet organic farmer Atina Diffley uses in her Wholesale Success farmer training sessions.

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