Nestled in a grove of enormous elm trees,
Richard Handeen’s grandparents home always seemed to him
to be a magical jungle hideaway. As a boy, he imagined himself
living there one day. Today Moonstone Farm is his home, and
he and his wife, Audrey Arner, recognize that they’ve
Yet it’s no accident that these blessings came to them.
The couple's approach to farming their 240 acres near Montevideo,
Minn., is rooted in stewardship. This stewardship is multifaceted:
The couple deliberatively stewards the land, the community
and their family life. One of the more recent efforts at stewardship
involved "perennializing" their landscape. In Arner’s
mind, this move would maximize all their stewardship efforts
by turning the land into a highly productive food producing
The couple first considered leaving behind their focus on
organic row crops to put at least a portion of their acreage
in grass 14 years ago. But when Dennis Johnson, a professor
of dairy production systems at the University of Minnesota’s
West Central Research and Outreach Center in Morris, Minn.,
suggested they plant their entire farm to grass, “It
seemed a bit extreme,” Arner remembers.
Stewardship of the land
Nevertheless, the idea took root in their minds. Eventually,
the couple came to embrace the concept, and to decide that
perennializing their farm was the best stewardship decision
they could make for their farm, their family, and the wider
environment. To get started, they connected with the Minnesota
Institute for Sustainable Agriculture and the Land Stewardship
Project. These organizations helped Arner and Handeen develop
their life and farming goals, which are intricately interdependent.
“We knew we didn’t want our working environment
to be one where we had to protect ourselves from poisons,”
says Arner. Instead, she says, the goal was to work with Mother
Nature. The couple recognized that spraying fertilizers, herbicides
and pesticides threatened the integrity of the farm and its
Conversion from row cropping to pasture management allowed
for a more harmonious relationship with the natural rhythms
of the land. “Rye and vetch cover crops help provide
the basis for creating perennial pastures,” says Arner.
These plants also help control weeds. Even better, the conversion
to this type of system helped reduce the need for off-farm
inputs, another of the Arner and Handeen's objectives.
“We wanted the system to be self-sufficient,”
says Handeen. The couple understood that converting to grass
and having cattle to harvest that crop directly completed
the cycle. But planting a "salad bar" for the cattle
was only the first step. The land needed shrubs, trees, and
other grasses to stabilize stream banks and provide shelter
for wildlife. These permanent crops would round out an ecosystem,
improving the health of the farm and the diversity of the
The cattle are primarily Saler/Hereford crosses. During the
course of a year, Moonstone Farm will have about 100 head,
with roughly 30 bound for market. One of the female adults
in the herd is the matriarch. She keeps watch over the mothers
and calves while they enjoy the grass and legume mix. The
most common pasture combination is orchardgrass and alfalfa;
other species include brome, timothy, bird’s foot trefoil
and various types of clover.
Ultimately, several factors influence pasture plant choices
for the salad bar. One factor is the hardiness of the grass
or legume from year to year. Another is how well the cattle
graze the plant.
Beyond the grassy rolling hills of the pasture, more perennial
vines, trees and shrubs add to the diversity of the plant
life. Some of these acres are enrolled in the Conservation
Reserve Program, and will provide timber, fruits and nuts
in future years. Although technically out of production, the
land supports “all kinds of productivity,” says
Handeen. The farm also has a young vineyard, comprised primarily
of Frontenac grapes, that within a few years could supply
what Arner calls “the embryonic wine-making culture
in the upper Minnesota River valley."
“We have elderberry and Nanking cherry bushes, apple
and plum trees, hazelnut, walnut and butternut trees, and
white pine,” says Handeen. From the first moment the
sun breaks the grip of winter, says Arner, the landscape is
replete with plants that can capture that energy and convert
it to food for animals and humans. Row cropping cannot do
this, she says, because the soil needs to be prepared in a
time- and energy-consuming, weather-dependent manner. Thus,
a conventional system ultimately fails to exploit these months
of priceless, life-giving sunshine.
When pastureland needs to be renovated, Handeen uses a no-till
drill to interseed, usually orchardgrass into alfalfa. Currently,
gopher activity in one paddock has Handeen considering more
aggressive action with a Lely Rotera. This tool rotates horizontally
rather than vertically in the soil, thereby disrupting fewer
layers, and the couple hopes it will serve to discourage the
gophers. “Unfortunately, the gophers really clear the
grazing lands of forage,” says Handeen.
The grasses and plants also further stewardship by reducing
erosion into Moon Creek, a tributary of the Minnesota River,
which has recently been identified as seriously contaminated
by pollutants. “We like to think of our farm as a water
catchment area rather than a watershed,” says Audrey.
The farmers have discovered by testing that the perennial
plantings and grasses have reduced runoff of the loamy soil.
A grass-based farm like Moonstone benefits from dense root
system that hold nutrients and soil firmly in place, protecting
the farm’s ground water from nitrates that otherwise
might leach through the soil into the water table. Furthermore,
the water that runs into Moon Creek and ultimately into the
Minnesota is free of chemicals that could be harmful to wildlife,
prairie flora and humans alike.
Stewardship of the community
Preparing their farm for grazing helped Arner and Handeen
realize another of their farm goals-- to raise healthy food
for their local community. The Moonstone Farm website, www.prairiefare.com/moonstone,
cites research showing that grass-fed cattle are higher in
omega 3s and conjugated linoleic acid, which in turn are linked
to lower rates of heart disease and other health problems.
Arner and Handeen knew that the food raised on their farm
could benefit not only people within their family, but individuals
and businesses in the area as well. Today, Moonstone beef
is served at a café in Montevideo called Java River
and at Café Barbette (www.barbette.com)
in the Twin Cities. The Java River menu includes details about
Moonstone's organic, grass-based management methods. Another
Minneapolis business, a bowling alley/theater/eatery called
Bryant Lake Bowl (www.bryantlakebowl.com,)
reports that their top-selling menu items are Moonstone burgers.
Moonstone also sells to individuals and natural foods stores
around the Montevideo area. For Arner and Handeen, the people
who enjoy their beef are co-creators or co-producers, not
consumers. “The food does something for them; it helps
them to be healthy,” says Handeen.
Arner and Handeen embrace the philosophy of Slow Food (www.slowfood.com)
and consider it to be central to their own lives. Slow food
starts with raising food in a manner that is in harmony with
nature, and continues with eating and enjoying that food with
generosity, good will and good fellowship. The slow food movement
seeks to preserve the cultural diversity of food and the biodiversity
of the landscapes that produce it.
There was another aspect of the magical homestead that was
now enriching Arner and Handeen’s lives: Hospitality.
“We’re social people,” says Arner. So they
took action to make their farm a place where good food is
not only produced and eaten, but enjoyed by as many members
of the local and wider community as possible.
Four years ago, Arner and Handeen moved an old brooder house
onto a concrete slab that once supported a granary. They renovated
the interior, installed electricity, and added some artistic
country charm. Paintings by the couple’s daughter, Malena
Handeen, adorn the walls. They christened the unique, simple
guesthouse the "Broodio"—a combination of
brooder house and studio.
Visitors are invited to soak up the culture of the farm.
Inside the Broodio, you can hear songbirds singing from the
fruit trees that dot the edges of the pasture. The lowing
of cows filters in with the sunshine. If you prefer, you can
camp out under the jungle canopy that first enchanted Handeen
as a child.
Broodio accommodation is marketed as "bed and bagel"—a
night’s rest along with organic coffee and bagels for
breakfast. Guests can use the outhouse or come up to the family
home for bathing. Arner and Handeen also offer the Broodio
to visiting artists participating in an "artist in residence"
program run within the local school district.
Another converted outbuilding on the farm serves as housing
for interns--this summer, a student from Costa Rica is interning.
Stewardship of the family
Family goals factor in every major decision on the farm—from
perennializing to hosting gatherings. “We have things
we want to do other than tending livestock,” says Arner.
Sometimes, reducing off-farm inputs increases on-farm labor
requirements. But emphasizing perennial crops translates into
fewer hours operating and maintaining equipment.
Time spent away from farm chores is valuable to the family
at Moonstone. Children, grandchildren, friends and community
are nourished not only by food, but by shared moments. When
farm practices gobble up those moments, the family is not
Financial sustainability is another critical consideration.
Arner and Handeen want to make sure that they, like their
farm, will be self-sustaining into their retirement years.
Reduced inputs mean increased profit margins, better quality
products, and strong customer loyalty—helping to secure
the future strength of the farm. But that future is also made
possible by being receptive to the needs of the family.
The couple is intentional about improving family life and
the space that supports it. Their son, Daniel Handeen, a graduate
student in architecture, is currently helping them design
and build an outdoor living space, incorporating the principles
of permaculture, to further improve the time they spend together.
“We’re about food,” says Arner. Food is
how their family comes together; it's the source of their
income and the basis of their connection with customers. The
family's goals are grounded in the values of the Slow Food
movement. Arner and Handeen are preserving a way of raising
beef and, in doing so, sustaining their farm, their family
and their community. Moonstone Farm demonstrates daily that
sustaining each part of this circle is the best way to sustain